This year's chaotic Emmy nominations should be a wake-up call, says Judy Berman. "From COVID to the streaming wars, the medium that we call television has changed rapidly—perhaps more rapidly than ever before—in the 13 months since the 2021 Emmys eligibility window opened," says Berman. "The way we watch now bears little resemblance to the way we watched less than a decade ago, when the phrase 'Netflix Original' would’ve sounded like a contradiction in terms. Professional organizations are sluggish things; we can’t expect them to move at the pace of the zeitgeist. But they can, and do, evolve to address the shifting realities of their industry." Berman adds: "For once, the main problem is not a pool of nominees who are #SoWhite or #SoMale. It’s that the very categories the Television Academy divides them into, and particularly the ones it chooses to highlight in the nominations announcement and subsequent Emmy telecast, are increasingly ill-equipped to showcase the best of TV as we watch it now. For one thing, the distinction between comedy, drama and the once-obscure, now supremely competitive limited series category has become arbitrary at best and purely political at worst. Look at this year’s nominees. Can anyone explain what makes Amazon’s superhero satire The Boys a drama but HBO Max’s darkly funny murder mystery The Flight Attendant a comedy? Could HBO possibly have canceled Lovecraft Country, whose Season 1 finale felt pretty final, in order to enter it in the less-crowded drama-series category, as some have suggested? (Cancel culture strikes again, am I right?) Also: did Steve McQueen’s excellent Small Axe—five individually titled, feature-length works set in London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and the 1980s—not meet the Academy’s definition of a limited series, or was it simply deemed inferior to Marvel’s prestige-lite WandaVision?" Berman points out that "no category is stranger or more dissonant with how America consumed entertainment during our pandemic year than Television Movie. Lifetime’s quickly forgotten Mahalia Jackson biopic, middling Amazon originals Sylvie’s Love and Uncle Frank, HBO dad-bait Oslo and Dolly Parton‘s Christmas on the Square, from Netflix, represent… what, exactly? A notoriously arcane set of category restrictions." Berman also notes that the Emmys isn't equipped to handle the emergence of docuseries and foreign-language TV shows. "I’m frustrated by the way the Emmys continue to bury their documentary categories, excluding them from all high-profile broadcasts," says Berman. "Could the Academy possibly not realize, at this point, that docuseries in particular are among the biggest draws on TV? Digging into the dozens of categories unceremoniously dumped on the Emmys website following the announcement, I was happy to see City So Real, Pretend It’s a City and Allen v. Farrow nominated as docuseries—but I don’t think it makes sense for them to share a category with a long-running, episodic anthology like fellow nominee American Masters. At least the rise of nonfiction TV has fared better at the Emmys than another major trend in American viewing, one that the Academy isn’t so much as touching: the influx of very good, very popular foreign-language television. Lupin, Call My Agent!, Veneno, Losing Alice, Kingdom, Beartown, Shtisel, Sky Rojo, The Investigation—none of these acclaimed shows were even submitted for consideration and many wouldn’t qualify anyway because they aren’t American co-productions. Anglophone imports have fared almost as poorly. Some of this stuff is bound show up among the nominees for the International Emmy Awards, which most people probably didn’t realize existed and not even I, a TV critic, have ever watched. What an unfortunate fate for series that Americans devour on various streaming platforms and premium cable networks, as the distinction between what we watch in our native language and what we consume in subtitled form keeps shrinking."
Many of this year's surprise Emmy nominations were due to the pandemic: "In the world of the Emmys, there’s nothing as exciting as a blank slate," says Alison Herman. "TV’s biggest award show tends to favor repetition, from Modern Family’s five-year winning streak to the late-era dominance of Game of Thrones. So when a reigning winner finds itself ineligible, either because it’s on hiatus or just no longer on the air, that frees up room for some sorely needed fresh blood, or at least fervid speculation about what lucky show could fill the vacuum. This year, the Emmys were due for more turnover than usual. The incumbent for Outstanding Comedy Series, Schitt’s Creek, earned an astonishing clean sweep last year for its sixth and final season, ensuring it wouldn’t pose a threat to a new crop of contenders. (The winner before that, Fleabag, had also run its course—one of many reasons comedy has proved more dynamic than drama as of late.) Meanwhile, Succession holds the current title of Outstanding Drama, and very well could in the future. But for now, Succession is on an extended break, just one of many productions put on indefinite hold by the pandemic. Even though this year’s ceremony will be held in person, COVID-19 still looms over the entertainment industry, as it does the world at large. 'These nominations represent the work done in television through the most challenging year I can think of,' said Television Academy chairman Frank Scherma ahead of Tuesday’s reveal. That includes many deserving series that managed to eke out great work on socially distanced sets. Notably, it does not include some longtime Emmy favorites whose screwed-up schedules pushed them outside this year’s eligibility window: not just Succession, but also Ozark, Stranger Things, Insecure, What We Do in the Shadows, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. That left the Academy’s membership with a lot of open spots to fill. It would be both inaccurate and insensitive to call a handful of award nominations a silver lining to such a devastating year, both within television and without. But there’s a causal link between the pandemic’s disruptions and some of the more surprising breakthroughs in this year’s crop of honorees."
