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2021 Emmys Preview: Handicapping the Supporting Acting Categories

Multiple nominees from Ted Lasso, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Crown are set to battle each other for Emmy gold.
  • Hannah Einbinder  in Hacks, Gillian Anderson in The Crown, and Kenan Thompson in Saturday Night Live. (Photos: HBO Max, Netflix, and NBC)
    Hannah Einbinder in Hacks, Gillian Anderson in The Crown, and Kenan Thompson in Saturday Night Live. (Photos: HBO Max, Netflix, and NBC)

    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: the Supporting Acting categories.

    They say there are no small actors, just small parts, and sometimes those small parts lead to Supporting Actor/Actress Emmy nominations. (Now can I get that gig writing presenter copy at the Emmys?) Last year the Emmys expanded their supporting categories in Comedy and Drama to accommodate up to 8 nominees, with the goal of better spreading the wealth to Peak TV's dozens upon dozens of great shows. Only the wealth did not get spread when the nominations came out; instead, shows like Ted Lasso, The Handmaid's Tale, Saturday Night Live, and The Crown gobbled up an obscene percentage of nominations. Which isn't to say those nominees weren't worthy, but a true survey of the vast TV landscape, these categories were not. Still, the churn and turnover of shows from the 2020 Emmys to 2021 means that nearly all of this year's supporting categories — in Comedy, Drama, and Limited Series — are wide-open contests that could produce some of Emmy night's biggest surprises. So who's got the best chance to win?

    Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

    • Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus Vaughan on Hacks
    • Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent on Ted Lasso
    • Brendan Hunt as Coach Beard on Ted Lasso
    • Nick Mohammed as Nathan Shelley on Ted Lasso
    • Paul Reiser as Martin Schneider on The Kominsky Method
    • Jeremy Swift as Leslie Higgins on Ted Lasso
    • Kenan Thompson as Various Characters on Saturday Night Live
    • Bowen Yang as Various Characters on Saturday Night Live

    The Frontrunner: The only holdover nominee from last year's class is Kenan Thompson, who's enjoying his third nomination in four years. The fact that Thompson is also nominated in the Lead Actor category for Kenan shows that Emmy voters are really into him, and an Emmy for his many years of service on Saturday Night Live would be a long time coming, and well deserved.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: With four Ted Lasso cast members nominated and likely to steal votes from each other to some degree (although Brett Goldstein definitely feels like the first among equals there), Thompson's toughest competition may well come from his fellow cast member. Bowen Yang's rapid ascent to the status of must-see SNL performer has been exhilarating, and there's no denying he provided some of the show's biggest highlights this year.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: I suppose that depends on how good you feel about Paul Reiser, whose six career acting nominations for Mad About You didn't reap him a single win. Meanwhile, if you've watched Hacks, it's hard not to root for Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Deborah Vance's weary CEO, wondering why he's captaining this possibly-sinking ship and falling sweetly in love with the water-meter guy.

    Stat to Chew On: You'd think that Ted Lasso's four nominations in this category would have set the record, one made possible by the recent expansion of the category to eight nominees, but it merely ties a record set by Modern Family, which pulled it off in both 2011 and 2012 for the quartet of Ty Burell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, and Ed O'Neill.

    Prediction: It's never easy to get a bead on a category with this many first-time nominees, but Kenan Thompson has the combination of clear voter affection as well as respect for his many years of work. His win would make for a great Emmy moment.

    Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

    • Aidy Bryant as Various Characters on Saturday Night Live
    • Hannah Einbinder as Ava Daniels on Hacks
    • Kate McKinnon as Various Characters on Saturday Night Live
    • Rosie Perez as Megan Briscoe on The Flight Attendant
    • Cecily Strong as Various Characters on Saturday Night Live
    • Juno Temple as Keeley Jones on Ted Lasso
    • Hannah Waddingham as Rebecca Welton on Ted Lasso

    The Frontrunner: You see this less at the Emmys than at the Oscars, but the tried and true awards season tactic of campaigning a co-lead performer in a supporting category to help increase both performers' chances to win is in full force here, as Hannah Einbinder, the focal point of Hacks, is being called a supporting actress. And it's making her the heavy favorite to win.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Einbinder's biggest drawback is that her character — whom she plays tremendously well — isn't very likeable. Which could open the door for two stars of the MOST likeable show, Ted Lasso. And while there's a chance that Juno Temple and Hannah Waddingham could split each other's votes, they could also easily finish in the top two on their own.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: We still don't know for sure which Saturday Night Live performers will be back next season or not, but if the implication at last season's finale that Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong would all be leaving, then a swan song award for any of them — particularly for Bryant or Strong, who've never won — would make for a wonderful and emotional moment.

