“Atlanta” came back after a four-year break. “Barry” has returned, too — after a mere three years. “Stranger Things” will unveil a new season this week after being away since 2019. Comparatively, the two-year gap between “Better Call Saul” seasons feels forgiving. I can kind of, sort of remember where we left off.
If you’re a fan — and you should be, as these are four of the best shows on TV (let’s give “Stranger Things” a pass for its uneven third season) — you’re not going to need to be reminded to tune in to these established hits.
But perhaps a moment of silence is in order for any of the other several dozen series that have landed in the last few weeks (or will premiere soon), just in time to meet the May 31 Emmy eligibility deadline and not long after Netflix revealed it had lost 200,000 subscribers in the most recent quarter and (gulp) projected it would lose an additional 2 million in the current one.
As Emmy season lurches back to normalcy following a couple of virtual years, it would seem that there are too many shows, too many platforms, not enough subscribers … and, frankly, not much in the way of buzzy offerings that might prod people to even sign up for a free trial. I love a horrific detective story about a ritualistic double murder in fundamentalist Mormon country as much as the next guy, but the reviews for Hulu’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” aren’t all that great. Maybe I can just content myself with the warm memories of cannibalism in “Yellowjackets” and sleep easy tonight.
Or I could try watching “A Very British Scandal,” which is different from “A Very English Scandal” and not at all related to Netflix’s “Anatomy of a Scandal” or, of course, “Scandal,” the Shonda Rhimes TV series that aired forever on ABC and somehow never landed Kerry Washington at an Emmy.
You see the problem, right? You live the problem. Remembering that, say, the political thriller “Gaslit” (it’s about a scandal!) is on Hulu and not Apple TV+ or Prime Video or HBO Max or Starz and then trying to recall whether you still have the Hulu subscription your college-age daughter signed up for to watch “Abbott Elementary” because, of course, she doesn’t have cable (“only old people have cable, Dad … not saying you’re old, but …”) can be maddening.
You can understand why Television Academy voters tend to reward the same handful of shows at the Emmys every year. Once you get past the splintered nominations round, the trophies are going to go to the programs — “The Crown,” “Ted Lasso,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Hacks,” “Mare of Easttown” last year — that managed, against all odds to enter the mainstream conversation. It’s why the Disney+ presentation of “Hamilton,” a 5-year-old recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular musical, won the Emmy for variety special. Voters knew the songs by heart.
So looking ahead to the 74th Primetime Emmys in September, what shows have threaded the needle of art and accessibility? It’s a short list.
Season 5 of “The Crown,” last year’s drama series winner, won’t arrive until November, leaving the door open for “Succession,” which won in 2020 and then had its third season delayed by the pandemic. “Succession” delivered a satisfying season, particularly the thrilling finale, which brought an electrifying set of new alliances and betrayals. But the season was also a bit scattered, largely due to restrictions the show had to face while shooting during COVID-19. “Succession” should win, but there’s a case to be made for other shows, too.
The most obvious challenger is “Squid Game,” the potent, horrifying Korean import that ruled Netflix in the waning months of 2021 and earned its stars, Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon, individual honors at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. The show itself lost the SAG ensemble award for “Succession,” an outcome likely to be repeated at the Emmys. As gripping as it was, “Squid Game’s” relentless carnage and bleakness will alienate some voters. Besides: If people want a survival story that trades in horror, the superior “Yellowjackets” is right here, waiting.
Reigning series champ “Ted Lasso” endured the inevitable backlash when its second season ran last summer, with naysayers finding diminishing returns (and laughs) in the wholesome comedy’s stretched batch of 12 episodes. But there aren’t that many series revolving around decency these days, which makes the Apple TV+ hit stand out among its competitors. Still, it faces many potent challengers, including excellent HBO programs — “Hacks” and “Barry” — that will be running new episodes close to the nominations’ voting window.
“Hacks,” in particular, could leapfrog “Ted Lasso” if it nailed its second season, as it hauled in 15 nominations last year, winning three major prizes — for writing, directing and lead actress Jean Smart. The writing and directing honors indicate that support for “Lasso” might be weak, and that once voters move past the feels, their assessment of the show might be a little harsher. (That whole CinemaCon scene with Olivia Wilde being served legal action papers onstage from Ted Lasso himself, Wilde’s ex Jason Sudeikis, might not help, either, even if Sudeikis, per his camp, didn’t direct the papers to be delivered in such an un-Lasso-like manner.)
Perhaps it’s inevitable that this year’s contenders can’t come close to last year’s set of nominees — “Mare of Easttown,” “I May Destroy You,” “WandaVision,” “The Underground Railroad” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” which wound up winning. While the limited series format remains the Emmys’ prestigious offering, streamers and networks have had a difficult time holding viewers’ interest for the entirety of their series’ often outsize running times. “Scenes From a Marriage,” “The First Lady,” “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” “The Offer,” “Pam & Tommy” offered more frustrations than intrigue. Watching these exercises in endurance often made me long for a resurgence in the two-hour TV movie format.
Look for “Maid,” “The Dropout,” “Dopesick,” “The White Lotus” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” to battle for the top honors. Maybe “The White Lotus” is the favorite, as it managed to tell its story of privilege in a concise six episodes. Plus it had Jennifer Coolidge. What’s not to love?