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Column: Are TV dramas ... OK? The Emmys nod to cynical visions of a world beyond our control

Clockwise from top left: Images from "Squid Game," "Severance," "Stranger Things" and "Ozark."
Clockwise from top left: “Squid Game,” “Severance,” “Stranger Things,” and “Ozark.”
(Netflix and Apple TV+)

It would be nice to view the Emmys as a moment of escapist fun.

For folks in the television industry, of course, the race for Emmy gold is a cut-throat competition worth multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. But for the rest of us, Tuesday’s Emmy nominations should be a news-cycle bright spot, a little light reading among the stories of mass shootings, Jan. 6 committee revelations, post-Roe horrors and inflation panic.

And yet.

And yet I am concerned. I can’t help noticing that most of the nominees in drama categories involve characters fighting to survive situations far beyond their control.

In “Squid Game,” “Severance,” “Stranger Things” and “Yellowjackets,” the protagonists are trapped by outside forces greater than themselves: a lethal economic system embodied by a game; a mind-altering corporate system embodied by a terrible office space experiment; an alternate universe controlled by a lab-created demon; the possibly possessed wilderness (and the matrix of trauma it leaves behind) in the wake of a plane crash.

Three people posed under the sun.
A scene fromt the Season 3 finale of “Succession,” with stars Kieran Culkin, from left, Jeremy Strong and Sarah Snook.
(HBO)
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In “Succession,” “Ozark” and to lesser extent “Better Call Saul,” the prisons are a bit more DIY, a combination of unfortunate circumstances twisted into something worse by certain dogmas of family, power, identity and legacy. The Roys (“Succession”) and the Byrdes (“Ozark”) hamster-wheel their way through cycles of internal conflict that is calmed, momentarily, only by the regular reminder that it is an “us versus them” world in which self-protection is the greater good and ample justification for just about any action. (Emmy-favorite “The Crown” would fit nicely in this subset, but alas, we must wait another year for its COVID-19-delayed Season 5.)

“Euphoria” pulls double duty in this respect: High school is the ultimate mind/social experiment, and Zendaya’s Rue is battling addiction.

With so much television, the Emmy nominations were bound to have snubs and surprises. Voters did not disappoint.

Some of this fear and fatalism (“life is ugly, but what can you do?”) also pervades this year’s limited series nods, detailing the art of the con (“Inventing Anna,” “The Dropout”) along with corrupt corporations (“Dopesick”) and examinations of class divisions (“Maid,” “The White Lotus.”)

But it’s the dramas, taken collectively, that have me most worried.

Obviously, dramas require, well, drama. There are shows with healthier characters and lower stakes, but they are often comedies — or dramas with no hope for Emmy buzz. Survival narratives, with the inevitable tension between necessity and morality, have fueled most every Emmy nominee and winner for years. But as “The West Wing” gave way to “The Sopranos,” award-winning television took a darker turn, leaving us in recent years with the nakedly vicious power struggles of “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

A man and a woman during a bleak moment in "Yellowjackets."
Kevin Alves and Sophie Nélisse during a bleak moment on “Yellowjackets.”
(Kailey Schwerman / Showtime)

Even in that context, this year’s nominee list is alarming, though perhaps not surprising. Television has long been a mirror through which we examine our collective anxieties.

Beset as we are by the pandemic, economic crisis, political division, an ongoing opioid crisis and a virtually unregulated digital universe in which all manner of good and evil can thrive, it is easy to feel trapped by forces beyond our control. Easy to feel like pawns in a game or part of an experiment. Easy to feel like some alternate universe is sending agents of chaos into our own.

All too easy to adopt an us versus them mentality that justifies whatever behavior we might feel is necessary to protect ourselves and the ones we love.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves always reveal something about the human condition (even if it is our ability to ruin a perfectly good tale by telling it in six hours instead of two). The series and movies and books we reward with our time, praise and trophies inevitably speak to large and often hidden truths in ways that are most often spiritual rather than literal.

Television has cycled through all manner of modern social concerns, from terrorism to nostalgia; recently, much has been made of the growing reliance on superhero narratives to guide our conversation about our larger desires and fears about power. With it comes great responsibility, as people keep telling Spider-Man, but even Marvel doesn’t seem to know what that looks like, really.

After ‘WandaVision’s’ rollicking start, Marvel TV has struggled to reach beyond core fans. The joyous and inventive ‘Ms. Marvel’ helps solve that.

This year’s Emmy nominees pretty much dispense with the symbolic ambiguity of superhuman abilities and get right to the point.

“Squid Game’s” horrific examination of poverty and capitalism; “Severance’s” chilling metaphor for the increasing demands of the American workplace; the growing strength of an alternate universe literally called the Upside Down in “Stranger Things”; the perils of addiction (“Euphoria”); and the corrupt nature of the 1% (“Succession”) — this year’s Emmy nominees all cut far closer to the bone than “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” ever did.

A man in a suit in front of a neon sign in "Better Call Saul."
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in “Better Call Saul.”
(Greg Lewis / AMC / Sony Pictures Television)

(Although not perhaps as close as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which the conservative minority seems to view more as a blueprint than a warning.)

But it may be “Ozark,” starring the notoriously likable Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, that shows how much television — and our fears about the arc of justice — has changed.

“Ozark” follows the Byrde family’s increasingly cold-blooded attempts to extricate itself from an “accidental” debt to a drug lord. The Byrdes believe they are fighting to survive but, as with the Roys, their definition of survival includes complete unaccountability.

Increasingly, their real desire is to maintain power and control; ultimately, the series ends with breathtaking cynicism.

Because they succeed. Unlike Tony Soprano or Walter White or countless other antiheroes who pay for their sins in the end, the Byrdes emerge from their movable slaughterhouse not shackled or riddled with bullets — but victorious.

Along with the series showrunner, the two stars take us through the scenes, beat by beat, as the series wraps it up.

“‘Don’t come at me with this fairy-tale thing about right and wrong, and that those who cheat get punished,’” Linney said, mimicking her character’s lack of contrition in a recent Times interview. “‘Are you kidding? Watch the news.’”

We do, we do. And now we get to watch an Emmys race that in too many worrisome ways reflects that news as if through a glass and darkly.


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