Despite some surprises and historic wins, predictability ruled the 2021 Emmys

The dust has settled on the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, which were once more held in-person on September 19. We weren’t sure what to expect from the actual broadcast, as Cedric The Entertainer took over for Jimmy Kimmel as host, and actors and artists gathered in a tent under COVID protocols that didn’t meet Seth Rogen’s (or our) standards. There were also plenty of sure things, including The Crown’s prominence in the Drama categories. But overall, predictability ruled at the 2021 Emmys, as voters clung to their ways and awards season frontrunners led the winners. As predetermined as some of these outcomes were, they still left The A.V. Club’s Danette Chavez and Saloni Gajjar with some questions about what last night’s winners and losers mean for the wider industry. Here, they dig into their biggest takeaways and most pressing queries.

Left to right: Michael K. Williams, Lovecraft Country (Photo: Eli Joshua Adé/HBO); Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You (Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO); Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso (Photo: Apple TV+); Olivia Colman, The Crown (Photo: Ollie Upton/Netflix)

The “Emmys sweep”—coincidence or new tradition?

As Saloni Gajjar laid out in her brief history of Emmy voting rules, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has struggled to keep up with the ever-shifting programming landscape. Emmy voters are creatures of habit; even the new guidelines that require Academy members to watch all of the submissions only allow for so many breakthrough shows and performers. Judging by the recent Emmy winners, it looks like the TV Academy is ready to adopt a new tradition: the Emmys sweep.

After Schitt’s Creek swept the Comedy categories in 2020, the Pop TV comedy set a new record for most wins for a Comedy with nine Emmys (that it was able to do so in its sixth season after no prior recognition is its own feat). Awards pundits and TV critics, including this writer, foresaw two sweeps for the 2021 Emmys: Ted Lasso in the Comedy categories and The Crown in the Drama categories. The Crown made good on the predictions, winning all seven major drama awards on Sunday night, while Ted Lasso picked up the majority of the Comedy acting awards as well as the series award. Game Of Thrones’ dominance at the Emmys between 2015 and 2019 seems to have teed this up development, as the HBO fantasy drama broke records for most nominations and most wins. Is this the new normal?

Before and after the nominations were announced, many TV journalists were quick to note the absences of heavy hitters like Succession, Barry, Killing Eve, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and how they created a more open field But the 73rd Emmy Awards ultimately recognized just a handful of shows, with The Crown, Ted Lasso, and Mare Of Easttown emerging as the night’s biggest winners. HBO teasing the upcoming season of Succession was seen as a fun jab at Netflix’s winning streak last night, but it could also be pointing to the next sweep.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s fall from Emmys grace could be a sign that voters are done with dystopias

The Handmaid’s Tale season four bagged a whopping 21 total nominations, trailing behind The Crown and The Mandalorian’s 24 nods apiece. Unfortunately for the dystopian drama, it also lost all 21 of those possible wins, setting a new record for the most losses at the Emmys. The Hulu drama also breaks the record of another drama starring Moss: Mad Men. The AMC show scored 17 nominations in 2012 but lost all of them. There’s even more precedent: CBS’s Northern Exposure and HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show lost 16 possible awards in 1993 and 1997, respectively.

The Margaret Atwood adaptation was nominated this year for Outstanding Drama Series and Elisabeth Moss for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama, two categories where it proved victorious at the 2017 Emmys. The Handmaid’s Tale also secured multiple other spots despite a noticeable dip in quality in recent years, in part because contenders like Succession, Ozark, Better Call Saul, and Stranger Things were ineligible for consideration this year. Those absences made room for seven cast members in the supporting actor category: former winners Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley, as well as Yvonne Strahovski, Madeline Brewer, O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, and previous Guest Actor winner Bradley Whitford.

The Handmaid’s Tale being totally shut out after serving as awards fodder could mean Emmy voters are done with rewarding its doom-and-gloom content. (The Boys is often pitch-black in its darkness, but it never forgets to have fun.) It might also just underscore how tough it is to stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape. It’s also possible that the season-four course correction couldn’t pull the series out of a nosedive.

