Nods left on Quibi’s grave, the TV Academy gets Smart, and more takeaways from the 2021 Emmy nominations

·6 min read
Jean Smart in Hacks (Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max), Ewan McGregor in Halston (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix), Ziwe (Barbara Nitke/Showtime)
Jean Smart in Hacks (Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max), Ewan McGregor in Halston (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix), Ziwe (Barbara Nitke/Showtime)

After a chaotic year, the 2021 Emmy nominations seemed to offer plenty of surprises (Quibi? Back from the dead?). But upon closer inspection, most of the Television Academy’s voting patterns remained in place: Previous winners like The Handmaid’s Tale had a strong showing (nine acting nominations alone), and the Variety Sketch and Variety Talk categories remain a source of consternation. We’ve already shared the biggest snubs and surprises, but here are some additional thoughts on this year’s Emmy nominees, and the more exciting—if confusing—races.

This year’s Outstanding Drama showdown is a win for genre storytelling

Pandemic-related production delays took Ozark, Stranger Things, Better Call Saul, Succession, and Killing Eve out of the running for Outstanding Drama series, which, along with fewer eligible shows in general, created more of an open field than we’ve seen in years. Genre shows stepped up to fill the void, as horror-drama hybrid Lovecraft Country and superhero satire The Boys joined returning nominee The Mandalorian as the big drama contenders. The closest we’ve come to this kind of genre showdown was in 1990, when Quantum Leap and Twin Peaks competed with L.A. Law, China Beach, and thirtysomething in the category. The groundswell of interest extends beyond the Outstanding Drama race, as The Mandalorian is tied with The Crown for the most series nominations (23 a piece). Now, that’s still nine shy of Game Of Thrones’ 32 nominations for its final season. But this development certainly challenges the notion that there’s limited room for genre shows, particularly in the major categories. The Crown remains the series to beat here; its fourth season was stronger overall than previous winner The Handmaid’s Tale’s fourth outing, and could finally earn Netflix the Outstanding Drama win. Still, the efforts of streamers like Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix secured 39 nominations for comic book shows (many in below-the-line categories), with 23 of those going to WandaVision in the Limited Series groupings. With all the shows that will be eligible for the 2022 Emmys, that number could just continue to grow. [Danette Chavez]

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It’ll take more than re-combining the awards to fix the Emmys’ variety categories

Saturday Night Live and The Black Lady Sketch Show are the only nominees for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, which is a shockingly low number when you consider the explosion of inventive sketch comedy programs in the last year, including Ziwe, How To With John Wilson, Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready, and The Amber Ruffin Show. Emmy rules limit the nominations to two since there are fewer entrants in 2021: just nine, to be specific. (I Think You Should Leave season two arrived after the eligibility date.) SNL’s popularity indicates it will probably best ABLSS. Despite critical acclaim and creative content, debut hits like Ziwe and The Amber Ruffin Show aren’t even acknowledged or included in this prime category because it’s such a tight race.

The fact that Outstanding Variety Sketch Series will remain its own category is an achievement of sorts. The Television Academy thankfully reversed its December 2020 decision to pit sketch and talk shows against each other. Re-combining these categories isn’t a solution, but how else to ensure these sketch shows get their awards due? With the lines getting blurred when it comes to what genre or format any TV show falls under nowadays, the Television Academy should seriously reconsider a rule that’s only impeding new, delightful sketch comedies from getting recognized, especially since scoring a buzzy nomination early on helps a series’ chance to stay on the air longer. [Saloni Gajjar]

Don’t underestimate the power of the biopic drama

Despite their pedigrees and subjects, Genius: Aretha and Halston didn’t move the needle much upon their premieres. They were too restricted by the biographical drama formula, which usually calls for a highlight reel (with a dash of lows) rather than any meaningful exploration of whatever historical figure or artist is at its center. (The Queen’s Gambit beat these biodramas at their game, even though it’s not based on a real person.) Genius glossed over key details of Aretha Franklin’s life, while Halston never really embraced the rococo spirit of its eponymous designer. Both series mostly underwhelmed critics, and both series just received multiple nominations in the Limited/Anthology series categories, including the period-drama recognition for costume and production design. These include Outstanding Lead Actress and Lead Actor nominations for Cynthia Erivo, who plays the Queen Of Soul in Nat Geo’s biography anthology, and Ewan McGregor, who singlehandedly made smoking cool again (we jest—smoking only looks cool). In fairness, Erivo delivers a few barn burners as Franklin, and McGregor does make the most of Halston’s scant narrative. Despite a weak showing overall, Erivo and McGregor’s acting nominations prove there’s still some power in the biopic drama—especially if you get to perform great musical numbers and/or repeat your name like a mantra. [Danette Chavez]

Quibi gets nominations from beyond the streaming grave

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 Emmy nominations is the inclusion of Quibi’s original programming. Remember Quibi? Yes, the streaming platform that offered “quick bites” of programming, but fizzled out within months of its launch last year. Well, it has risen from the ashes to score eight Emmy noms in the short-form categories, beating Fox’s seven nominations, Showtime and Paramount+’s six total Emmy nominations. Quibi’s content won’t just be a blip on the radar, now that its library lives on Roku, sold to the company for less than $100 million.

For the Emmys, Quibi’s Reno 911 reboot is up against short-form comedy, drama, or variety series like Carpool Karaoke: The Series on Apple TV+ and Late Night With Seth Meyers: Corrections on YouTube. Kerri Kenney-Silver also picked up a nomination for her work in the reboot. Big name actors like Kevin Hart, John Travolta and Nathalie Emmanuel scored a nomination for Quibi’s action comedy Die Hart, which Roku has renewed for a second season. Paula Pell and John Lutz nabbed acting nominations for the series they co-created, Mapleworth Murders, along with co-star J.B. Smoove. [Saloni Gajjar]

Jean Smart should win an Emmy for Hacks, not Mare Of Easttown

Put down your pitchforks—we’re not suggesting that Jean Smart, the new patron saint of gutsy broads, doesn’t deserve Emmy recognition for her role in HBO’s Mare Of Easttown. As Helen Fahey, the real matriarch of the series’ multi-generational family, Smart is hilarious, perceptive, and more than a little heartbreaking. Who else could spar with Kate Winslet’s Mare Sheehan and emerge victorious? But Smart now has a total of 11 Emmy nominations, and three wins: two for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy (for Frasier) and one for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy (for Samantha Who?). Her jaw-dropping work in HBO Max’s Hacks has netted Smart her first Lead Actress nomination. We’re sure it’s tempting for voters to give her another a Supporting Actress nod (albeit in Limited/Anthology Series). But Deborah Vance is the role of a lifetime, and yet Smart makes it look like she’s just getting started. Her performance is equal parts uproarious, flinty, and charming; you both crave and fear Deborah as a mentor. Because these shows and roles are so distinct, there’s technically no reason Smart can’t pick up both awards (though the odds aren’t great). But it’s time for Smart to be recognized as an Outstanding Lead Actress. [Danette Chavez]