Can Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany break the Emmy sci-fi curse?

Fresh off a Critics’ Choice Awards win, here’s why she might

by Jaime Weinman

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

This Emmy awards season may be one of the more interesting in recent years, since there’s no obvious winner in the Drama category and the Comedy category might be open to a new winner as well (Modern Family‘s streak might continue, though). But the most interesting question may have to do with whether one actor can get even so much as a nomination: Tatiana Maslany, the star of Orphan Black. My friend Myles McNutt has a piece on the campaign for Maslany, and the nature of Emmy campaigning in a fragmented TV and promotional landscape. But I just wanted to talk a bit about what her chances might be, and what stands in her way.

Normally, Maslany would not have a chance, because science fiction shows just don’t get nominated. This was not always the case; the original Star Trek and The X-Files got Best Drama nominations. But modern Emmy voters tend not to watch a lot of science fiction shows. A heavily-serialized sci-fi show has trouble finding one episode that can instantly impress voters who might not have watched it before, and most science fiction shows, including serious ones, have campy elements that are turn-offs for Emmy voters. (One of the few recent sci-fi shows to get any Emmy attention was Battlestar Galactica, a show that had more obvious, on-the-surface seriousness than most such shows.) And acting in science fiction TV doesn’t usually have much of a chance up against period dramas or crime dramas – just the very fact that the actors are talking in science fiction terms, about shapeshifters or clones, seems to hurt them with voters. That’s one explanation for how, say, John Noble or Anna Torv failed to get nominations for Fringe. It’s not only about the quality of the performance with the voters, but whether the actors are talking about “classy” things.

So all of that stands in the way of Maslany getting a nomination. Plus it’s a Canadian show, and it’s on a U.S. network whose promotional efforts have not been spectacular. But something does feel different this time. I take Myles’s points that the “Critics’ Choice Awards” aren’t predictive of anything. But the people who vote on them do try to reflect what they see as trends (like last year’s awards backlash against Mad Men or the supportive, anti-NBC vote for Community after Dan Harmon got fired), and this year they decided that Tatiana Maslany was the in thing. Whether this is an attempt to predict the Emmys or simply influence them, the fact that she won an award has at least increased the number of people who know her name and know that she’s an awards contender.

Then there’s the advantage Maslany has over other science fiction actors: her part may simply be too spectacular to ignore. Science fiction often requires the playing of double roles in one way or another (evil parallel universes, multiple personalities), but here we have a show built almost completely around one person’s ability to play as many different people as the writers require. I’m not going to say that playing multiple roles should necessarily give someone an awards advantage over another actor who only plays one. But it is true that this one actress carries the show on her shoulders; if she couldn’t pull it off, the show would not work. The showy nature of the acting feat, and the complexity of the achievement, may give Emmy voters a way into the show: it might not be their kind of show, but the story behind it — one woman plays much of the cast, and everywhere you look on the show, she is there — may impress them sufficiently to award it an acting nomination.

Someone also pointed out to me that the very name of the network, “BBC America,” may help the show with voters. The BBC is sort of a magical name that has certain associations in the minds of voters. That’s not a big factor, but it could help at the margins: if science fiction carries a stigma, then the BBC brand carries whatever the opposite of stigma is. Then, too, some of the show’s subject matter has become topical: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an issue that has already drawn comparisons to the series. That could help too. A science fiction show can get a little more awards respect when the issues it raises are clearly hot-button issues.

There still may be too many obstacles to a nomination. One person suggested to me that the nomination might happen next year: if she doesn’t get nominated, the fan backlash will make more voters aware of the show, and they’ll check it out when it comes back for the second 10-episode season. That could be. Still, the very fact that we’re even talking about the possibility of a science-fiction star getting a (deserved) nomination is making this Emmy season more fun than others. If it happens, who knows what happens next? The floodgates could open for actors from “genre” shows, special-effects shows, or anything that doesn’t require wearing a period costume. Or then again it could just prove that some roles are just too big to be ignored.




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Can Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany break the Emmy sci-fi curse?

    • these are almost entirely technical awards, with practically none for writing and acting.

      • Exactly.

  1. I think she’s earned a nomination at the very least.

  2. Given that I was vocally referring to these efforts as “hopelessly futile” a few weeks ago, I’m with you that the tide has turned such that Maslany has a chance, Jaime. As much as I think the barriers remain too substantial to make her nomination likely or even probable, the buzz has reached a point where a grassroots success story is not outside of the realm of possibility.

    Of course, as Gold Derby speculated fairly early on when the nomination potential was raised (http://www.goldderby.com/news/4403/tatiana-maslany-orphan-black-primetime-emmys-drama-actress-entertainment-news-78321892.html), one could argue that Maslany making it INTO the race is the only hurdle between her and an Emmy—if she were to earn a nomination, the problem of voters not seeing her performance is fixed by them being forced to see her performance. Maslany’s challenge is getting enough support during the popular vote nominating process: she potentially becomes a frontrunner in an environment where the depth—and, without reducing the strength of the performance, novelty—of the work becomes impossible to ignore.

    However, I just think it is very, very possible to ignore a show with the barriers you outline here, especially if you’re an Emmy voter who spends little to no time on the Internet.

  3. Aren’t ya’ll forgetting GOT and Peter dinkage?

    • But it benefits greatly from the HBO brand, which was sort of Jaime’s point—Orphan Black is not on a network that usually gets nominations, has much promotional staff for things like this, etc.

      • Also, that’s why I said “science fiction” instead of “genre” – it’s true that a lot of “genre” shows have trouble getting nominated (as do a lot of different types of show) but GoT’s particular fantasy genre isn’t quite as awards-deprived as science fiction.

        • True, but when you wrote “no obvious winner in the Drama category” I thought “What in the Seven Kingdoms are you talking about?”

          • It did occur to me after I wrote it that I would bet on GoT to win. I was thinking that now that the Emmys are out of love with Mad Men, and Homeland didn’t have a great second season, there’s no one show that will dominate… but arguably that just leaves the field clear for GoT.

  4. I think you’d have to be pretty willfully blind to pass Maslany over. Even if we pretend that she was not playing 5+ different characters on Orphan Black, just Sara Manning is a very very good performance. Then add the humour that she gets in with Allison, the weirdness of Helena, and the strangely familiar mix of sweetness and arrogance in Cosima and I really don’t see how you can ignore her.

  5. I would love for her to get an Emmy nomination and a win. She is just as deserving as Claire Danes was after the first season of Homeland.

  6. If there is a performance that could break the bias against science fiction, that’s Tatiana’s tour de force. That is, IF there is a bias, because I’m not sure there is one. As you say Star Trek and The X-Files got nominated in the past, but you’re forgetting Lost, which falls in the category of recent science fiction shows, although the nomination was for the show, not the actors. Battlestar Galactica was egregiously snubbed and that still stings a little, but so have been many other shows, science fiction or not. Maybe Battlestar Galactica was just unlucky or maybe the space setting was too out there for the Emmy voters, I can’t really say.

    I don’t think playing multiple roles means an actor should automatically get a nomination, because that’s preposterous. Tricia Helfer was amazing playing all those different versions, but I don’t know if I would put her before Mary McDonnell, who played only one character. John Noble was great, but Fringe was never good enough to be Emmy material and he doesn’t come close to what Tatiana has accomplished in a short season. The mention of the ridiculously overrated Anna Torv in this context is laughable. She never had a chance, because she’s just not good.

    There is no one better than Tatiana this year, she deserves more than a nomination, she deserves a win, but I would conform with a nomination. If there isn’t one, I’ll start believing there is that bias!

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