Genre TV Strikes Back at the Emmys With ‘Andor,’ ‘Swarm’ and ‘Yellowjackets’
This story about genre television first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
What is it about genre storytelling that we find so appealing? It’s been 15 years since the MCU first became a box office behemoth. By the time it ended its run, “Game of Thrones” had amassed 59 Emmy Awards, making it the most decorated drama series ever. Last year, “Squid Game” became the first non-English language series to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, and its star, Lee Jung-jae, made history as the first person in a foreign-language show to win Best Actor.
The latest season of TV has served up an even more generous portion of genre storytelling in strong contention for Emmy recognition. Among the most acclaimed are Disney+’s “Andor,” Amazon Prime’s “Swarm” and Showtime’s “Yellowjackets.”
While wildly different—a Star Wars prequel, an occasionally surreal horror-comedy and a nightmare survival tale—the three shows offer a filter through which to view everyday life. Where an Instagram filter may obscure blemishes and downplay flaws, genre tricks its audience into lowering its guard and looking honestly at life’s ugly truths and brutal injustices through the remove of heightened circumstances.
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Traditionally, genre is taken less seriously than “serious” prestige television—but thanks to those lowered expectations, it can deliver the type of searing commentary that wouldn’t fly anywhere else. “Science fiction, in particular, has been a tool for years to talk about the world you and I live in,” Andor star Diego Luna said. “(At) the beginning of Star Wars, you say, ‘This happened in a galaxy far, far away.’ Therefore you shouldn’t get nervous. It’s not about you. But it’s all about you, and you get complete freedom to make every comment you want to make. The beauty of science fiction is when you forget you’re looking at science fiction.”
In Andor, a prequel series to the 2016 film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (itself a prequel to the first “Star Wars” movie), Luna reprises his role as Cassian Andor, here reluctantly becoming a rebel fighter who leads an uprising against the oppressive Galactic Empire. As the franchise has for decades, the Andor story resonates with audiences who might feel as though they are merely a cog in a machine that rewards the powerful with more power and the wealthy with more wealth.
“I think that the beauty of Andor is that it talks about what the social temperature needs to be for a revolution to erupt,” Luna said. “It talks about the world we live in, and it’s important to remind ourselves how much we can be part of change. It’s the only option, in fact, or it’s never going to come.”
“Swarm,” meanwhile, dissects the ills of contemporary American culture through horror-comedy, using our obsession with celebrity as a magnifying glass. In the limited series created by Donald Glover, Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) stars as the deceptively quiet Dre, a fan of a Beyoncé-like pop star who brutally murders anyone who speaks of her idol with less than complete reverence. “With ‘Swarm,’ it’s fantastical in a way, but I think that the heightened-ness of what we know as a society makes it interesting,” Fishback said. “We know that people sometimes teeter on a line, and you can see yourself or people that you know (in exaggerated fictional characters). I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I actually know somebody that has some (Dre-like) tendencies.”
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Though extreme, the underlying anger that fuels Dre’s behavior is familiar to many. Fishback was excited to try on “different energies—masculine and feminine energies, masculine wounded, feminine wounded,” she said. “Dre gets to take us on that journey. There is a rage that she gets to experience that a lot of times we don’t get to—for good reason! But this is why we have adult break-it rooms, because we are acknowledging as a society that we do have rage that has to be let out.” That anger, Fishback pointed out, is particularly important for Black women. “We haven’t seen Black women take up space like that, to be that rageful, to be that wild.”
Genre shows can be an exorcism of trauma, be it inflicted by institutional racism or, as in the case of “Yellowjackets,” by being lost in the wilderness for 19 months. The thriller tells the story of a female high school soccer team that resorts to unconventional protein sources to avoid starvation. Shauna, played by Melanie Lynskey as an adult and Sophie Nélisse as a teen, also grapples with the death of her baby, stillborn in a ramshackle cabin during the brutal Canadian winter.
“Like Dominique said, we’re holding a lot of rage,” said Lynskey, who was nominated for an Emmy for Season 1 and also appears in another genre-TV standout, “The Last of Us” (see story, page 27). “Certain people are allowed to express it more than others. People don’t want to see female rage, especially Black women. Swarm is so powerful for that reason. I’ve found that a lot of women are really excited about it, and a lot of people are also upset about it. And I’m like, ‘Sorry. Women are angry.’ The thing I liked so much about ‘Yellowjackets’ is it really does show that if you try to repress your trauma, it’s just gonna come out. You can’t just keep pushing it down.”
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In the real world, each day feels as though we are on the edge of something immense—from coming to terms with personal grief to kick-starting a social revolution. Genre storytelling emboldens audiences to be the change they wish to see in the world, to examine the damage that feels too ugly to face, to hold space for ourselves and for those who desperately need it. Change is on the horizon in the real world, if we’re courageous enough to act. And maybe that change will extend to the Emmy Awards if voters are brave enough to do the same.
Ahead, more from our conversations with Dominique Fishback, Diego Luna and Melanie Lynskey.
How much of Dre’s backstory were you aware of and how much of it was you filling out the character as you went?
I didn’t know anything, really, about the backstory. (Executive producer) Janine Nabers just kept telling me that Dre was emotionally stunted. I would ask about a certain thing and the answer would be, “She’s emotionally stunted.” So I wasn’t really going into the psychology of the character or her backstory. I knew she’d been in foster care, but a lot of things about Dre I didn’t realize until watching the show, things that weren’t revealed to me during filming.
