How did ‘This Is Us’ break the broadcast curse in the Emmy best drama category?
BYBy Emily Yahr
July 14, 2017
Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia as Jack in “This Is Us.” (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia as Jack in “This Is Us.” (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

One Emmy Award casualty in the prestige TV era? Network drama series.

In the last six years, exactly zero broadcast network dramas have been nominated in the best drama category — but that finally changed on Thursday, when NBC’s breakout hit “This Is Us” nabbed 11 nominations for its first season.

Along with best drama, the series scored a slew of acting nods (Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia for lead drama actor; Chrissy Metz for supporting drama actress; Ron Cephas Jones for supporting drama actor; Brian Tyree Henry, Denis O’Hare and Gerald McRaney for guest drama actor) and landed others for make-up, costumes and casting.

“The Good Wife” was the last broadcast drama to be nominated, way back in 2011. Since then, it has been a cable-only parade, as acclaimed series such as “Mad Men,” “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad” dominated. And when streaming arrived, “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” crashed the party as well.

It’s a far cry from 1999, when HBO’s “The Sopranos” became the first cable series nominated for best drama, alongside “The Practice,” “Law & Order,” “ER” and “NYPD Blue.” In 2002, “Six Feet Under” made it on the best drama list, and in 2008, “Dexter” and “Damages” joined the cable party. Critically acclaimed dramas increasingly migrated to cable, and award show voters really love anything that screams “prestige.”

So, how did “This Is Us,” of all shows, break the broadcast curse? For one, it was the rare freshman show of the 2016-2017 that managed to be a critical darling and a ratings hit. While CBS’s procedural “Bull” was technically the most-watched new series of the season with an average of 15.1 million viewers, “This Is Us” was close behind with about 14.8 million people watching every week. Critics could take or leave “Bull”; for the most part, they love “This Is Us.”

From "Big Little Lies" to "This Is Us," this year's Emmy Awards will feature an array of co-stars nominated in the same categories. Here's what you need to know, plus other highlights from this year's nominations. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Viewers love it, too. As the Post’s TV critic Hank Stuever wrote earlier this year (in a piece titled “You need a hug and a good cry, America, and that’s what ‘This Is Us’ was made for”), the sweetly sad series manages to hit an emotional nerve every week as it chronicles the adventures of the Pearson family in Pittsburgh. The show came along at the perfect time, when many viewers are seeking an outlet for escapism.

“Forget your problems and focus on theirs: that’s the great gift of the rare, relatable weekly weepy,” he wrote. “Tethered to a believable foundation, ‘This Is Us’ satisfyingly counters its ups with precisely enough downs. It’s a show that is pleasant and sad, but not too sad, not right now, no-thank-you.”

If you watched Season 1 of NBC's breakout hit "This Is Us," chances are you were also crying a lot. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Those elements put together are ideal Emmy bait, especially when voters award heartbreaking performances — we won’t give anything away, but let’s just say the Pearson family goes through quite a few tragedies, and the actors are up to the challenge.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, creator Dan Fogelman acknowledged that shows like “This Is Us” generally don’t stand a chance against the grittier cable and streaming dramas, where producers don’t have the same broadcast restrictions. But that makes the nomination all the better.

“It’s kind of a populist dramedy, for lack of a better way of phrasing it. Those types of shows aren’t usually in the conversation with the heavier, more serious fare,” he said. “So just to be seeing the name of our show amidst all these other shows that are darker and weightier and fancier, it’s really exciting for us.”

Read more:

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A snub for ‘The Leftovers’ and 8 other interesting takeaways from this year’s Emmy nominations

Stephen Colbert’s ‘Late Show’ got an Emmy nomination. What a difference a year makes.