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2021 Emmys Preview: Handicapping the Reality and Variety Categories

RuPaul, Hamilton, and John Oliver are the favorites to triumph this year... but will they?
  • (Photos: VH1, Disney+, HBO)
    (Photos: VH1, Disney+, HBO)

    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.

    While scripted dramas and comedies tend to be the shows that get the most prestige attention, often its the variety and reality series that are most familiar to audiences. Emmy voters have the chance to break some longstanding streaks this year in the Competition Series, Reality Show Host, and Variety Series categories. The question is: will they? Or will the winners of the last several years collect yet another doorstop?

    Outstanding Competition Series

    • The Amazing Race (CBS)
    • Nailed It! (Netflix)
    • RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1)
    • Top Chef (Bravo)
    • The Voice (NBC)

    The Frontrunner: Of all the awards on the Emmys telecast, this is the one most prone to be stuck in ruts. In the 18 years this award has been handed out, it's only ever gone to four shows, and all four of those shows — The Amazing Race, Top Chef, RuPaul's Drag Race, and The Voice — are nominated again this year. The current trend in this category is leaning hard toward RuPaul's Drag Race, but 2006 champion Top Chef is coming off of one of its best reviewed seasons of all time. If Emmy voters are truly paying attention, it should win; if they're just rubber stamping old champs, it'll be Drag Race.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Even with Drag Race and Top Chef duking it out for the win, we still shouldn't count out the category's all-time champion, The Amazing Race. The CBS show won the first seven years in a row and has ten trophies in total. It's also never not been nominated, although that streak could end next year unless the show can find a way to film the global travel series amid a still-raging pandemic. If Emmy voters are persuaded to give the show a "come back soon!" message, Race could return to the top.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: As the only nominated series that's never won this category, it would be great to see Netflix's Nailed It! ascend to the podium, but Emmy voters seem unlikely to deem the lighthearted series as having the gravitas for an Outstanding Series trophy.

    Stat to Chew On: If The Voice had been nominated for its first season, it would stand as the only show in this category to have been nominated for its entire run.

    Prediction: Top Chef really deserves it, but if any Emmy category has consistently made fools out of those predicting a deviation from the previous year's result, it's this one. Stick with RuPaul's Drag Race.

    Outstanding Variety Talk Series

    • Conan (TBS)
    • The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)
    • Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC)
    • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
    • The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS)

    The Frontrunner: Last Week Tonight has won this category the last five years, and there's really no reason to think things won't go that way this year.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: It's tough to say. The Daily Show used to be the king of this particular mountain in the Jon Stewart days, and maybe some day the Emmy voters will give Trevor Noah a nod for keeping that ship afloat, but probably not this year. Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert are holding down their slots in the 11:30 PM hour on the networks, but, again, neither seems to have harnessed the kind of momentum this year to change the John Oliver tide.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: By far the biggest wave of sentiment in this category would be for Conan O'Brien to win on his first nomination for his final season. There was a huge wave of goodwill for Conan in the media right before nominations. If voters can hold onto that, maybe an upset is possible.

    Stat to Chew On: How about zero, which is how many times Late Night with Seth Meyers has been nominated in this category, and honestly who do we have to kill to make that happen? His quarantine-era shows pretty much set the standard for how to handle that format shakeup, and it's (past) time Emmy voters gave this guy some gold.

    Prediction: HBO has found another category to dominate, and good for them. Expect win number 6 for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

    Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded)

    • 8:46 - Dave Chapelle (Netflix)
    • Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix)
    • David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO)
    • Friends: The Reunion (HBO Max)
    • Hamilton (Disney+)
    • A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote (HBO Max)

    The Frontrunner: In what is perhaps the most interesting category in the Emmy lineup, it's hard not to look at the wealth of acting nominations that Hamilton got — against the rather stellar competition in the Limited Series field, no less — and not think that they're the odds-on favorite to triumph here. Especially when both HBO and Netflix have multiple mouths to feed in this category.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Here's where it gets interesting. Both Friends and The West Wing were major Emmy favorites in their day, but will that translate to their reunion specials when reunion specials have never exactly been the Emmys' thing in the past? Meanwhile, Dave Chappelle is nominated for his devastatingly trenchant stand-up special filmed in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, which could definitely draw Emmy votes. Also, if recency bias is to be considered, Bo Burnham's chronicle of his pandemic year is very much the flavor of the moment.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Anybody who holds the music of David Byrne or the Talking Heads in their hearts would feel good about an upset win for the Spike Lee-filmed presentation of his Broadway show.

    Stat to Chew On: Chappelle has won four Emmys in the past four years for both his Netflix specials and appearances on Saturday Night Live, and he's up for another three this year.

    Prediction: Hamilton appears poised for another big night.

    Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program

    • Nicole Byer for Nailed It! (Netflix)
    • Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness for Queer Eye (Netflix)
    • RuPaul for RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1)
    • Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John and Kevin O'Leary for Shark Tank (ABC)
    • Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons for Top Chef (Disney+)

    The Frontrunner: RuPaul has triumphed here the last five years, and in a category that greatly prefers solo hosts (only Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum have ever triumphed as a hosting team), she remains a heavy favorite to triumph again.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: If voters are looking to split their votes between RuPaul's Drag Race and Top Chef, that could mean that Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and first-time nominee Gail Simmons could stand a shot.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Nicole Byer is a pure delight and the most comedically gifted of the nominees. The success of Nailed It! rests squarely on her shoulders. And she'd give an incredibly funny speech, too.

    Stat to Chew On: Much like in Outstanding Competition Series, the Emmy voters have not spread the wealth in this category very generously. Only five different winners have graced the stage in the 13 years Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition has existed.

    Prediction: RuPaul is such a huge personality and truly the face (and namesake) of her show. Six in a row seems like a distinct possibility.

    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, Bo Burnham: Inside, Conan, Dave Chappelle: 8:46, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Nailed It!, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef, John Oliver, Nicole Byer, RuPaul Charles, Hamilton, Handicapping the 73rd Emmy Awards