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Here’s the Common Denominator in This Year’s Emmy Contenders: Fear

Awards Wrap Up: Shows from “Ozark” to “Better Call Saul” to “Abbott Elementary” have gripped audiences by depicting individuals crushed by a system run amok

Awards shows can be frivolous, but the art that is celebrated at those shows ceremonies, including the Emmys, can be the furthest thing from frivolous. At their most essential, awards bodies can shine a light on the best of what the medium can offer, honoring shows that almost always reflect the times in which we live. That couldn’t be more true looking at this year’s TV contenders, which reveal that what Americans are feeling most keenly is fear.

Specifically, fear of the failure of the American experiment. 

That fear is a recurring theme with varying degrees of subtlety in a wide variety of this year’s potential nominees from comedy to drama to limited series. Even animated series aren’t immune: After all, what is “Bob’s Burgers” if not a traditional sitcom about a family trying desperately to keep their failing restaurant afloat while living in an apartment upstairs?

This conversation might most easily be started with 2020’s Outstanding Drama Series winner, “Succession.” Focusing his HBO series on a bloodthirsty family of ultra-elites, the Roys, creator Jesse Armstrong never falters from an absolutely scathing point-of-view and never quails when it comes to holding the Roy family, if not responsible, then at least culpable in the downfall of modern society.

As an interesting counterpoint, Netflix’s Korean survival drama “Squid Game” struck a chord with audiences around the world thanks in large part to its brutal depiction of marginalized individuals battling (literally) to live in a society that insists they’d be better off dead. The watchful eye of creator Hwang Dong-hyuk makes it impossible to forget that capitalism and its callous inhumanity are the true villain of the series – and also makes it impossible to ignore the fact that the United States is far from the only country wracked by fears that its system isn’t working for anybody not part of the elite. 

Then there’s the subset of dramas which feature protagonists trying to game a broken system – ones who are breaking bad, if you will. AMC’s “Better Call Saul” details one lawyer’s spiral into amorality for the low, low price, while Netflix’s “Ozark” shines a spotlight on a married couple’s adventures in murder and money laundering. The paths might lead to a manner of success, but the cost of their efforts leave them something a little less than human.

To that end, a show like Paramount’s “Yellowstone” lands somewhere between these dramas and “Succession,” where achieving the American dream comes at such a high cost that even heroes wonder if it’s worth it. 

Even comedies are exploring the darker side of the modern American Dream. While ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” and FX’s “Reservation Dogs” depict joyous and specific tales of communities not always shown in modern TV, both are far from sanitized for public consumption. The teachers in “Abbott Elementary” are all relentlessly focused on guiding their students, while in the background the struggle with severe education underfunding is inescapable. “Reservation Dogs” is a coming-of-age story centered on a group of young adults throwing themselves headlong into their future, all the while knowing that their options are limited given their home on an Oklahoma reservation. 

And in the limited-series categories, the stories are often rife with fears ripped straight from the headlines and adapted from print. Netflix’s “Maid” tells the tale of a young mother escaping an abusive relationship and trying to support and protect her daughter and herself by cleaning houses, attempting to survive while the deck is stacked against her. Hulu’s “Dopesick,” meanwhile, details the real-life horror that is America’s opioid crisis, an epidemic created by and monetized by pharmaceutical companies, in which those individuals most desperate for relief and protection are exploited and left for dead.

These are the stories that have gripped audiences for the past year – tales that reveal the dark heart of a ruling class more focused on profit margins than people, in which more and more individuals are being crushed under the wheels of a system that has seemingly run amok. Television shows us who we are and the best of TV is telling us that we are afraid. Still, there is a comfort in these shows that at the very least allow us to be afraid together. 

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