For this year's 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, all but two of the nominees for Outstanding Drama Series have something in common: they're set in the past.
While "Breaking Bad" and "Homeland" both take place in present day (or close to it), "Mad Men," "Game Of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Downton Abbey" are all period dramas, and tend to simultaneously romanticize (fashion, like in "Downton Abbey") and condemn (sexism, like in "Mad Men") various aspects of a specific decade.
But does that give them an advantage come Emmy time?
If "Mad Men" walks away with the Emmy again, it will be the fifth consecutive win for the AMC drama that's equally defined by its details as it is by its acting. True, Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, and Christina Hendricks are worthy of their nominations this year, but without creator Matthew Weiner's attention to detail, the characters' struggles may seem less legitimate. In Season 5, Joan (Hendricks) sleeps with a client to gain power at the company, and she shows up to his apartment wearing a coat bought for her by Roger Sterling (John Slattery) nearly a decade before. Not only does this remind viewers of the dysfunctional power imbalance between men and women in 1965, but also how Joan clings to the past -- a time when she felt in charge -- during this heartbreaking ordeal.
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The same could be said for "Downton Abbey." Considering the first two seasons revolved around Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) searching for a husband (an upper-class woman's main goal throughout the early 20th century), it was the development of the First World War that plunged the family and their friends deeper into drama. Without the war, would the conflict between Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary have escalated or even existed? Arguably without historical references, conflict, and drama would be harder to find, which is why shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Homeland" rely also on action.
So, the question remains: do period dramas have the advantage because they have actual events from which to draw, or does adapting to those events justice simply require more work? Writing and executing the tale of a science teacher who eventually rules New Mexico's drug world isn't exactly a cake walk (nobody would ever accuse the "Breaking Bad" writers of taking the easy way out), but nobody on "Mad Men" has had to undergo as many physical transformations as that of cancer-patient-turned-crime-king, Walter White.
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Thanks to mid-'60s politics ("Mad Men"), organized crime ("Boardwalk Empire"), familial strain ("Downton Abbey"), and mythical creatures ("Game Of Thrones"), this year's period dramas arguably have the advantage over their present-day competition. Suburban drug dealers ("Breaking Bad") and American conspiracy theories ("Homeland") may result in bankable characters, but ultimately, "effort" (through costumes, set design, and even hair and makeup) work to make a series seem heavier and even more legitimate.
Just like in the past four years, "Mad Men" will likely walk away with an Outstanding Drama Series win come Sunday night. And why? Because in one season alone, the social climate of the mid-1960s allowed for everything from prostitution to suicide.
The 64th Annual Emmy Awards air Sunday, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. ET on CTV.