Normally, I would journal as my character. I create full backstories, but I was learning about repressed memories, where you have so much trauma that you can’t remember. So I was OK not knowing what the writers thought about Dre’s history, because Dre probably doesn’t remember either.
Was it upsetting to exist in Dre’s space?
It didn’t start out as a burden. I was just excited for the opportunity to stretch and do things, like when Heath Ledger gets to do Joker or Charlize Theron in “Monster,” Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.” I was just excited that I got this opportunity with one character in a short amount of time.
But this was the first time we’ve seen a Black female serial killer in this way, and a lot of times, for Black artists, though it shouldn’t be this way, it feels like it’s representative of us as a whole. So that’s something we’re navigating as artists and saying, “Hey, we don’t represent everybody, and me playing this character doesn’t mean that Black women are like this.” It’s just allowing myself to stretch and hope that people understand that it’s art and it’s an opportunity.
I approached Dre with the same heart, the same understanding, the same universality as any other character. And because I gave so much heart and consideration to her, I hope that even if the audience doesn’t understand, even if they don’t like it, that they’ll feel that heart.
“Andor” is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But part of what makes Cassian so appealing is his reluctance to do extraordinary things. He just wants to get by.
He wants to get paid. He wants to survive. And that’s so many of us. The show is about how difficult it is to leave selfishness on the side, how difficult it is to stop this cynical way of living where we pretend to believe if we isolate ourselves, everything will be fine.
The beauty here is that we know what he’s capable of doing because of what we saw in “Rogue One,” right? Therefore the first thought was, how far can we go from that? How much can he screw up and still be that man, because then there’s redemption and hope for all of us.
It doesn’t matter how many times you fail, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been the wrong version of yourself. You can still be better. You can still be good.
What were your first thoughts about the prison arc, when Cassian is held in a seemingly inescapable, impeccably designed prison whose floors can electrocute inmates?
Even though I read everything and was pitched everything and saw the designs of (production designer) Luke Hull, even though he explained it to me and I went to see the building, it wasn’t until I was there, until I got to my cell, that I understood the problem is the ground. The problem is, you can’t walk. You have to be afraid of putting your feet on the ground.
Holy crap, what a concept. And then being in a non-stop factory that sells you on the idea of a release that never comes. I didn’t swallow it completely until I was performing there as an actor and (said), “Shit, I can immerse myself in this world.” I’m not the kind of actor who takes the role home and asks to be called the character’s name. I don’t like playing those games. But for me, it was very easy to become this prisoner and interact with these people when you’ve had everything that made you unique and special stripped away.
I’m worried about Shauna. Does she have some kind of catharsis coming?
In the eighth episode at (fellow crash survivor) Lottie’s compound, she’s given a baby goat to be in charge of. When the season was pitched to me, they were like, “Your big episode, you’re taking care of a baby goat.” I was like, “Excuse me?” Because you always want to hear that there’s going to be some wonderful thing coming. But then I read it and it’s quite profound, actually. She finds herself caring in a way that makes her feel very vulnerable and very exposed. And then she has this confrontation with Lottie, which is super emotional, where she’s like, “You’re going to make me destroy this thing that I care about!” and she has this realization about why she pushes people away and why she is the way she is with her child and husband. It’s kind of an amazing moment. So the baby goat episode ended up being really good, despite my reservations.
Teenage Shauna (played by Sophie Nélisse) had a deeply traumatic experience giving birth in the wilderness to a stillborn baby. How does Shauna’s trauma inform your performance?
She’s very different from me. I went through a traumatic birth and I went through a pregnancy loss right before we started the first season.
How did you cope with that?
It was horrible, honestly. Your body feels not your own. But my thing is, I want to connect with people. I want to talk to people about it. I want to say, “Here’s what I’ve gone through” and hear what they’ve gone through and share and help each other learn and feel better. And (Shauna) cannot. Her grief and paranoia really take over. I just tried to play (the trauma). It’s always in the background and coming out in weird moments. There’s a scene where Jeff (Shauna’s husband, played by Warren Kole) says to Shauna, “We only have one kid.” And I felt very wounded in that moment that he dismissed this other pregnancy and child.
As a person, you’re very emotionally open. Is it difficult to portray a character who is so closed up?
Yeah. The scene in the police station in Episode 6, I kept getting very emotional and then they would say, “Can we do one more where she’s not emotional?” And I was like, “Sure, but I feel crazy.” The pent-up feelings and everything (were) spilling out. I cried all the time. I think that’s a thing people know about me. So I’m trying not to cry.
There was a scene last season where Jeff and Shauna had this conversation where he says he has read her journals and she understands that she has been unconditionally loved, which she thinks is impossible for her because she feels so disgusting and awful. And the magnitude of that moment… For me, in my relationship, I have that and it’s such a profound thing. If I stop and think about what my husband gives to me, it’s too much, it destroys me every day. So I had to do that scene where she says, “How many have you read?” and he says, “Everything” and (then) says “I love you.” I had to play that with her sort of slowly beginning to process what that means and how that feels.
Off camera, I was a wreck. I was crying my eyes out. Warren was like “This is great!” But I’m not allowed to show it. I was just like, “This moment is so beautiful!”