It's time for Emmys to expand the limited series category: "Just over a decade ago, in 2010, there were so few Emmy Award contenders in what was then called the Outstanding Miniseries category that only two shows were nominated: HBO’s The Pacific, which won, and PBS’s Return to Cranford, which didn’t.," says Jen Chaney. "In response, the miniseries and television movie categories were combined the following year to widen the field of competition. Ten years have passed since then, and now what is known as the Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series category — which again broke off from Best Television Movie in 2014 due to an increase in anthology and single-season shows — has the opposite problem. There are many extraordinary, Emmy-eligible limited series every year, but still only five nomination slots available to be filled. This year, a quintet of worthy shows was nominated in this category: I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Underground Railroad, and WandaVision. But several other terrific ones were left out, including the Steve McQueen anthology Small Axe, The Good Lord Bird, It’s a Sin, and A Teacher. A high-profile HBO series that in years past would have been a shoo-in, The Undoing, was shut out. We Are Who We Are, which submitted itself as a drama for some inexplicable reason — maybe limited series seemed too competitive? — would have been another solid limited-series entry, too. The, uh, limitations in the limited category become that much more egregious when compared to Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama, which each have eight nominations. The reasons for the numerical discrepancy, like so many things in life, come down to fuzzy math and random rules. Emmy guidelines stipulated that there will be eight nominations in the Outstanding Drama and Comedy fields, in part (presumably) because so many shows are eligible for the honor and they want the two genres to be balanced. In just about every other category, however, the number of nominations depends upon that eligibility factor. According to Variety, 37 programs were submitted in the limited-series race this year. Since Emmy rules state that a category with 20 to 80 submissions yields five nominees, there are only five nominated limited series. If I may use language that can only be deployed by the most articulate of critics, this is suuuuuper stupid. For starters, on the comedy and drama side, this approach assumes that having more eligible shows naturally means there are more strong shows in the bunch that are worthy of Emmy attention. But more quantity doesn’t necessarily equate to more greatness. Believing that it does is what I refer to as 'playing life by Netflix rules.'"
This year's Emmy nominations aren't that bad: "I was ready to be angry with the 2021 Emmy nominations, full of ire over snubs and railing against the systemic problems of this corrupt awards body down to its very categories. But in truth, the 2021 nominations actually aren’t that bad," says Allison Keene. "The major categories have a few good surprises mixed in with the usual nonsense, and as you get into Supporting and Guest actors things get fairly rote and boring, sure. But on the whole, the 2021 Emmys looks like won’t be horrifically offensive to television. That’s progress! Having said that, the Emmys are still a problem. The awards aren’t necessarily a celebration of great television so much as a chess game that ends with arm wrestling. Networks and publicists and sometimes actors themselves are extremely careful about what they submit for, and where. What, truly, is the difference between a limited series that is later renewed for Season 2, or a series that is cancelled after one season? These are the meditations of madness that we must continue to consider, because of Emmy games."
Emmys proved to be a mess with acting category takeovers: "There are eight nominees in each comedy and drama race, and six in the limited series race," says Kevin Fallon. "Ted Lasso has four of the eight supporting actor in a comedy nominees. The Handmaid’s Tale has three supporting actor and four supporting actress slots. Three of those other slots went to The Crown, which means there’s only one other show represented, with Aunjanue Ellis from Lovecraft Country. Cast members from Saturday Night Live occupy five supporting slots. And while no one would ever argue that the acting in the Hamilton recording isn’t jaw-dropping—this is Hamilton, there’s no overselling it—in what might be the tightest limited series/movie races ever, it’s hard to justify that even this production is owed seven acting nominations." Also, Fallon criticized Emmy voters for continuing to shut out Late Night with Seth Meyers. "While the slot that Conan took likely belonged to his TBS colleague Samantha Bee—a sore omission from this stacked category—it’s getting increasingly frustrating that Late Night With Seth Meyers has been unable to crack the big race," says Fallon. "It has long been the best of the broadcast White Guys in Suits Behind a Desk talk shows, and his pandemic pivot was phenomenal. The show has managed a handful of writing nods over the years, and this year a directing one, but it’s time for a promotion. Perhaps the Emmy voters were on point more this year, though, because there was simply a lot less television. The 2021 awards, more than 2020, are the true COVID-19 Emmys. The eligibility period ends in May, which means that in 2020, TV production was only just starting to ramp down because of precautions and restrictions. The 2021 nominations were more affected by the full result of pandemic shutdowns: fewer shows, fewer returning shows, few series (versus limited, once again the most competitive category)."