    Stat to Chew On: Rosie Perez hasn't been nominated for a major acting award of any kind since her 1993 Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Fearless, a nearly 28-year drought now happily ended.

    Prediction: This is one of those great Emmy categories where you could see nearly any of the nominees walk away with the win. This prediction is little more than a shot in the dark, but I'm feeling good about Hannah Waddingham.

    Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

    • Giancarlo Esposito as Moff Gideon on The Mandalorian
    • O-T Fagbenle as Luke Bankole on The Handmaid's Tale
    • John Lithgow as E.B. Jonathan on Perry Mason
    • Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip on The Crown
    • Max Minghella as Commander Nick Blaine on The Handmaid's Tale
    • Chris Sullivan as Toby Damon on This Is Us
    • Bradley Whitford as Commander Joseph Lawrence on The Handmaid's Tale
    • Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman on Lovecraft Country

    The Frontrunner: With a mix of Emmy newcomers and Emmy favorites that nevertheless feels devoid of strong buzz for anyone in particular, it's difficult to pick a frontrunner here. You've got people like Bradley Whitford, a three-time Emmy winner who took home a Guest Actor trophy in 2019 for this very role on The Handmaid's Tale. You've got people like John Lithgow, a six-time Emmy champ who won as recently as 2017 for playing Winston Churchill on The Crown and is now representing an under-the-radar HBO show that, unlike Lovecraft Country, is coming back for a second season. But given how poised The Crown is to dominate all the Drama categories this year, Tobias Menzies may well be the frontrunner by default.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Michael K. Williams may not have won an Emmy yet, but that doesn't mean he isn't a favorite of the TV academy. His nomination for Lovecraft Country is his fourth career acting nod for four different projects (the others were When They See Us, Bessie, and The Night Of), and he still carries with him the sense that he was vastly under-recognized for The Wire, a sin for which the Emmys should forever be atoning. In such a wide-open category, Williams could easily catch a wave of goodwill and ride it to a win.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Similar to Michael K. Williams, Giancarlo Esposito has been a huge Emmy fave of late, enjoying his fifth acting nomination since 2012, three of which were for his role as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. An upset victory for Esposito this year would not only allow the Emmys to finally give the actor his due, but it would be a breakthrough win for the current wave of prestige franchise TV (which would make some people feel good).

    Stat to Chew On: Chris Sullivan — who was also nominated for his This Is Us role two years ago — is the only actor representing a network drama to be nominated in this category over the last four years.

    Prediction: This category feels poised for chaos, and I could predict just about anybody and feel pretty okay about it. So why not take a shot in the dark and predict John Lithgow to shock the field?

    Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

    • Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher on The Crown
    • Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret on The Crown
    • Madeline Brewer as Janine Lindo on The Handmaid's Tale
    • Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid's Tale
    • Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman on Lovecraft Country
    • Emerald Fennell as Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown
    • Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford on The Handmaid's Tale
    • Samira Wiley as Moira on The Handmaid's Tale

    The Frontrunner: Gillian Anderson winning the Golden Globe earlier this year for her over-the-top performance as Margaret Thatcher was one thing. Winning the SAG Award, where she bested both lead actresses from The Crown, was the real indicator that Anderson is miles ahead of the field here.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Assuming that the four nominated women from The Handmaid's Tale end up cancelling each other out, and Gillian Anderson eclipses her co-stars HBC and (Oscar-winner!) Emerald Fennell, the lone spoiler in the category would be the fantastic Aunjanue Ellis, whose recognition for Lovecraft Country is the culmination of years of great work in shows like When They See Us and films like If Beale Street Could Talk.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Aunjanue Ellis would apply here as well, although it should be noted that Helena Bonham Carter would probably be good for a wry and witty speech, if indeed she even shows up at the ceremony (which history has proven that she may well not).

