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

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

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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