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2021 Emmys Preview: Handicapping the Drama Categories

From Pose to The Crown to The Mandalorian, who's poised to triumph in drama?
  • (Photos: FX, Netflix, Disney+)
    (Photos: FX, Netflix, Disney+)

    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 sizing up the nominees in each of the major categories at this year's 73rd Annual Emmy Awards. First up: Drama Series.

    The last ten years have seen a sea change in the way we watch TV, and this year's Emmy nominations reflect that. Used to be that the Drama Series categories were the big kahunas at the Emmys. This year almost all of the buzziest shows going into the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards are in the Limited Series categories, which is where the WandaVisions, Mare of Easttowns, and critically lauded darlings like I May Destroy You are competing. It doesn't help that the buzziest continuing drama series on TV, Succession, wasn't able to film a new season in time for the 2020-21 season, meaning that last year's Outstanding Drama Series champion is sitting this Emmys out. Other absent contenders this year include Ozark, Euphoria, Better Call Saul, Stranger Things, and The Morning Show.

    But where some see absence, others see opportunity. Freshman hits like Bridgerton were able to crack the Drama Series lineup this year, as were daring (if not highly rated) shows like Lovecraft Country. And oh, there is the small matter of a little show called The Crown, which continues to be exactly Emmy voters' cup of tea.

    Four seasons in, however, The Crown has never taken the Outstanding Drama trophy, and its platform, Netflix, for all its dominance year after year on nomination morning, has still never won an Outstanding Series Emmy in any genre. This year could be their year. Let's see how the drama categories are shaking out.

    Outstanding Drama Series

    • The Boys (Prime Video)
    • Bridgerton (Netflix)
    • The Crown (Netflix)
    • The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
    • Lovecraft Country (HBO)
    • The Mandalorian (Disney+)
    • Pose (FX)
    • This Is Us (NBC)

    The Frontrunner: The Crown was as popular in its fourth outing as it's ever been, which isn't surprising considering the season focused on Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) and Lady Diana (Emma Corrin) and featured a wildly buzzy performance by Gillian Anderson as prime minister Margaret Thatcher. With some of its biggest competition out of the race, The Crown may finally be the show to take home a top prize for Netflix.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: We couldn't blame anyone at Netflix or The Crown for having a little bit of PTSD when it comes to The Handmaid's Tale. Back in 2017, when The Crown was enjoying its breakout debut season and Game of Thrones was ineligible because it hadn't air that year, it looked to many like the royals would get a win. In swooped Hulu's super-buzzy The Handmaid's Tale, scoring the upset win and vexing what was, to date, Netflix's best shot at an Outstanding Drama win. Could it happen again? It's possible. The Handmaid's Tale has certainly lost some of its original buzzy shine, but 21 total nominations are not to be underestimated.

    Also not to be underestimated? The Disney machine, which should be full steam ahead for The Mandalorian, which scored a second consecutive Drama Series nomination, one of its 24 total nominations, which ties it for the lead among all shows with … The Crown. I think on some level we all knew that Princess Diana and Baby Yoda would one day face off on an awards stage. That moment is here.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: It's quite rare for a show to win the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy for the first time in its final season, which makes both Pose (which recently ended after its third season) and Lovecraft Country (which got cancelled after its first) exceedingly unlikely to win. And yet either show would have its own distinct underdog narrative: Pose the queer series that fought for respect and concluded with a highly emotional, hopeful, and elegiac finale; and Lovecraft for being such a big swing for HBO in a year where Succession wasn't able to air new episodes.

    Stat to Chew On: For the fifth straight year, Netflix has placed multiple nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category, this time with both The Crown and the Shonda Rimes-produced hit Bridgerton. It's been a great flex each year, although perhaps spreading the wealth so thin is part of the reason why Netflix hasn't been able to actually win in this category. Meanwhile, Amazon Prime Video scored its very first nomination in the category this year with the dark superhero saga The Boys.

    Prediction: All indications are that it's finally going to be The Crown's year, but I don't know. The fact that superhero/sci-fi shows broke through at the Emmys in such volume this year (see: all those WandaVision nominations in the Limited Series categories) makes me wonder if voters have gotten over their genre prejudices enough that they want to follow the money to a Mandalorian win. Do I dare hang my helmet on that prediction? I think I dare!

    Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series

    • Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson on This Is Us
    • Jonathan Majors as Atticus Freeman on Lovecraft Country
    • Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles on The Crown
    • Regé-Jean Page as Simon Bassett on Bridgerton
    • Billy Porter as Pray Tell on Pose
    • Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason on Perry Mason

    The Frontrunner: Last year's Emmy winner (Succession's Jeremy Strong) and SAG winner (Ozark's Jason Bateman) were ineligible this year, which would appear to place frontrunner status on Golden Globe winner Josh O'Connor, whose performance as the Prince of Wales was universally lauded and made him one of the most sought-after in Hollywood. If we're looking at a Crown sweep (and if last year's Emmys were any indication, sweeps are the new trend), O'Connor should easily rack up his first Emmy.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Billy Porter's arc on the final season of Pose was the stuff that classic Emmy campaigns are made of. He won the Lead Actor in a Drama trophy two years ago for a season that wasn't half as devoted to handing Pray Tell the spotlight and letting him rage against the dying of the light. He's the only other actor in this field who seems capable of toppling the royal family.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Okay, SPOILER ALERT if you haven't finished the final episode of Loki, but Jonathan Majors couldn't have picked a better time to debut as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's (possible? probable?) new mega-villain. The day after he scored his first Emmy nomination, he turned up on Loki, mowed down eight miles of scenery, and delivered the most charismatic villain performance in the MCU since … since, well, Loki. If there's ever been a moment when potential Emmy voters are paying attention to his rising star, it's right now.

    Stat to Chew On: With the exception of the absent Jeremy Strong, three of the last four winners in this category are nominated here: Sterling K. Brown and Billy Porter could each pick up a second win for This Is Us or Pose, respectively, while Matthew Rhys triumphed just three years ago for The Americans, and now he's back playing iconic TV lawyer Perry Mason.

    Prediction: Porter definitely has a lot of sentiment in his corner, but this award feels like Josh O'Connor's to lose.

    Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series

    • Uzo Aduba as Dr. Brooke Taylor on In Treatment
    • Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown
    • Emma Corrin as Princess Diana on The Crown
    • Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred on The Handmaid's Tale
    • Mj Rodriguez as Blanca Rodriguez on Pose
    • Jurnee Smollett as Leti Lewis on Lovecraft Country

    The Frontrunner: This category feels like the closest we've had to a genuine three-horse race in a while. Last year's champion, Zendaya, wasn't eligible, and the SAG Award was actually won by supporting actress Gillian Anderson, which would appear to leave Golden Globe winner Emma Corrin as the frontrunner for playing the beloved Diana.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: The fact that Olivia Colman hasn't yet won for playing Queen Elizabeth II gives voters a strong incentive to cast a vote her way (recall that Claire Foy also won the Emmy on her second year playing the Queen). And then there's 2017 Emmy champ Elisabeth Moss, whose seemingly resurgent The Handmaid's Tale is a player again. Both women from The Crown have more juice at the moment, but if they split their vote, Moss could take it.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Mj Rodriguez's breakthrough nomination as Blanca is a remarkable and just reward for her evolution over the course of Pose's three seasons, and letting the show's journey end with a triumph for its trans leading lady would be very appropriate. Similarly, if the same voters who clearly liked Lovecraft Country to the tune of 18 total nominations are sore about the show getting canceled after only one season, a vote for Jurnee Smollett's incendiary performance would be a great way to lodge a complaint.

    Stat to Chew On: In the last eight years, Uzo Aduba has received five Emmy nominations in four categories, winning in 2015 for Orange Is the New Black and last year for Mrs. America. This year marks her first placement in a Lead Actress category, for headlining the revival of HBO's In Treatment. For what it's worth, the first incarnation of that show ended up winning an Emmy for Dianne Wiest.

    Prediction: It's likely Elizabeth versus Diana for the Emmy crown, with Elisabeth Moss looking to play spoiler. The momentum is in Emma Corrin's corner at the moment, and my instinct says that's where it'll stay.

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

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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, Bridgerton, The Crown, The Handmaid's Tale, Lovecraft Country, Pose, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Billy Porter, Elisabeth Moss, Emma Corrin, Jonathan Majors, Josh O'Connor, Jurnee Smollett, Matthew Rhys, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Olivia Colman, Sterling K. Brown, Handicapping the 73rd Emmy Awards