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Nine Takeaways from the 2021 Emmy Nominations

HBO is sitting pretty, Netflix may finally break through, voters love Lasso, and more.
  • (Photos: HBO Max, Netflix, Apple TV+)
    (Photos: HBO Max, Netflix, Apple TV+)

    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. Today Joe breaks down this year's Emmy nominations with an eye to the storylines we'll be following leading up to the 73nd Annual Emmy Awards in September.

    The 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards nominations were announced Tuesday morning, and as Television Academy CEO Frank Scherma pointed out, the noms reflect a year of TV that was produced under some incredibly unusual circumstances. Production delays meant that many shows that had been expected to air this past year (like defending Drama Series champ Succession) didn't. That, coupled with the fact that several of last year's big Emmy winners like Schitt's Creek and Watchmen ended their runs, left the field for the 2021 Emmys wide open.

    So what did Tuesday's nominations tell us about which shows, networks, and platforms are top of mind for Emmy voters? Here are nine major takeaways.

    HBO Rules

    With 130 total nominations, HBO (combined with HBO Max) holds the top spot for the year, beating out Netflix's nomination tally by one. HBO came in strong across nearly all categories, with big showings for comedies like Hacks (15 nominations) and The Flight Attendant (9 nominations), dramas like Lovecraft Country (18 nominations), and limited series Mare of Easttown (16 nominations) and I May Destroy You (9 nominations). HBO and Netflix have been locked in a fight for nomination-total supremacy, with Netflix shattering the nomination record last year with 160, HBO leading the pack in 2019, and Netflix leading the pack in 2018.

    It's a great showing for a network that was missing Succession, its top prestige drama, and its two most reliable comedy performers of late in Barry and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Aside from the aforementioned shows, HBO scored some recognition for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, A Black Lady Sketch Show, and In Treatment's Uzo Aduba' whose fifth career nomination came for Lead Actress in a Drama (she's won on three of her previous four nominations).

    Still, Hacks may well be the top story for HBO, with Jean Smart overwhelmingly favored to win Lead Actress in a Comedy and series co-lead Hannah Einbinder strategically placed in Supporting Actress, where she stands a solid shot at a win as well.

    Netflix Might Finally Win

    Despite Netflix racking up obscene nomination totals annually, the big red streaming giant has never actually won a Best Series trophy. Not in comedy series, not in limited series, and not in drama. This year might finally see them break the streak. In its fourth season, The Crown seems poised to take … okay, the crown for Outstanding Drama Series in what is admittedly a rather weak year for the category, with past foes either ineligible (Succession) or past their prime (The Handmaid's Tale). Meanwhile, The Crown just aired its big Charles/Diana season and has enjoyed recent wins for Olivia Colman, Emma Corrin, and Gillian Anderson at the Golden Globes and SAGSs.

    That said, there is competition for the trophy. The Mandalorian tied The Crown for most overall nominations with 24, and in its second season it's riding a wave of big Disney+ momentum (more on that in a bit). Also, underestimate The Handmaid's Tale at your own peril. Past its prime or not, the show just lapped up 21 total nominations, including ten acting nominations, and it's beaten The Crown before. Netflix is going to have to pound that campaign pavement if it wants that first win.

    This Might Well Be It for Ted Lasso

    Last year Schitt's Creek came from nowhere to score an unprecedented sweep of the comedy categories, winning Outstanding Comedy Series and all four acting awards. No show seems likely to be quite that dominant this year, but if you're looking for your new comedy steamroller, look no farther than Apple TV+'s Ted Lasso, which scored a whopping 20 nominations for its freshman season, including seven acting nods for Jason Sudekis, Hannah Waddingham, Juno Temple, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed, and Jeremy Swift. In fact, the only main cast member who didn't get an Emmy nomination was Phil Dunster, whose performance as vain, tempestuous superstar Jamie Tartt was certainly no slouch. Both the series and Sudekis are heavily favored to win in their categories, and I wouldn't be surprised if either Waddingham or Temple triumphed as well. It was certainly the best news of the morning for Apple TV+, which didn't see anything other shows like Mythic Quest or For All Mankind but could still end up one of the big winners on Emmy night.

    Disney+ Continues to Rise

    Disney may have ranked third among networks/platforms in total nominations this year with 71, but given how new they are and how they're still only operating on a handful of major shows, it's a huge leap up for them and a real warning sign for their competitors. For the second straight year, D+ scored big with The Mandalorian, and its 24 nominations tied it with The Crown for most nominations by a single show. Those 24 nominations include a Supporting Actor nod for Giancarlo Esposito (his fifth Emmy nomination in the last ten years), Guest Actor nods for Timothy Olyphant and Carl Weathers, and an Outstanding Director nomination for Jon Favreau.

    Meanwhile, Disney+'s flagship MCU series WandaVision emerged as a major player in the Limited Series categories, with a whopping 23 total nominations, which include recognition for performers Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and Kathryn Hahn. This marks the first time that actors have been honored for their performances in MCU properties by a major awards show.

