Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Is Netflix’s “The Diplomat” Being Underestimated This Emmy Season?

HBO is dominating this year’s Emmy conversation around Outstanding Drama Series. From returning hits “Succession” and “The White Lotus” (now competing in Drama after a Limited Series win for its first season) to massive new shows “The Last of Us” and “House of the Dragon,” half the category is likely to be filled by HBO titles. Plus, a win is in the cards following the afterglow of “Succession’s” astonishing final season. That leaves four more spots up for grabs. Given the Television Academy’s recent history of Outstanding Drama Series nominees, once a show makes the initial cut for its first season, voters are incredibly keen on bringing them back into the awards conversation. Previous nominees “Better Call Saul” (AMC) and “Yellowjackets” (Showtime), plus 2021’s category winner “The Crown” (Netflix), are all poised to receive Emmy nominations come next month.

Then there’s the mix of new and returning shows vying for a spot — from “Andor” (Disney+), “1923” (Paramount+), and “Bad Sisters” (Apple TV+) to “The Boys” (Amazon Prime Video) and “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu). One could point toward the history of past Emmy seasons to discuss some of these shows’ chances. Both “The Boys” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” were previously nominated for Outstanding Drama Series in 2021. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in particular, won the category in 2017 and was nominated three additional times. However, some fatigue around the show’s fifth season may have created more wiggle room for new titles to make a mark. One of those titles is “The Diplomat” (Netflix), a binge-worthy contemporary political drama created by Debora Cahn, a writer/producer for “The West Wing” (NBC) and “Homeland” (Showtime).
The high-stakes world of politics makes for some genuinely entertaining television. From secret intelligence to messy relationships, the threads of a political drama can mirror the reality of a moment or take an idealistic spin on events. There’s an appetite for these shows in many capacities, whether extremely sinister in “House of Cards” (Netflix) or duplicitous and soap-like in “Scandal” (ABC). The storytelling and acting are often compelling enough to suspend disbelief. “The Diplomat” falls in the realm of a tonal hybrid between “Scandal” and “Homeland,” with sprinkles of another foreign policy-centered show starring Keri Russell, “The Americans” (FX). Russell, a three-time consecutive Emmy nominee for “The Americans,” returns to television playing a role just as layered and unpredictable. In “The Diplomat,” she stars as Kate Wyler, a seasoned diplomat who unexpectedly lands the job of U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, as per request by U.S. President William Rayburn (Emmy nominee Michael McKean). Having worked towards becoming the next Ambassador for Afghanistan, Kate feels this posh new position in London is taking her away from more important groundwork in Kabul. But the shifting of professional gears comes in the midst of an international crisis following a deadly attack on a British vessel. The plan is that Kate’s presence in London will signal that the U.S. is taking the threat seriously. Plus, her expertise on Iran will help persuade new colleagues that the Iranians are not behind the vessel attack.

While embroiled in complex politics and handling international crises, Kate has a love-hate relationship with her husband Hal (Emmy nominee Rufus Sewell). Hal is a former ambassador who has taken a step back from the spotlight, though he’s still considered a big deal in the diplomat world and is often called upon for counsel. Hal uses the newfound time on his hands to undermine Kate’s decision-making at nearly every turn. Both are experienced in crisis zones but cannot quite get a handle on the mess of their marriage. Their power dynamic is something out of a screwball comedy as they flirt one minute and challenge each other the next. The touch-and-go chemistry between Russell and Sewell is at the core of why “The Diplomat” stands out amongst generic political thrillers. Their antics can be just as, if not more compelling than, the scenes of heightened governmental action.

“The Diplomat” explores individuals in powerful positions who are also engaging in complicated personal activity, all while in the public eye. It’s a messy dance for Kate’s character in particular, who is much more comfortable behind the scenes than she is on the frontline of the press. The pleasantries of Winfield House, her new headquarters in London, are not exactly in her wheelhouse. She has zero interest in becoming the face of anything, resisting magazine profile photo shoots and scoffing at the idea of “leaning into the Cinderella thing,” as Hal puts it. “The Diplomat” is refreshingly female-centric in a male-dominated world. Russell, also an Executive Producer on the show, is in perfect synchrony with the twisty tone and quick-witted screenplay. She balances the tragicomic tightrope that the show exists on. Russell makes Kate an engaging character to follow the intricate plot points alongside. She subverts the expectations of women being poised and presentable in this public-facing setting. Russell’s invigorating performance is an instant reminder of how easy she makes acting seem.

