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2021 Emmys Preview: Handicapping the Comedy Categories

Ted Lasso vs. Hacks is shaping up to be an Emmy battle for the ages.
  • Will Emmy favor the the good-hearted soccer coach or the acid-tongued comedian? (Photos: Apple TV+ and HBO Max)
    Will Emmy favor the the good-hearted soccer coach or the acid-tongued comedian? (Photos: Apple TV+ and HBO Max)

    Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz. Over the coming weeks Joe will be looking at the competition in each of the major categories at this year's 73rd Annual Emmy Awards. Today: Comedy Series.

    We've known since the 2020 Emmys that the comedy categories at the 2021 Emmys would be a completely different ballgame. After Schitt's Creek completed their unprecedented sweep of the top categories — winning Comedy series, writing, directing, and all four acting categories — and then rode off into the sunset, the comedy field was left wide open. And with historic Emmy faves like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dead to Me, Insecure, and What We Do in the Shadows all sitting on the sidelines this year due to pandemic-related production delays, the Emmys were going to have to find a brand new crop of favorites.

    That sense of anything-is-possible newness is reflected all over the Emmy ballot, with a handful of new shows that everybody expected to make a big Emmy splash intermingling with shows both new and old that feel like the Emmys really taking a chance. Some of those chances seem daring while others seem foolish, but it makes for a fascinating mix of shows.

    So which shows are poised to triumph in the three top comedy categories?

    Outstanding Comedy Series

    • Black-ish (ABC)
    • Cobra Kai (Netflix)
    • Emily in Paris (Netflix)
    • The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
    • Hacks (HBO Max)
    • The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
    • PEN15 (Hulu)
    • Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

    The Frontrunner: As expected, Ted Lasso, the Apple TV+ comedy about an American football coach hired to manage an English Premier League soccer team, cleaned up on Emmy nomination morning, leading all sitcoms with 20 nods, putting itself solidly in the driver's seat when it comes to Outstanding Comedy. Ted Lasso was the feel-good story of a year that was seriously lean on feel-good stories, an unlikely show about a decent and kind man whose positivity ends up bringing his team together, while still being incredibly charming and funny. The show grabbed the all-important "show we need right now" mantle, similar to how Schitt's Creek was dubbed the show of inclusion last year. It will be very hard for any of the other nominees to unseat it.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: And then, in the last few weeks of Emmy eligibility came the HBO Max series Hacks, about the wary and unlikely professional partnership of a veteran stand-up comedian, played by Jean Smart, and her initially unimpressed young comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder). With a powerhouse central performance by an Emmy fave, a network behind them that knows how to play the Emmy game, and a showbizzy subject matter that never hurts when you're trying to court the votes of people in showbiz, Hacks feels like the one show with a shot at stifling enthusiasm for Ted Lasso.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: There are a couple ways that sentiment could shift in this field. One would be towards the veteran series, Black-ish, nominated for its seventh season and back in the Outstanding Comedy lineup for the first time since its fourth season. With only one more season left before it ends, voters could choose to throw their vote to a show they've loved for a while. On the other end of the spectrum, and truly the longest of shots, is Hulu's PEN15 — Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle's show where they play 13-year-old versions of themselves, enduring adolescence's harshest trials — which probably only barely made the Comedy Series lineup to begin with, but which shares with Ted Lasso a similar love and devotion from its audience.

    Stat to Chew On: With nominations for Ted Lasso, Hacks, Netflix's Emily in Paris, and HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, 2021 is the first time in 50 years that Outstanding Comedy Series has featured four debut seasons. That year, 1971, marked the debut for both All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

    Prediction: It's a Ted Lasso vs. Hacks showdown, and while the latter is a strong contender in some of the acting races and could well pick up a trophy for either writing or directing, the momentum seems to be on the side of AFC Richmond and Ted Lasso, especially with the exceptionally well-reviewed second season unspooling during the Emmys' voting window.

    Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series

    • Anthony Anderson as Dre Johnson on Black-ish
    • Michael Douglas as Sandy Kominsky on The Kominsky Method
    • William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher on Shameless
    • Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso on Ted Lasso
    • Kenan Thompson as Kenan Williams on Kenan

    The Frontrunner: After wins at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Critics Choice Awards, it would be foolish to bet against Jason Sudeikis as the title character in Ted Lasso, a character he originated in promos for NBC's coverage of the English Premier League. And hopefully this time he won't end up getting crap for wearing a hoodie to the show as he did at the Globes.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Honestly, there really isn't one. Sudeikis's iron grip on the category is just that strong. If I had to go with anyone, I'd go with Michael Douglas, if only due to his age (sentimental fave), his reputation (Oscar-winning, Emmy-winning, A-List Hollywood legend), and the fact that the old folks in the TV academy really seem to ride for The Kominsky Method.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: They're all long shots, so who feels good-est? Anthony Anderson is on his seventh consecutive nomination for Black-ish, so you'd think at some point he'd get over the hump, but that's not always how the Emmys work. The same would apply to WIlliam H. Macy for Shameless, who's enjoying his sixth and final nomination for the recently-ended Showtime series. SNL lifer Kenan Thompson has been accumulating a ton of goodwill over the last few years as people have started to realize how much of a contribution he's made to the show over the years. His double nomination this year feels like a reward in itself, although if he wins, it will likely be for SNL in supporting rather than his little-seen NBC sitcom.

    Stat to Chew On: With their nominations, Jason Sudeikis and Kenan Thompson, along with Aidy Bryant in Outstanding Actress in a Comedy, become the eighth, ninth, and tenth Saturday Night Live alumni to be nominated in the lead acting categories for any show. Sudeikis and Thompson's nominations are the first time two male actors from SNL have been nominated. (If you're curious, the other seven are Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bill Hader, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Forte, Sarah Silverman, and Laurie Metcalf.)

    Prediction: Of all the categories where Ted Lasso is favored to triumph, I'd bet heaviest on Jason Sudeikis here.

    Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series

    • Aidy Bryant as Annie Easton on Shrill
    • Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden on The Flight Attendant
    • Allison Janney as Bonnie Plunkett on Mom
    • Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish
    • Jean Smart as Deborah Vance on Hacks

    The Frontrunner: Including her two nominations this year for Hacks and Mare of Easttown, Jean Smart has been Emmy-nominated eleven times (although oddly never for her breakthrough show, Designing Women). She's won three times, twice for guest appearances on Frasier and once in supporting for Samantha Who. She is, by all metrics, an Emmy fave and she is an extremely heavy favorite to triumph here, with a role that feels like a coronation for an actress who's been one of the best in the business for a very long time.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Speaking of actresses who the Emmys absolutely love, you'd have long ago gone broke if you'd made it a practice to bet against Allison Janney. This is her 15th nomination, and she's already won seven times, including twice for her role as the titular mom in Mom. She hasn't won since they bumped her up from supporting to lead for Mom, but it's also the show's final season, so there could be a push to award her (again) before she jumps to her next Emmy-winning role.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Aidy Bryant has been worthy of an Emmy of some kind for forever, and while she has remained a highlight on Saturday Night Live for her entire tenure, the show she most deserves to win for is Shrill, where she plays a person who can often be her own worst enemy but also her own best advocate, and Bryant never strays from the path to make her too righteous or too much of a mess.

    Stat to Chew On: This marks Kaley Cuoco's first-ever Emmy nomination, after watching her old show, The Big Bang Theory, rack up nominations for nearly every actor under its banner.

    Prediction: This is a fantastic lineup of actresses, but from the moment Hacks dropped its first episode, that Emmy award might as well have already been engraved with Jean Smart's name.

    The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards are scheduled to air September 19th on CBS and Paramount+.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Handicapping the 73rd Emmy Awards, 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, Hacks, Ted Lasso, Aidy Bryant, Allison Janney, Jason Sudeikis, Jean Smart, Kaley Cuoco, Kenan Thompson