Will Stephen Colbert get political? And other things to watch for in the 2017 Emmy awards

The top contenders.
The top contenders.
Image: Netflix, Hulu, HBO, NBC
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Every year, the biggest stars in television gather in a theater in Los Angeles and celebrate how great they all are.

They wear expensive dresses and tuxedos, award each other big golden trophies, pat each other on the backs, and give sappy speeches about “making it.” This garish party is an exercise in narcissism, which is part of the reason TV ratings for it and all award shows are in steady decline.

And yet, the Emmys still matter. TV critic Alan Sepinwall put it best when he pointed out that the Emmys are the prevailing historical record for the medium of television. They are the ultimate measuring sticks—the ones that will still be studied decades from now when all the Twitter threads, think pieces, and water cooler conversations have been lost in the ether. The Emmys are forever.

More than that, though, the Emmys reveal important patterns emerging in television today. For one night every September, the actors, directors, writers, and network executives that make TV what it is are all in the same room. The night tells us about the problems facing a rapidly growing industry; which performers to pay attention to; which networks (and streaming services) we need to subscribe to; and why, despite the gratuitous pageantry, television still consumes our lives.

These are the biggest story lines to look out for Sunday night (Sept. 17), when the Emmys air live on CBS at 8pm eastern time in the United States. Here’s how to watch them.

Can HBO stay dominant without Game of Thrones?

Everyone’s worried about HBO. Game of Thrones, the most popular show in the world and the network’s crown jewel, is ending in 2019. Pundits have written endlessly about the pay-cable giant’s future sans the fantasy drama, wondering if it might begin to cede ground to the energetic (and deep-pocketed) upstarts in streaming television.

The threat of Netflix and Hulu to HBO’s monopoly on prestige fare is real, but there’s not yet any real reason to worry about the premium cable channel’s seat atop the Iron Throne of Television. Why? It still dominates the Emmys, even without Game of Thrones in the running.

That’s right—because the penultimate season of Thrones began airing in June, it missed the Emmys submission window and won’t be eligible for any awards this year. But HBO’s enormous stable of critically acclaimed content made it still the most-nominated network (with 111 total nods)—for the 17th year in a row. HBO’s compelling robot drama, Westworld, leads the field with 22 nominations on its own. Other shows with multiple nominations include Big Little LiesThe Night OfSilicon Valley, and Veep.

But it’s clear Netflix, with 91 total nominations, is hot on HBO’s heels. The gap between the two probably won’t close this year or next year, but there will likely come a time when HBO finds itself ejected from its comfortable throne.

How does Stephen Colbert do hosting his first major awards show?

The comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert defied all the odds this year when he turned his struggling Late Show ship around. Earlier this year, he began routinely beating rival Jimmy Fallon in the ratings, mostly chalked up to his willingness to address the issues surrounding Trump’s presidency while Fallon played it straight. Colbert parlayed his newfound success into the Emmys gig, the first time the former Daily Show correspondent will host a major awards show (he has hosted the Kennedy Center Honors three times).

The big question surrounding this year’s Emmys is just how political the show, and Colbert’s monologues, will be. Will he and the presenters and winners use the podium as platform to speak out about injustice in the US? The answer is almost certainly yes, but just how much current events factor into the evening is a question that fluctuates from year to year.

Will Stranger Things (or The Crown) give Netflix its first best drama win?

If HBO is ever supplanted, it’ll be because of Netflix. The global leader in streaming would love to be able to boast that it won more Emmys than HBO, but likely more important to the company is securing its first ever best series Emmy. And while it has contenders in the comedy category (Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), its best chance to win the big one is on the drama side, where it’s invested most of its Emmys marketing campaign resources.

Stranger Things is everything the Emmy voters love: A hit new show that’s become a cultural phenomenon and is accessible to a wide range of audiences. Headed into Sunday, it’s the favorite to win the best drama award (its biggest competitors are Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, NBC’s This is Us, and HBO’s Westworld). If it wins, it would be an enormous development for the entire industry: The first time a streaming service bests cable for the biggest and more important television award in the world.

Will Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale be a sign of things to come for the streaming service?

Hulu’s attempt to become an Emmy-worthy streaming service has been much quieter than Netflix’s. That changed in April, when it debuted The Handmaid’s Tale, easily the drama slate’s most politically timely show and a serious threat to grab several awards for Hulu. Lead actress Elisabeth Moss is a virtual lock to win best actress in a drama for her searing role as a young woman forced into sexual servitude in the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s near-future totalitarian dystopia.

A best drama win for The Handmaid’s Tale—or any win for the critically beloved show—would signal that Hulu has arrived and is ready to wage war with Netflix for streaming supremacy. The Handmaid’s Tale has already gone a long way in terms of earning Hulu respect among the industry’s elite. A major Emmy win would mean that the streaming service has not only earned the industry’s respect, but also its envy.

Will Donald Trump help Saturday Night Live win a bunch of Emmys?

Saturday Night Live is tied with Westworld for the most nominations of any single show—and that’s mostly because of US president Donald Trump. The NBC comedy sketch series enjoyed its most-watched (and arguably its best) season in seven years as it relentlessly mocked both candidates during the campaign, and president Trump and his array of advisors and cabinet members after his election.

Alec Baldwin is nominated specifically for his caricature of Trump. Melissa McCarthy already won a Creative Arts Emmy for depicting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. SNL players Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones also received individual nominations.

The greatest irony of all is that Trump himself was once an Emmy nominee (though not a winner), having produced his reality show The Apprentice. Trump may finally clinch an Emmy this year, though not for himself.

How diverse will the winners be?

Fifteen of the 75 major acting nominees (which encompass lead and supporting actors in both genders for drama, comedy, and limited series) are non-white. That isn’t many—but it’s far more diverse than the Oscars typically are. (Last year’s Oscars were an exception that hopefully becomes closer to the norm.)

In general, television has been more inclusive than film at telling the stories of a range of people, and honoring the actors, actresses, and filmmakers that bring those stories to life. But it still has a lot of work to do to accurately reflect the population of the country in which the Emmys take place.

If all goes according to plan, this year’s Emmys should convince network executives to invest in more of these stories. There was no better comedy in the past year than FX’s Atlanta, a beautifully weird and innovative show about young black men exploring the rap scene in the city that lends its name to the series. Atlanta doesn’t need an Emmy for validation, but if it’s passed over for something like, say, Modern Family, there will be cause for concern. (Some are already frustrated by the snub to the dramedy Insecure.)

Will This is Us represent for all the broadcast networks?

The big four American broadcasters (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) haven’t enjoyed Emmys night for the last decade or so. The last time one of its shows won—Fox’s 24 in 2006—cable TV was the main threat. Netflix was still several years away from making its first original show, and Hulu didn’t even exist yet. Obviously, the television landscape has only gotten more competitive in the years since.

Then come NBC’s This is Us, the rare broadcast drama to tap the zeitgeist and break into the increasingly competitive best drama field. The weepy family melodrama has a decent shot at winning, too. The Emmy voters would just love to create a storyline out of the success of This is Us, changing the narrative that broadcast television is in its death throes.

What will be the prevailing political theme of the night?

Expect to see at least one or two speeches or quotes plastered all over social media the following morning. But what words that resonate from the night will depends who wins what.

With immigration issues dominating US politics, it’s possible more than one winner will speak out for a more inclusive America. Others may use The Handmaid’s Tale or Big Little Lies as launching points for speeches about gender equality and women’s empowerment. Should the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” win for best TV movie, it may offer an opportunity to talk about the importance of telling the stories of LGBT people.

It also remains to be seen whether Trump is specifically mentioned or referenced. That may depend on how much he tweets during the ceremony.