Why are the #EmmysSoWhite despite a historic number of nominations for people of color?

What a bewilderingly bleak year for Black performers at the Primetime Emmys, especially in the aftermath of groundbreaking shows like I May Destroy You, The Underground Railroad, Lovecraft Country, and Pose. The nominations were rightly celebrated when announced in July, but all 12 lead and supporting wins were awarded to white actors on Sunday night. Sigh. (The guest actor wins for Dave Chappelle, Courtney B. Vance, and Maya Rudolph were handed out at the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony the previous week.) There were even fewer nods for Latinx, Asian, and Native Americans at the Primetime Emmys. In an attempt to make the ceremony inclusive, the Emmys brought on Cedric The Entertainer as host, while other people of color—Mindy Kaling, America Ferrera, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Jeong, the Indigenous cast of Reservation Dogs, among others—mainly showed up to hand trophies to white winners.

The TV Academy increasing the number of nominees from historically underrepresented groups—2021 set a record with 49, a 17% increase over last year—but not converting those nominations to some well-deserved wins suggests a larger problem. Emmy voters value optics more than actual recognition when it matters most. Look no further than the inventive A Black Lady Sketch Show losing to sketch-show stalwart Saturday Night Live, which picked up its fifth consecutive win. Ted Lasso and The Crown were safe, crowd-pleasing favorites poised to win, but performers like MJ Rodriguez and Billy Porter were also heavily favored to win for their work on Pose’s third and final season. Rodriguez would’ve been the first openly transgender Lead Actress, and her performance was nothing short of worthy.

There were some heartening wins: Michaela Coel snagged a Limited Series writing award for I May Destroy You, becoming the first Black woman writer to win in the category, but lost for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series. RuPaul’s Drag Race winning Outstanding Competition Program makes RuPaul Charles the most-awarded person of color in Emmys history with 11 wins. Debbie Allen received the Governor’s Award and gave one of the most stirring speeches. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver writer Ali Barthwell and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert writer Pratima Mani were on stage while their respective shows won for Writing for a Variety Series and Outstanding Variety Special Live.

We see this every year: people of color’s wins at the Emmys are the exception, not the norm. They aren’t offered the same opportunities, so they make space for themselves, as Coel did with I May Destroy You. Her work deserves just as much (if not more) acclaim as Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag. It’s past time to reflect on who comprises the voting body, because they pick winners who best represent their experiences on-screen. In order to accurately expand on who wins, it’s important to diversify the Academy’s voters. Until then, Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma can wax poetic into the ether all he wants, it will mean nothing.

The lack of political commentary made the lack of good jokes all the more obvious

Sunday night’s Emmy ceremony was, overall, quite drab. Most of the humor fell flat despite host Cedric The Entertainer trying his best. The material for the skits was uninspired; Mike Pence’s VP debate fly feels like it happened forever ago, not in October 2020. No one wants to relive it, anyway. This sketch was the only major political reference at the Emmys, which was surprising after the last few years listening of MAGA and Trump jokes. No one even went the route of Jesse Armstrong’s vocal “un-thank you to President Trump” in 2020.

These events often offer opportunities for commenting on national issues, but this year, the host and winners stayed away from hot-button issues—or simply pretended they don’t exist now that Joe Biden is POTUS. The “I’ve never won an Emmy” support group bit felt dated, with Alyson Hannigan making How I Met Your Mother jokes, and a tacked on Dr. Phil appearance at the end. All the sketches were overlong and took away from the time alloted for acceptance speeches. Not everyone has Scott Frank’s white male privilege to demand the cutoff music be stopped multiple times. The ceremony itself needs stronger comedy writers, so that when the Schitt’s Creek cast comes up on stage, their lines don’t make you cringe. To some degree, the nervousness about a big in-person event probably contributed to the lackluster ceremony. No one was even wearing masks except those working the event. Seth Rogen rightly pointed this out before giving the first trophy of the night because, yes, the pandemic and Miss Delta Variant aren’t gone yet.”