With Russell’s sensational work at the center, plus the aforementioned Sewell and McKean, “The Diplomat” works well as an ensemble piece. The show shimmers with great supporting performances, including Ato Essandoh (as Kate’s Deputy Chief of Mission Stuart Hayford), Ali Ahn (as the CIA Station Chief Eidra Park), Nana Mensah (as U.S. Secretary of State Billie Appiah), and David Gyasi (as British Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison). When it comes to breaking into the Emmy acting categories this year, this ensemble faces the challenge of shaking things up. Beyond the Outstanding Drama Series category, HBO dominates most drama acting predictions, from lead and supporting to guest stars. Plus, multiple cast members from the same few shows are expected to populate these categories.

Though there is some vulnerability in the Lead Actress Drama category, with the latest seasons of “The Crown” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” falling short of expectations last year, respective contenders Imelda Staunton and Elisabeth Moss might be more at risk of a snub than initially thought. Thus far, “The Crown” has never had a problem garnering acting nominations across the board, but season five marks the first noticeable dip in the show’s overall quality. Similarly, season five of “The Handmaid’s Tale” received a critics’ consensus of having lost some of its urgency. While the category is still incredibly competitive, don’t be surprised if Russell manages to sneak in as a surprise nominee. Considering she has not yet won an Emmy, recognition here would be one step closer to changing that statistic.

If you frequent the Netflix homepage, you may have noticed “The Diplomat” appear as the number one show shortly after its April 20 release this year. The show spent a total of four weeks in Netflix’s top 10 most-watched television. While, of course, not a prerequisite for Emmy recognition, the wide accessibility of this show doesn’t hurt. Beyond viewership, it’s one of the highest-rated shows of the year so far, with positive consensus reviews from both critics and general audiences. It’s also one of Netflix’s biggest drama plays this season, including “The Crown” and “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story.” FYCs for “The Diplomat” range from acting, directing, and writing to casting, original dramatic score, and contemporary costumes.

Another factor that favors “The Diplomat” is the involvement of Debora Cahn. Beyond the political dramas “The West Wing” and “Homeland,” Cahn is also known for her work as a writer/producer on Emmy-nominated shows “Fosse/Verdon” (FX), “Vinyl” (HBO), and the behemoth success “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC). She is a big name among her peers in the industry, and following decades of such high-profile work, “The Diplomat” marks her first credit as a showrunner/creator. Cahn also co-writes all eight episodes. The writing would likely be next in line for a nomination if the show doesn’t make the Outstanding Drama Series category. One of the biggest draws of “The Diplomat” is its flashy walking-and-talking dialogue. The screenplay is fast-paced and full of political jargon while also expertly mapped out throughout each episode. You gradually feel part of the characters’ insider worlds and can get a handle on various points of secret intelligence.

“The Diplomat” breaking into the Emmy race would not be the first time a Netflix show surprised awards pundits. Consider the unexpected Emmy nominations for mainstream hits “Emily in Paris” (in 2021’s Outstanding Comedy Series) and “Inventing Anna” (in 2022’s Outstanding Limited Series). “The Diplomat” operates similarly because it’s an addictive watch with the bonus of a frustratingly solid cliffhanger that keeps you on high alert for season two’s release date. Given the potentiality of direction in storytelling, there is room for this show to grow and find a much stronger footing in years to come. The question is, will the Television Academy catch on early to “The Diplomat?” Or will we be a few seasons in before the show makes its first Emmy appearance?

Now that Emmy nomination voting is over, do you think “The Diplomat” will be nominated for any Emmys? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account, and be sure to check out our latest Emmy Nomination predictions here.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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