Emmy winners and losers: The drama category was a big loser, says Miles Surrey. "As the inclusion of Lovecraft Country and The Boys underlines, the drama category noticeably lacked strong, perennial contenders. Because of COVID-related production delays, the latest seasons of Stranger Things, Better Call Saul, Ozark, Killing Eve, and reigning Outstanding Drama Series winner Succession have yet to premiere. It wouldn’t have been surprising if all five of those shows would’ve made the cut had their new seasons aired in time. Instead, the Emmys might as well roll out the red carpet for The Crown, which aired a terrific(ally eligible) fourth season, is tied with The Mandalorian for the most nominations with 24, and already has 10 Emmys to its name. It feels like a foregone conclusion that The Crown will net Outstanding Drama Series, and aside from being a worthy winner, that’d also be a huge relief for Netflix." Also a big loser is "everyone Who Missed Out in Limited Series or Movie to a Filmed 2016 Broadway Stage Performance." Surrey adds: "I don’t have anything against the folks who love Hamilton, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production has no business being up for 12 Emmys this year. Technically, yes, Hamilton was eligible in certain categories: It counts as a prerecorded variety special, and because it’s longer than 75 minutes, its actors could compete in the Limited Series or TV Movie acting categories. But Hamilton’s Emmys mean that other worthy Limited Series or Movie performances were edged out by seven Broadway actors who are being acknowledged for work they did in 2016. (A few notable casualties: Thuso Mbedu for The Underground Railroad, Ethan Hawke for The Good Lord Bird, and John Boyega for Small Axe.) Hamilton has already won Tonys, a Grammy, and even a Pulitzer—adding Emmys to its list of accolades is totally unnecessary and outdated. But since they’re part of this year’s ceremony, I’m not throwing away my shot to dunk on them."
The Mandalorian isn't worthy of Emmys Outstanding Drama Series category: "The Mandalorian is a very entertaining and fun show for babies, and also people who enjoy pretending that they are babies for 30-45 minutes depending on episode length," says Jack Crosbie. "I am one of those people! I really liked The Mandalorian. It felt Star Wars-y in a way that many of Disney’s other recent offerings in the Star Wars baby-verse did not. And yet! Is it an Emmy-worthy drama? Absolutely not! Who in their right mind would describe it as such! Look. I get it. Art is subjective. Who am I to say that one piece of televised art is higher than other? Great question. I am just a guy with a blog. But it is my blog and I am here to say that The Mandalorian does not belong in this category. I want the show that wins best drama to make me feel something — to have scenes and plots and performances that surprise or thrill or challenge me. The Mandalorian does none of that. The prevailing emotion that it invokes, that it was made to invoke, is a warm-bath feeling of rose-tinted nostalgia for the magical world of the original Star Wars trilogy. It is a show with a tiny puppet Yoda that burbles and bobbles around and exists to sell little plushies to children and adults who would like to feel like children again when they squeeze the little plushie and hear it burble. Again — I like this! It works on me. Not enough to buy a little green Disney advertisement for my home, but still."
