Hulu’s Big, Confusing Year Will Translate to Emmy Love for The Dropout, Dopesick More

In State of the Studios, Vanity Fair ‘s Awards Insider goes inside the campaigns of some of this Emmy season’s biggest players — from front-runners to underdogs, on networks and streamers both well established and brand new to the game. This first entry focuses on Hulu, armed with an array of strong comedy and limited-series contenders, as well as the Disney networks around it.

Among drama series, last year’s primetime Emmy Awards were dominated by two shows competing for their fourth seasons: Netflix’s The Crown, which finally won the top trophy, and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the first streaming show ever to win it in 2017. In an era of rapid turnover, both shows holding on to nominations as well as they did — indeed, better than ever — signaled a real triumph for their respective streamers, an ability to maintain some power as the landscape around them has changed drastically by the day.

For Hulu, at least, the contrast a year later is striking. Not only does the Disney-controlled network not have Handmaid’s in contention, but until a bizarre recent branding shift for its 2021 thriller Nine Perfect Strangers—A long shot for awards recognition, put kindly — it did not have a notable drama series eligible to compete. The streamer, whose success has been all but defined by one of the biggest dramas of the decade, has quietly shifted its strategy. But while it may be absent in the category where it once found great success, the New Hulu, as it were, is showing its best self this cycle.

Let’s start in comedy, where Hulu has developed a niche for witty, highbrow programming. Last year, freshman The Great seemed on the brink of a full-on breakthrough, scoring nods for writing and directing; this year, it would be even closer, with stars Elle Fanning spirit Nicholas Hoult now SAG-nominated, were it not facing stronger intra competition. There’s Reservation Dogs, grabbing the adored underdog bill from previous carriers like PEN15 (a 2021 comedy-series nominee) and Ramy. And Hulu is about to make its strongest statement yet in the comedy-series race with Only Murders in the Building, following the mystery-sitcom’s blockbuster debut last August.

The star wattage alone—Steve Martin spirit Martin Short seem likely to take up a third of the lead-actor field, while Selena Gomez spirit Amy Ryan are competitive in lead and supporting actress, respectively — puts it in line for major nominations. But Hulu’s strategy this spring has been incredibly savvy. Combining season-two press — the show returned this week — with awards campaigning has meant the three A-list faces of the show are everywhere. There was the glitzy season-two premiere event in Hollywood; a curated luncheon at the London Hotel, where the stars mingled with voters; and a formal FYC panel as part of Disney’s FYC Fest. It’s the kind of consistent, tasteful glad-handing approach typically reserved for splashy Oscar pushes. I suspect the full-court press, coupled with the worthiness of the show, will result in an impressive haul of noms — and a shot at best comedy series.

Hulu has come to identify with another subgenre so thoroughly it’s become a morbid kind of meme: thoughtful dramatizations of sensational real-life events, packaged as starry limited series. This Emmy season, the network fields Dopesick, The Dropout, Pam & Tommy, Candy, The Girl From Plainville, and more. That those first two are expected to land best-limited-series nominations — that’d be 40% of the category — is a huge accomplishment in and of itself, regardless of how the others may fare. (The rest are mostly acting plays at this point, due to either mixed reviews or faded buzz.) You could go further and argue that Dopesick‘s Michael Keaton spirit The Dropout‘s Amanda Seyfried are positioned to sweep the lead-acting categories right now. For a field that HBO / HBO Max tends to dominate year after year, that’s a pretty seismic possibility.

Gil Birmingham and Andrew Garfiled in Under the Banner of Heaven.

Photo: Michelle Faye / FX

For the average viewer, what is a Hulu show? The service debuts so much new programming — programming that isn’t technically theirs — that you’d be forgiven for having no idea what actually qualifies. Hell, it’s hard for me to keep up. Audiences couldn’t watch Under the Banner of Heaven, FX’s major contender starring Andrew Garfield, anywhere but Hulu, while FX’s big fall premiere, Impeachment: American Crime Story, suffered greatly from an outdated streaming deal that prevented it from hitting Hulu. And while Abbott Elementary pulled in solid numbers on linear ABC, there’s a huge contingent — myself, transparently, among them — who streamed the breakout freshman sitcom on a weekly basis, the day after its broadcast debut.

These are all, of course, shows that fall under the Disney umbrella, and these addendums to Hulu programming will only stay closer to the family as the years go on, and rival networks that once relied on Hulu move their content to their own streamers. (As New York‘s Josef Adalian recently posited, NBC and Peacock are about to face a big test on this very issue.) But as audiences increasingly migrate to streaming, the definition, exactly, of what Hulu ice—Particularly in the context of awards campaigning — is a pressing one.

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