Writer-producer-director Eric Kripke has been working in genre television for almost 20 years. His long-running “Supernatural” featured dramatic, awards-bait themes such as chosen family, religion, addiction and working through trauma (in addition to demon-hunting), but only picked up three Emmy noms, all in Creative Arts categories (two for sound editing and one for music composition).
That show, which launched in 2005, was on the CW, though. In more recent years, shiny new streamers and premium cable networks with big budgets to spend on talent and production value, as well as awards marketing materials, got into the genre game, piquing growing interest from the Television Academy.
“Genre hasn’t particularly changed that much, the world around it has,” Kripke says.
A prime example of this is “Game of Thrones,” which Rich Licata, of awards agency Licata & Co., notes “really broke through the glass ceiling for genre shows” with awards voters.
That HBO epic wasn’t the first genre series to receive such high honors. But its eight-year run netted the most Emmys to date (59, including four for drama series) and opened the door wider for others, from the premium cabler’s “Westworld” and “Watchmen,” which won 11 trophies just last year, including limited series, to Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian,” which is in the running again this year. And perhaps also for some of this year’s new contenders, such as Marvel Studios and Disney Plus’ “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “WandaVision,” HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and Amazon’s “Them.”
What all of these shows have in common is that they provide a level of entertaining escapism, even when talking about tough, real-world topics. “The Boys,” for example, talks about the cross-section of celebrity and autocracy, as well as white supremacy, while “WandaVision” is an exploration of how deeply buried grief can manifest in unexpected, and otherworldly, ways.
“The superhero space especially is a wonderful and playful place to examine really large issues,” says “WandaVision” executive producer Jac Schaeffer. “Right now, genre is a way for heavier themes to be more palatable. I think it’s a way to make these stories of humanity and what happens to us here on this planet a little bit more exciting and imaginative, and to add complexity and visual thrills.“
This style of storytelling is certainly not new. (Licata recalls that “during the Cold War, those Godzilla movies were about the great communist threat, so [genre has always] couched themes.”) But what is notably different these days is where these stories get to be told and by whom.
“I’ve wanted this for a very long time,” “Them” creator Little Marvin says. “I think the landscape was different even five years ago, but 15 years ago there was no Lena Waithe, no Ava DuVernay, no Ryan Murphy — all of these folks who are unabashedly using their voices to tell the stories they want to tell. That gave a guy like me, who was just watching TV and loving it, permission to go, ‘OK wait, what if I did that?’”
Kripke adds that there is also a greater “tolerance for risk-taking. You get to say more subversive things and you get to say edgier things than you can ever say in any other form because it’s Trojan-horsed in these fantastic elements. And the business model of streaming, for us anyway, is ‘be noisy’ so people can come into the service. So, we’re actually encouraged to be subversive and a little more dangerous. And with risk-taking, I think, comes a little more attention.”