    Stat to Chew On: This is the second time in three years that this category has been represented by only three shows. In 2019, Game of Thrones had four nominees to one each for Ozark and Killing Eve (Ozark's Julia Garner won).

    Prediction: Let's not overthink this one. Gillian Anderson is winning.

    Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series

    • Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts on The Queen's Gambit
    • Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson on Hamilton
    • Paapa Essiedu as Kwame on I May Destroy You
    • Jonathan Groff as King George on Hamilton
    • Evan Peters as Colin Zabel on Mare of Easttown
    • Anthony Ramos as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton on Hamilton

    The Frontrunner: Well, the frontrunner was going to be The Queen's Gambit's Bill Camp, who had gotten a SAG nomination and was easily the most praised cast member outside of Anya Taylor-Joy. Assuming the Hamilton contingent pull votes from each other, this opens the door for Evan Peters, whose performance in Mare of Easttown was quiet, affecting, funny, and surprising given his earlier work. A great Emmy checklist, that.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: It'll probably be one of the Hamilton guys. I'd have given the edge to Anthony Ramos a few months ago, but that was before In the Heights became such an unfortunate avatar for box-office failure in pandemic times. Not to brush aside the SAGs as a predictive entity one minute and then give them credit the next, but the fact that Daveed Diggs was nominated there earlier this year probably places him as the likeliest spoiler.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Poor Thomas Brodie-Sangster was killed off Game of Thrones before that show became such Emmy-bait for its cast. It's nice to see him get recognized for injecting such charisma into The Queen's Gambit.

    Stat to Chew On: Once a major player in the Limited Series categories, FX hasn't received a nomination in this category in the last three years.

    Prediction: The Evan Peters path feels reasonably strong, especially if voters feel bad for not voting for Kate Winslet and/or Mare of Easttown in this year's ultra-competitive Limited Series categories.

    Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series

    • Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler on Hamilton
    • Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness on WandaVision
    • Moses Ingram as Jolene on The Queen's Gambit
    • Julianne Nicholson as Lori Ross on Mare of Easttown
    • Jean Smart as Helen Fahey on Mare of Easttown
    • Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton on Hamilton

    The Frontrunner: This category is filled with actresses who gave buzzy performances from the sidelines in their projects, but a smaller handful stepped up in those shows' endgames to deliver real showcase turns. Specifically Kathryn Hahn, whose reveal at the end of WandaVision paid off a character whose arch comedy in the show's first half was matched by her grandiose villainy at the end.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Speaking of supporting players who came up huge at the end, though, Julianne Nicholson's turn in Mare of Easttown is the stuff that Emmy campaigns are made of, and considering she's been an undersung character actress for so many years, this could be a real rallying point for her.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: It's always going to feel good to vote for Jean Smart, and she was excellent throughout Mare, but she's already got her Emmy locked up for Lead Actress in this year's Comedy categories. Meanwhile, Renee Elise Goldsberry was egregiously snubbed for her performance in Girls5Eva, and while the climate doesn't feel particularly bubbly about all these Hamilton nominations, Goldsberry's win would at least feel like cosmic justice.

    Stat to Chew On: For as much as HBO has dominated the Emmys in so many categories, they've only won in this category once in the last ten years, when Laura Dern took a trophy home for Big Little Lies.

    Prediction: The heavy prediction is on Kathryn Hahn, but — ten-year dry spell or no — HBO's might at the Emmys is not to be underestimated, and this really feels like it could be Julianne Nicholson's year, at long last.

    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, The Crown, Hacks, The Handmaid's Tale, Lovecraft Country, Mare of Easttown, The Queen's Gambit, Saturday Night Live, Ted Lasso, This Is Us, WandaVision, Aidy Bryant, Anthony Ramos, Aunjanue Ellis, Bill Camp, Bowen Yang, Brett Goldstein, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Cecily Strong, Chris Sullivan, Daveed Diggs, Emerald Fennell, Evan Peters, Giancarlo Esposito, Gillian Anderson, Hannah Einbinder, Hannah Waddingham, Helena Bonham Carter, Jean Smart, John Lithgow, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, Kate McKinnon, Kathryn Hahn, Michael K. Williams, Paul Reiser, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rosie Perez, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Hamilton, Handicapping the 73rd Emmy Awards