WandaVision is the elephant in the Limited Series room, while Small Axe is the elephant outside the room: "There could be a simple Amazon problem here," says Darren Franich. "The company, which is known for having half the money in the world, seems uniquely bad at converting expensive talent into eyeballs. Both Small Axe and Underground Railroad are endeavors that would have seemed insane only a few years ago: massive period pieces, not easily definable narratively or tonally, directed by daring Black filmmakers whose film work has been acclaimed but not always blockbuster-ishly lucrative. (Though McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the kind of mature global hit we can dream of as pandemic-battered theaters struggle against the void). Railroad's lack of acting nominations suggests that love for that Limited Series nominee only runs so deep. Small Axe was probably not much helped by its weirdly unclassifiable description; I just called it a 'collection of films' instead of an anthology series because I don't want Amazon to yell at me again.' The deeper problem here, though, is the attention economy, and the secret monoculture rising slowly from the Peak TV swamp. In the Limited Series corner of television, that monoculture is heavy on HBO's luxurious mysteries about sad white people, various Disney+ investigations into what superheroes and spacemen are really like, and the newest shiny Netflix bauble. All these things can be good in their own way, but there can also be better things out there, and the pileup of attention is starting to look suspicious. Even the great Don Cheadle can't believe his nomination for a cameo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Elsewhere on the same platform, Hamilton benefited from years of stage praise and high familiarity with its soundtrack from people who can't afford Broadway prices; its slew of nominations still feel like yesterday's news. (It's notable, I think, that Amazon earned more buzzy noms for The Boys, a superhero show with superheroes-bashing-stuff appeal whatever its nominally satiric aims.)"
PEN15's inclusion among the best comedies is a wonderful, welcome deviation from the usual script: "Teen girls in all their furious, selfish, blazing glory rarely get the kind of spotlight PEN15 affords them, let alone the kind of wider recognition that the Emmys represent," says Caroline Framke. "Nailing its specific combination of hyperbolic and specific, slapstick and devastating is a feat worthy of this honorific. That being said: it’s shame that neither (Maya) Erskine nor (Anna) Konkle could break through to land acting nods since their pitch perfect portrayals of themselves as teenagers are the make or break it elements of the show that ultimately make it as good as it is. As Anna, Konkle practically curls her body with insecurity in the many moments when Anna’s second-guessing herself before shrugging on an almost tyrannical confidence when she’s not. As Maya, Erskine is a live wire of pent-up energy that could spark at any moment and light everything around her on fire. Together, they use the retrospect of spending decades removed from being teenagers to bring their performances the kind of lived-in authenticity that actual teen actors (understandably) typically can’t quite convey."
Why The Crown is peaking now: "Game of Thrones took some time to build towards its highest level of Emmy attention," says Daniel D'Addario. "Similarly, The Crown has arrived as a drama standard-bearer well into its planned six-season run. The early seasons, starring (Claire) Foy, could be at times a bit bloodless; Olivia Colman’s first season, in 2019, was plainly transitional, moving the show forward in time without a clear throughline. In the fourth season, though, both problems were solved by the appearance of two of the Queen’s subjects: The show was infused both with a new passion and with a guiding structure once Colman’s Elizabeth had to wage a double battle with Corrin’s Diana and Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher."
2021 was a breakthrough year for superhero shows: "Last September, HBO’s Watchmen made television history as the first-ever comic book adaptation to win a major Emmy award, taking home best limited series," says Adam B. Vary. "The accolade pierced a half-century of industry snobbery over superhero TV shows, dating all the way back to the Adventures of Superman series from the 1950s. On Tuesday, comic book adaptations made an even more heroic showing at the Emmy Awards, with 39 nominations across six series. Some — including Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy and Lucifer, and HBO Max’s Doom Patrol — were purely for below-the-line categories (costumes, cinematography, sound editing) in which genre shows have traditionally fared well. But for the first time in Emmys history, two comic book adaptations earned nods in top Emmy categories: Disney Plus’ WandaVision for best limited series and Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys for best drama series."
Do Emmy voters really have to give all those nominations to actors from just a handful of shows?: "Voters were seemingly very, very comfortable (or do I mean lazy?) with making their choices from a small handful of shows," says Steve Pond. “The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, landed 10 acting nominations, while The Crown got nine and Ted Lasso and Hamilton got seven each. Saturday Night Live had 11 actors and hosts nominated, one shy of the record of 12 acting nominations set by The West Wing in 2002. And that resulted in some very lopsided categories. Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series category consists of four SNL hosts, plus Morgan Freeman for The Kominsky Method.”
This year's Emmy nominations proved how little TV voters watched: "Even the most diligent member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences watches only a small fraction of the massive amount of content that they are expected to judge each year. There is simply too much out there," says Scott Feinberg. "The average member, meanwhile, checks out the handful of shows that are getting the most buzz — due to organic word-of-mouth, high-priced marketing and PR campaigns or the mere fact that a show airs on one of the few platforms that are considered cool at the moment — and then picks nominees from that very limited pool. How do we know this? A couple of ways. For one, there are 119 Emmys categories, and there are hundreds of TV shows, and yet only 12 shows and only 12 networks/platforms received more than a single-digit number of noms this year. For another, look at the acting categories. In 2017, the TV Academy began instructing members to select as many candidates on their nomination ballot as they deem worthy of a nomination, as opposed to a fixed number. ('Vote for as many achievements in this category that you have seen and feel are worthy of a nomination.') And this, my friends, is how we wound up this year with a handful of popular shows utterly dominating the acting categories — Saturday Night Live (11 noms), The Handmaid’s Tale (10), The Crown (nine), Ted Lasso (seven) and, yes, Hamilton (seven). Many of these nominated performances were excellent — but so, too, were many other performances that were bounced by them because, I would submit, they never got a fair hearing."