After genre shows were all but shut out, is it time to rethink the search for the next Game Of Thrones?

Over the last several years, programmers have searched high and low for the property or idea that could become “next Game Of Thrones”: a big-budget genre show that wins both ratings and critical acclaim. HBO’s taken big swings with His Dark Materials, The Nevers, and Lovecraft Country; Amazon Prime Video’s proffered underwhelming fare like Carnival Row, but has both a Lord Of The Rings and Wheel Of Time adaptation in the works. Just this spring, Netflix brought Leigh Barduso’s Shadow And Bone trilogy to the small screen. Meanwhile, Disney+ has been launching new Star Wars and Marvel shows with impressive regularity. All these efforts seemed to pay off when the 2021 Emmy nominations were announced, as WandaVision, The Mandalorian, and Lovecraft Country led the nominees along with more traditional fare like The Crown and Ted Lasso. Even the counter-superhero-programming of The Boys earned multiple nominations, including one for Outstanding Drama.

The Mandalorian and WandaVision got off to a promising start, picking up seven and three awards, respectively, at the Creative Arts Emmys. But on Sunday night, the year’s biggest genre shows were shut out; even Kathryn Hahn, who was heavily favored to win for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series, ultimately lost to Mare Of Easttown’s Julianne Nicholson. There are a lot of factors at play here, including the Academy’s historically glacial pace at adapting to TV trends, as well as the fact that Disney+ is still a relatively new streamer. But Apple TV+, which had a weaker launch than Disney+, has already nabbed a major series award, Outstanding Comedy, with Ted Lasso. Again, we could just chalk this up to Emmy voters’ over-reliance on familiarity, but maybe this means that streamers and networks need to rethink the search for the next Game Of Thrones, or at least, what the next Game Of Thrones looks like. Given the popularity of shows like Bridgerton and the Emmy gold that Ted Lasso just brought home, maybe the new era of TV juggernauts will be full of romantic dramas and life-affirming comedies. (Of course, the Roys might have something to say about that in 2022.)

The Crown pulling off the “Schitt’s sweep” instead of Ted Lasso is another reminder of how soft the drama categories were this year

This year, the real drama of the Emmys was localized in the limited series categories, which had some of the tightest races in years. There were no potential sweeps; each nominee had a good chance of winning, even if it was for different reasons. As disappointed as we might have been about The Queen’s Gambit win for Outstanding Limited Series, we couldn’t say it came out of nowhere.

From the beginning, The Crown and especially Ted Lasso looked poised to steamroll the competition. The early wins of the night for Ted Lasso only bolstered that notion, but then the Apple TV+ series began to trade wins with HBO Max’s Hacks (such is the power of the Jeanaissance). Ted Lasso ultimately dominated the Comedy categories, winning seven Emmys overall. But it wasn’t the sweep that many (including this writer) foresaw in the wake of Schitt’s Creek’s, Ted Lasso’s fellow good-hearted comedy, command of the 2020 Emmys.

Instead, it was The Crown that swept its categories, garnering wins for cast members Olivia Colman, Josh O’Connor, Gillian Anderson, and Tobias Menzies, along with awards for writing and directing, and finally, Outstanding Drama. Peter Morgan’s historical drama ended Netflix’s losing streak shortly before The Queen’s Gambit picked up Outstanding Limited Series. This decisive victory for The Crown speaks as much to its great fourth season as the limited number of great dramas that were in the running this year. Pose went out on a high note, and the inclusion of The Boys was a welcome surprise. But Lovecraft Country, which boasted many great performances (Jonathan Majors, you were robbed!), veered too wildly in tone and quality as a series. The Mandalorian remains a solid offering here, but the Disney+ series only found success in the technical categories. This Is Us will likely score another nomination for Outstanding Drama series for its final season, though that will have more to do with the rubber-stamping tendencies of Emmy voters in the nominations phase. And we all know what happened with The Handmaid’s Tale.

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