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2022 Emmys Preview: Handicapping the Reality and Variety Categories

Does anyone have a snowball's chance against perennial favorites RuPaul and John Oliver?
  • Photos: World of Wonder/HBO
    Photos: World of Wonder/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 74th Annual Emmy Awards. This week: Reality and Variety/Talk.

    The Emmy Awards are often criticised for being repetitive. The voting members of the Television Academy tend to latch onto shows they like and ride them until the wheels fall off. For drama and comedy series, historically that's meant six, seven, eight, nine years of repeat nominations for The West Wing or Everybody Loves Raymond or Modern Family or The Handmaid's Tale.

    Nowhere on the Emmy ballot is this issue more common than in the reality competition and variety/talk categories. It's here where shows that have been on the air for ten or twenty years have simply parked themselves and will not budge. This year's Outstanding Competition Program nominees are the exact same as last year's nominees, with an additional sixth nominee this year. Last year's Variety Talk Series field is the same as last year's except for one. This year's Outstanding Reality Show Host contenders are the same as last year's except this timr around Top Chef submitted Padma Lakshmi as its sole host. When awards pundits talk about the Emmys needing to shake up its process to get a more varied set of nominees, these categories are often Exhibit A.

    Regardless, with the reality and variety Emmys giving us more of the same, it means we have a far better sense of which way voters' tendencies will lean as we try to predict who will win on Emmy night. Let's take a look.

    Outstanding Competition Program

    • The Amazing Race (CBS)
    • Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls (Prime Video)
    • Nailed It! (Netflix)
    • RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1)
    • Top Chef (Bravo)
    • The Voice (NBC)

    The Frontrunner: RuPaul's Drag Race has won this category for the last four years, even though the show has arguably taken a dip in quality over that same stretch. The Ru-niverse is as popular as ever, though, and with the newer shows in the category like Lizzo and Nailed It still feeling demonstrably smaller, there's no reason to think Drag Race isn't yet again the show to beat.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Top Chef has been the worthy winner in this category for the previous two seasons, yet was never able to topple RuPaul. Sometimes Emmy voters are on a delay and vote for someone we all thought should have won the year before, in which could be the case with case Top Chef, even if the show's Houston season wasn't quite at the level of the previous two outings.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: A win for Nailed It! or Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls would be such an unexpected shocker that it would immediately become a must-see moment just for the jubilant reaction of it all.

    Stat to Chew On: In the 20 years that this category has existed, The Amazing Race has been nominated 19 times. They only missed in 2020 because they didn't air a new season that year. It's an Emmy nomination streak that hasn't been replicated anywhere.

    Prediction: This is the streakiest category on the entire Emmy ballot, and as such we'd be foolish to put our chips on anyone but the queens from RuPaul's Drag Race.

    Outstanding Variety Talk Series

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

    The Frontrunner: As the six-time defending champion, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is solidly in the driver's seat. The dominance in this category makes sense, as Oliver's program combines the topicality of The Daily Show with HBO's prestige sheen.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: For either of Kimmel or Colbert's shows to topple Oliver's popularity in this category, they'd have to put forward a pretty strong narrative — a loudly acclaimed uptick in quality or perhaps a much ballyhooed change of format. Neither of those things happened this year, which makes the likeliest spoiler candidate Late Night with Seth Meyers, if only because this is the show's first nomination, and we don't know whether it will prove unexpectedly popular with voters or not.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Each of these hosts has their fans, of course, but Meyers still projects as the plucky underdog on his first nomination. Meyers has found a sharper new focus since the pandemic began, and in many ways he's doing the late-night talk show format as well as it's been done since its heyday.

    Stat to Chew On: Did I call the Reality Competition category the streakiest on the Emmy ballot? Because that was wrong, it's definitely this one. Starting in 1998 (when this category was titled Outstanding Variety Series and encompassed sketch shows as well), here's the progression of winners: The Late Show with David Letterman won five in a row from 1998-2002; The Daily Show with Jon Stewart won the next ten: The Colbert Report won the next two in 2013 and 2014; The Daily Show then came back to be the only outlier in 2015; and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has won every year from 2016 until the present.

    Prediction: Stick with what's been winning, which in this case is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

    Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program

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

    The Frontrunner: RuPaul has won this category in each of the last six years and is representing the show that's favored to win Reality Competition Program. The queen is on her throne, and it's on everybody else to see if they can topple her.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: It's tempting to think that more people sharing a nomination would add up to more voters who want to vote for them to win, but that's never really been the case in this category. The converse is probably true: there's less motivation to vote for a group win rather than one singular person who could have a big Emmy moment. Which is probably why Nicole Byer stands the best chance to knock Ru off her pedestal.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: Aside from Nicole Byer, it would be fun to see Padma Lakshmi win for having grown into the role of Top Chef host so well over the course of the last decade and a half. That said, it could also be an awkward moment with Padma winning solo, after her co-stars Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons were lopped off of last year's group nomination.

    Stat to Chew On: Only once in the 13 years that this category has existed has the Emmy gone to multiple hosts — when Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn won for Project Runway in 2013.

    Prediction: If Lizzo had been nominated for her show, I'd smell an upset in the water, but that didn't happen. At some point, RuPaul's going to lose someone, but it probably won't be this year.

    The 74th Primetime Emmy Awards are scheduled to air September 12th on NBC.

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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: 74th Primetime Emmy Awards, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Lizzo's Watch Out For The Big Grrrls, Nailed It!, Padma Lakshmi, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef, John Oliver, Lizzo, Nicole Byer, RuPaul Charles, Seth Meyers