Emmys went overboard giving Hamilton seven acting nominations and 12 total: "Let’s face it, Hamilton was simply recorded — however artfully by director Thomas Kail — as a permanent record of the original Broadway cast five years ago, and in fact was not even designed as a 'television' event but initially was picked up by Disney for a price tag of $75 million and a planned full-blown theatrical release," says Pete Hammond of Hamilton's 12 nominations. "Certainly that landmark cast was an early triumph for colorblind casting, but it is really the purview of the Emmys? That original release plan and intention was only derailed by the pandemic and clearly as a motivation on the part of Disney to rack up subscribers for its new streaming service, Disney+. With confusion reigning over just what this should be categorized as in previous awards shows like the Golden Globes, where it competed for Best Motion Picture Comedy or Musical, or at SAG or Critics Choice, where it was considered in TV categories, the Television Academy should have been more forceful in where it was placed (or just stick it in Special Merit categories)."
Mj Rodriguez on making history as the first trans performer to earn a nomination in a lead acting category: "I would like trans women, and specifically trans women of color — especially younger girls who are trans and of color — to take away that this is more than possible," says the Pose star. "If you’re persistent, if you keep your eyes on the prize, if you never let anyone tell you otherwise, you’ll keep living and knowing that your existence is worth it, and that you have a purpose on this earth. I’m a girl from north New Jersey. I didn’t get everything that was given to me, and I still managed to have the foundation of my mother and my family who stepped behind me to keep me pushing forward, and the love that lifted me up. So if they could do it, then I know that there are other people out there who can do it."
The Boys creator says Amazon's "bada**" Emmy campaign led to major Emmy recognition: “Amazon definitely put forward a really bada** campaign," says Eric Kripke of The Boys' five nominations, including for Outstanding Drama Series. "And in our internal conversations, we would say, ‘You know, if you scratch beneath the surface of the superhero thing, there’s a lot going on here that feels worthy of some recognition.' But no, I never expected this at all. I mean, at the end of the day, I was really hoping we’d get some technical Emmys, because my team is just doing incredible work. And that’s what I wanted. This would have been a great day if we’d gotten two or three technical Emmys. So then, when this all happened, I just realized that I’m the biggest Emmy nominee cliché.” Meanwhile Kripke tweeted: "YOU GUYS. #EmmysVotedForATenFootDick."
Cobra Kai creators credit the move to Netflix for its first Emmy nomination: “We knew that we had a magical show on our hands from the very early days at YouTube,” says co-creator Josh Heald. “We were thrilled with the audience that found the show, that celebrated the show. We were thrilled with the performance of the show as it competed with some of the big boys, the other streaming platforms. But we knew that it had a ceiling on it in terms of its exposure and people’s willingness to sign up for a new streaming platform.”
Jonathan Majors reacts to Lovecraft Country's nominations after cancelation: “Oh my. Gratitude and surprise are running laps in my heart,” Majors said in a statement reacting to the nominations. “A full-throated thank you to the nominating body. Thank you for seeing the light in the dark, and the smile in the tears of this character, Atticus Freeman, he is one of my best friends, and I’m glad you all got to meet him as well. Playing this role has changed my life, and this nomination is yet another growing and changing moment. I’d like to offer a deep congratulations to my fellow nominees, I am honored to be listed amongst these incredible artists, all who in such a time offered humanity and respite to a historically chaotic year.”
John Travolta's Quibi nomination is one of several Emmy oddities: Travolta and his Die Hart co-stars Kevin Hart and Nathalie Emmanuel all received nominations for the failed shortform streaming service Die Hart was recently renewed by its new home at Roku. Another oddity is the character voice-over performance category, which features Julie Andrews, Stacey Abrams, the late Jessica Walter, Maya Rudolph, Tituss Burgess, Stanley Tucci and Seth MacFarlane. Also of note is Anthony Hopkins' nomination for narrating a Mythic Quest episode and Zach Braff for directing a Ted Lasso episode.