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Could ‘Fleabag’ and ‘Succession’ Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

Variety logo Variety 9/12/2019 Michael Schneider
Phoebe Waller-Bridge et al. looking at the camera © Courtesy of Amazon Studios/HBO

At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild cards get dealt at the last minute.

Make no mistake: The drama race is probably still down to “Thrones” versus “Killing Eve,” and the comedy competish between “Veep” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” 

Nonetheless, as final voting got under way last month, “Thrones” and “Veep” were a distant memory for most. Even at Emmy FYC events, the two shows being discussed the most inside the biz by late August were a pair of underdogs: HBO’s delicious media-mogul saga “Succession” and Amazon’s wickedly sharp comedy “Fleabag.”

Succession,” which earned an outstanding drama series nomination for its freshman season, returned for its sophomore run on Aug. 11 — right before final round voting began. The show was a quiet performer last year, but its juicy, and often hysterical, take on a Murdoch-esque family has now caught the attention of Hollywood and critics, who have taken to obsessively chronicling the show.

That won’t be enough for “Succession” to siphon many votes for top drama from HBO’s other nominee, the 800-pound gorilla that is “Game of Thrones,” but it could give its nominations a boost in the directing, casting and writing categories. And then there’s the show’s original main title theme music nomination: The show’s catchy opener may have piqued enough ears over the past month to land it a win. Expect bigger things for the series’ Emmy presence when Season 2 is eligible next year, including likely nominations for some of the show’s cast.

2019 Emmy Nominees (via Photo Services)

Meanwhile, angling even more for spoiler status may be “Fleabag,” which returned for Season 2 on May 17 after a three-year absence. That’s a lifetime in this Peak TV era, yet the timing of its comeback turned out to be a bit of serendipity for the comedy, which entered the pop culture zeitgeist (thanks in part to its now-infamous Hot Priest, played by Andrew Scott) as nominations got underway.

TV critics continued to heap tons of attention on “Fleabag” — including big wins at the Television Critics Assn. press tour — guaranteeing that it would continue to be in the conversation during final Emmy voting. “Fleabag” boasts several key nominations, starting with creator-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’s up for lead actress. The show’s Sian Clifford and Olivia Colman are up for supporting actress, and the program is nominated for writing and directing for a comedy series.

Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the incumbent winner, and the streamer continued to put more of its campaign efforts there — including an extensive “Maisel Day” promotion that generated tons of press. But “Fleabag” could be the comedy that sneaks through, given the timing.

We wrote earlier this year about the strategy of premiering shows down to the May 31 eligibility cut-off wire, which could very well be a sound strategy for shows like “Fleabag.” Meanwhile, summer programs like “Succession” can benefit from the marketing push and buzz that come from the following year’s run landing right in the middle of voting.

But it’s also a reminder of the idiosyncrasies of the Emmy calendar, which mirrors the broadcast network fall-to-spring TV season. A year before the 2020 Emmys, next year’s race is already shaping up, thanks to what may be the busiest summer in TV history. Before “Succession” became TV’s show du jour, audiences were obsessing over the return of “Big Little Lies,” while fans were seen waiting in line for hours to get a taste of a pop-up version of the Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor from “Stranger Things.” Other shows people couldn’t stop talking about over the past few months included newcomers like HBO’s “Euphoria” and “Years and Years,” Amazon’s “The Boys,” CBS All Access’ “Why Women Kill” and OWN’s “David Makes Man,” as well as new installments (and in the case of “Orange Is the New Black,” final ones) of FX’s “Pose,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone,” TNT’s “Claws” and Netflix’s “GLOW,” “Mindhunter” and “Orange.”

All of those shows are already 2020 Emmy contenders, and that’s just the beginning, as outlets like Apple Plus and HBO Max come on line with more originals, and the existing cable and streaming outlets ramp up their output. Right now, we’re entertaining the idea of Emmy spoilers, but 2020 may be the year the race is ripped wide open — and nothing is considered a lock. 

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