The critically hailed 10-episode saga has struggled to achieve the widespread impact many believe it deserves, and the Emmys didn’t help.
“The Underground Railroad” has been shut out of the 2021 Emmy Awards. After receiving seven nominations, including recognition for showrunner Barry Jenkins (Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series) and the series overall (Outstanding Limited Series), the Amazon Prime Video original lost all seven categories over two weekends of Emmy presentations.
Competition was fierce, among limited series in particular. “WandaVision,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Mare of Easttown,” and “I May Destroy You” all earned more nominations than “The Underground Railroad,” and they all earned at least one trophy. Many considered the Limited Series categories to be the most competitive, meaning certain programs would have to lose out.
But “The Underground Railroad” was also one of the most widely and passionately acclaimed series of the last year. Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastien called it a “masterwork” in her moving review; The New Yorker critic Doreen St. Félix praised its “compositional achievement”; Robert Daniels, writing for Polygon, labeled it a “full-force triumph,” and the series currently sits as the fourth best-reviewed TV program of 2021. (Also, per Metacritic’s scores, it outpaces the next-highest limited series nominee — “I May Destroy You” by six points, and bested the winner, “The Queen’s Gambit” by 10.)
Similar enthusiasm was seen outside critics’ circles. Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project, interviewed Jenkins about the series for THR. Robert King, co-creator of “The Good Fight,” praised the premiere on Twitter. “Nomadland” Oscar winner Chloe Zhao moderated show’s FYC panel. Screenings were held at the American Cinematheque, the IFC Center, and The Museum of the Moving Image — which is still hosting an exhibition of Jenkins’ companion piece, “The Gaze.” And Oprah loves it.
But despite the widespread praise, signs of trouble surfaced early. Prior to the initial release, critics voiced concerns that Amazon Prime Video would be dropping all 10 episodes at once. Variety’s Caroline Framke wrote that releasing the full season at once was “a mistake”:
The series is dense enough that each episode would, and should, stand on their own with enough space for viewers to digest it before moving on to the next. Instead, Amazon is releasing all of them in one fell swoop, making it far too easy for someone to muscle through too much without reprieve, or else shy away from the show entirely should it get too challenging. It’s hard not to imagine how “Underground Railroad” would fare if it were to unfold weekly, giving each installment a more lasting spotlight.
That alternative never came to fruition, and although Amazon Prime Video doesn’t release viewership numbers, many — including Jenkins — worried that audiences simply weren’t watching the series. To make matters worse, the weekly release model was seeing a resurgence when “The Underground Railroad” premiered. Earlier in 2021, “WandaVision” followed the same Disney+ strategy that launched “The Mandalorian” to the stars, and its one-episode-per-week rollout was championed as a major factor for the MCU’s buzzy debut. HBO, which stuck by the weekly release even when binge-drops were at their most popular, achieved a similar breakthrough for “Mare of Easttown” a few months later.
Both of those shows performed remarkably well at the Emmys, presumably boosted by the high awareness generated upon release. “WandaVision” landed 23 nominations and “Mare of Easttown” scored 16, while “The Underground Railroad” had to settle for seven. None of the show’s cast members were nominated; breakout star Thuso Mbedu was left off the Best Actress in a Limited Series list (in an extremely competitive field) and Joel Edgerton, arguably the most recognizable name to voters, was also absent from the Best Supporting Actor lineup. Then “The Underground Railroad” went zero-for-five at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, before losing its final two categories during the Primetime telecast.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, Jenkins said, “[‘The Underground Railroad’] is the thing that I’m most creatively proud about, and it’s probably going to end up being one of the least seen of those things. I don’t get numbers. But there hasn’t been a lot of cross-talk about it.”
Why? We’ll never really know. Perhaps the subject matter was too intense for audiences to accept. Maybe it premiered too late, and voters’ favorites were already entrenched in their minds. Or its release strategy was to blame, although if that’s true, we don’t know who made the ultimate decision to release the episodes together. (Amazon Prime Video did utilize a weekly release for “The Boys” Season 2, so it’s not like the idea was unprecedented.)
Still, what matters most is that “The Underground Railroad” is remembered, and Emmy snubs certainly don’t keep a series from becoming a classic. This year’s overlooked masterpiece calls to mind another critically beloved, Emmy-ignored limited series from 2018: “Twin Peaks: The Return” earned nine Emmy nominations and lost every one. Barry Jenkins is in good company with David Lynch, as two exalted directors who’ve yet to win an Emmy. For that matter, “The Underground Railroad” joins the elite ranks of “The Leftovers” and “The Wire” as top-tier TV series never recognized by the Emmys.
The losses are frustrating, considering both the quality of what’s being ignored and the Black filmmakers and characters who have yet again been deprived their due respect. But “The Underground Railroad” exists; Jenkins & Co. told their story and told it brilliantly. Those who’ve found it have been vocal in their adoration, and it’s up to all of us to keep this tale alive for years to come.
“The Underground Railroad” is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.