    Limited Series Is Where It's At

    As was widely forecast in the lead-up to the Emmys, the Limited Series categories proved to be where the heaviest hitters are competing this year. Outstanding Limited Series offers what is likely pound-for-pound the best category on the ballot, a five-way face-off between acclaimed series I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen's Gambit, Underground Railroad, and WandaVision. Partly due to the way TV is evolving and partly due to the absence of some of the year's top dramas, Limited Series seems to be where the most talked-about shows are at this year. At this point, it's almost impossible to pick a favorite, although as with many categories this year it may well come down to HBO (Mare) versus Netflix (The Queen's Gambit). The acting categories are equally competitive, especially Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series, which sees Kate Winslet (Mare) facing off against Anya Taylor-Joy (Queen's Gambit), Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You), Elizabeth Olsen (WandaVision), and Cynthia Erivo (Genius: Aretha).

    Ghosts of Emmys Past Haunt the Variety Specials

    The best category at the Creative Arts Emmys is likely to be Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded), which sees two past Emmy heavyweights face off with reunion specials, as HBO Max's West Wing and Friends reunion specials are both up against David Byrne's American Utopia, the acclaimed Bo Burnham Netflix special Inside, and Dave Chappelle's powerful 8:46 stand-up special. Oh, and they're all up against Disney+'s presentation of Hamilton, which scooped up 12 total nominations (including seven for its cast members). Given the popularity of Hamilton (not to mention Friends), don't be surprised to see this category get bumped up to the main Emmys broadcast this year.

    Supporting Category Madness

    Starting last year, the Supporting Actor and Actress categories in Comedy and Drama were expanded to up to eight nominees apiece. Ideally this would make room for more shows to get recognition for their supporting performances. This year's nominees, however, showed the limits to these expanded categories. With dozens upon dozens of shows to choose from, Academy members' votes coagulated around a few shows that got bombarded with supporting nominations for their cast members. Of the 15 nominations in Supporting Actor and Actress in a Comedy categories, six went to Ted Lasso and five went to Saturday Night Live — Kenan Thompson and Aidy Brant, both double nominated, for SNL here and for their respective lead performances in Kenan and Shrill, along with Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Bowen Yang — with some scattered scraps for Hacks (Hannah Einbinder and Carl Clemons-Hopkins), The Kominsky Method (Paul Reiser), and Rosie Perez (The Flight Attendant). That's 73% of all comedy supporting nominations for two shows.

    In drama, it's only slightly more spread out, with six total shows getting supporting nominations. The Handmaid's Tale holds 7 of the 16 total nominations, nearly half, with The Crown lapping up another four, putting those two shows at 69% of the total supporting nominations.

    Not to make anybody do math for an awards show, but that means that four shows — Ted Lasso, Saturday Night Live, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Crown — took up 22 of an available 31 supporting actor/actress nominations. This can't have been what was intended, and whether there's some further tinkering with the rules that need to be done (maybe cap the number of nominees a show can have in a single category?) or whether Emmy voters just need to look inside themselves and examine how narrow their choices have been, it's probably worth considering for next year.

    Congratulations Are in Order

    With so many nominations to sift through, it's tough to remember everybody who deserves a little extra applause today, but let's start with:

    • Conan getting its first Outstanding Variety Talk Series nomination to accompany its swan song.
    • Bowen Yang, became the first featured player in Saturday Night Live history to receive an Emmy nomination as well as the first Chinese-American actor to receive an Emmy nomination.
    • Mj Rodriguez, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama nominee for Pose, became the first trans actress to be nominated for an Emmy in a lead category.
    • Rosie Perez's nomination in Supporting Actress in a Drama for The Flight Attendant marks her first major acting nomination since her Oscar nomination for the 1993 film Fearless.
    • The Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance category is a special one, recognizing the late Jessica Walter (Archer), the legendary Julie Andrews (as Bridgerton's Lady Whistledown), and the inspirational Stacey Abrams (for the black-ish election special).

    Condolences for the Snubbed

    Of course it wasn't all good news. Some shows that were either predicted or at least hoped for nominees were left out in the cold. Peacock's Girls5Eva got a writing nomination for series creator Meredith Scardino, but that was its lone nomination. Nothing for the show's actors — including Renee Elise Goldsberry and Paula Pell, who each got nominated for other projects (Hamilton and Mapleworth Murders, respectively), and most shocking of all, nothing for the pitch-perfect pop songs created by Jeff Richmond and Sara Bareilles.

    Amazon's Small Axe film series from acclaimed director Steve McQueen rode the edge of classification between films and TV series for all of awards season, but ultimately was shut out of the Emmys, even for star John Boyega, who won a Golden Globe back in February.

    Hugh Grant scored a Lead Actor in a Limited Series nomination for The Undoing, but that was pretty much it for the HBO series, which failed to get nominations for star Nicole Kidman or acclaimed child performer Noah Jupe.

    It was a mixed day for Ryan Murphy, whose Pose scored nine nominations for its final season, including acting nods for Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter as well as Outstanding Drama Series. But elsewhere, Murphy had his worst Emmys showing in quite a long time. Halston got some design nominations, but a Lead Actor nod for Ewan McGregor was the lone major nomination for the limited series. A similar fate met his drama series Ratched, which scored makeup/costume/hairstyling nods and a Guest Actress citation for Sophie Okonedo, but nothing in a top category.

    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: 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, Disney+, HBO, Netflix, The Crown, Hacks, The Handmaid's Tale, Lovecraft Country, Mare of Easttown, The Queen's Gambit, Saturday Night Live, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Ted Lasso, WandaVision