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How Orange Is the New Black Shook Up the Emmys

The groundbreaking Netflix original defied classification, forcing a long-standing rule change.
  • Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, Lori Petty, Taryn Manning, Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon and Natasha Lyonne in Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
    Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, Lori Petty, Taryn Manning, Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon and Natasha Lyonne in Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

    With Orange Is the New Black returning for its seventh and final season on Netflix July 26, there will likely be many tributes to the groundbreaking series and the role it played both culturally and in the lightning-fast evolution of Netflix. But with this year's Emmy nominations just announced, we were reminded of the impact the show had on the TV Academy, as well.

    Orange Is the New Black premiered in July of 2013 as part of the first wave of Netflix Originals. Its platform-mate House of Cards was campaigning for Emmys as a drama, but nobody really knew how the Emmys would respond to this new platform. That year was particularly stacked in the Outstanding Drama category, which included former winners Mad Men and Breaking Bad, plus Emmy favorites Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. Star-studded newcomer True Detective was pretty much guaranteed a slot. With House of Cards an immoveable drama, it made good strategic sense for Orange to go comedy. Creator Jenji Kohan had already done so with her similarly dramedic series Weeds (though that show was a half-hour). What followed was 12 Emmy nominations for its first season and three wins (including Uzo Aduba for Guest Actress), and when the backlash arrived, it included griping that this hour-long show about prison abuses was being called a comedy.

    The following year, the Television Academy changed its rules to stipulate that half-hour shows would be automatically classified as comedy, while those running an hour would be deemed dramas. Prior to this, it had been up to the show in question to pick the genre in which it wanted to compete. As an awards body, the Television Academy isn’t particularly precious about nomination rules. Nothing is truly set in stone as slight amendments are made each year. This new rule, in fact, allowed shows to petition for a change of category despite their running time — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, for example, successfully did so, as did Shameless and Jane the Virgin.

    It’s not that Orange Is the New Black doesn’t have comedic elements. Some shows will always defy categorization, and until there's a dramedy category, guidelines are required even if it is something as arbitrary as episode length. Peak TV announced its arrival on the awards scene the same year as the tightening of the classification rule, and in response the Academy expanded its drama and comedy series slots from six to seven, “due to the dramatic increase in series production.”

    Category-blurring (or category fraud, if you’re less sympathetic to the practice) is a common tactic in both film and TV. Why wouldn’t a show or network pick the category with the best chance of victory? This is how Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Danish Girl at the Oscars when she was clearly a co-lead and The Martian received the Golden Globe for Best Comedy (boy, 2015 was a wild year). As it happens, the Golden Globes nominated OITNB as a drama for its first year before reclassifying it as a comedy in 2015 (it received more nominations as a comedy).

    The Emmys appear to be more concerned with addressing and stomping out shenanigans of this kind than the Oscars have. In recent years, they have also changed the limited-series rules impacting the likes of American Horror Story and Black Mirror. These rule amendments often take effect when it is particularly egregious or note-worthy. Or, in the case of OITNB, when a new platform threatens to unbalance the previous title-holders. In 2014, Modern Family was experiencing multiple back-to-back wins with Veep coming in at the rear ready to usurp it. Network and cable were already locked in a battle without having to entertain a new contender for the comedy crown. Orange Is the New Black was a wrinkle those other shows didn’t need. These days, with streaming a more normalized presence on Emmy ballots, it’s less of an impediment. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel proved last year that the hour-long steaming comedy is still a contender.

    When the rule change took effect in 2015, OINB with had its petition rejected to compete as a comedy. It went from 12 nominations for its first season to only four for its second. That said, Uzo Aduba repeated her previous year’s win, taking Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama, becoming the first actress to win comedy and drama Emmys for the same role — Ed Asner is the only other person to do this. OITNB also made history in another notable way in 2014 when Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy acting award (she was nominated again in 2017, and yet again this year).

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Orange Is the New Black, 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba