Emmy Noms Analysis: More to Cheer, Gripe and Puzzle About Than Ever

A few first impressions of Tuesday's big reveal.
Courtesy Photos
(l to r) Regina King on 'Watchmen,' Jason Bateman on 'Ozark,' Cate Blanchett on 'Mrs. America,' Jeremy Strong on 'Succession' and Issa Rae on 'Insecure'

It only stands to reason that with more television platforms and shows than ever before, accommodated by more Primetime Emmy categories (some with more slots than ever before), we find ourselves on Emmy nominations morning with more to cheer, gripe and puzzle about than ever before.

First, some things to chew on. In a sign of just how dominant Netflix has become — particularly during the ongoing pandemic — and how decrepit broadcast TV has become, the former landed a field-leading and record-setting 160 nominations, whereas all of the latter — ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS — combined for just 127. And, in a year in which the drama and comedy series categories were expanded to eight slots each, or 16 total, Netflix accounted for five — three dramas (The Crown, Ozark and Stranger Things) and two comedies (Dead to Me and The Kominsky Method), whereas broadcast barely registered at all with just one (NBC's comedy The Good Place).

Other streamers are also gaining ground. Hulu scored major noms beyond The Handmaid's Tale (a drama series past winner and nominee this year) for the first time with Ramy snagging several (though missing out on a comedy series nom). There was an upset in the race between this year's two deep-pocketed rookies as Disney+ beat Apple TV+ to a series nomination with The Mandalorian boxing out The Morning Show in the drama series category (though the former scored no acting noms and the latter landed several). And Quibi, the service offering episodes running 10 minutes or less that has been criticized as "Jeffrey Katzenberg's Folly," showed real signs of life by landing a much better than expected 10 noms in the shortform categories.

While the long-dominant pay-cabler HBO relinquished its nominations lead to Netflix, and actually garnered 30 fewer mentions than it did last year (it didn't help to lose Game of Thrones and Veep), it does still boast what is, by far, the year's most nominated — and timely — show, Watchmen, which came in with 26 noms, six ahead of runner-up The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Amazon Prime and eight ahead of Ozark from Netflix and its own Succession. Watchmen also received six acting noms, four for performers of color, part of what turned out to be one of the most diverse fields — if not the most diverse field — of acting nominees in Emmys history.

The drama series favorites would seem to be Ozark and Succession (again, the most nominated), with The Crown and BBC America's Killing Eve, both of which scored a haul of acting noms, as upset possibilities. Some thought this could be the year for AMC's Better Call Saul, which did get a nom in the top category, but was devastatingly and inexplicably denied noms for lead actor Bob Odenkirk (his first miss in the show's five-season run), supporting actress Rhea Seehorn (even in an expanded category) and supporting actor Jonathan Banks (also his first miss, though co-star Giancarlo Esposito did show up in that category). The Handmaid's Tale is another drama nominee, but lead actress Elisabeth Moss and supporting actress Ann Dowd both missed, which are not good signs. The category was rounded out by The Mandalorian and Stranger Things.

Comedy series looks to be a showdown between The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the category's winner in 2018 and presumptive runner-up last year (when fellow Amazonian Fleabag beat it), and, for its final season, upstart Pop's Schitt's Creek, which bagged an impressive 15 noms. Netflix will surely mount a push for Dead to Me, both leading ladies of which — Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini — were nominated, as will HBO for Insecure, a fellow first-time series nominee. Probably just happy to make the cut are HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm (sans a nom for lead actor Larry David); the outgoing The Good Place; The Kominsky Method, which was expected to be nominated for its first season last year but wasn't and wasn't expected to be nominated for its second season but was; and FX's What We Do in the Shadows, which may have knocked out fellow FX-er Better Things.

The new Emmy category sizes are tied to the number of submissions in a category, which means they in some cases giveth and in other cases taketh away. That's why the variety talk series category shrank from six to five nominees this year, with HBO's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, CBS's The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! and TBS's Full Frontal With Samantha Bee all returning, but CBS's The Late Late Show With James Corden getting the boot. (Also on the sidelines: NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers, as well as the new entry that was a YouTube sensation during the early days of the pandemic, John Krasinski's Some Good News.) Variety sketch series also shrank, from five entries to three, with two perennials — NBC's Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central's Drunk History — joined by HBO's exciting new A Black Lady Sketch Show, from Robin Thede. (Better luck next time, perhaps, for truTV's At Home With Amy Sedaris and Netflix's The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show.)

Perhaps the most impressive category this year was limited series. Watchmen emerges as the clear favorite, not just because of its huge nominations showing, but because Netflix's Unbelievable was unexpectedly kneecapped in the format's lead actress category, with neither Kaitlyn Dever nor Merritt Wever landing noms; perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the show dropped last September and has faded from memory. As expected, FX on Hulu's Mrs. America (with four acting noms) and Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere also found spots. And, in a pleasant surprise, Netflix's understated Unorthodox joins them, outpacing HBO's The Plot Against America, Netflix's Hollywood, Hulu's Normal People and FX on Hulu's Devs, among other worthy alternatives.

The TV movie category was almost entirely owned by Netflix, with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, American Son, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend and Dolly Parton's Heartstrings: These Old Bones. I suspect the likeliest winner, though, is HBO's Bad Education, which originally was to be a theatrically released film. These two facts will no doubt irk Lifetime, which specializes in movies of the week — as in, made-for-TV flicks — like the immensely acclaimed and popular The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel (for which Aunjanue Ellis also deserved an acting nom) and Patsy and Loretta. A pity.

As for the acting races? Lead drama actor is interesting. With Odenkirk out of the mix, and Ozark so very much in it, we will probably see Jason Bateman's first-ever acting win. However, one cannot count out past winners Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) or Billy Porter (Pose), or Succession's two first-time nominees for its second season, Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong, though they are likely to undercut each other's vote totals. The shock nomination in this category was The Morning Show's Steve Carell, who is really a supporting player on that show, unlike, say, The Crown's Tobias Menzies. I must say, it's hard to reconcile how the show could be popular enough for Carell to land a nom but the series not to.

The Morning Show's Jennifer Aniston made the cut in the lead drama actress race — her first nom in 11 years, and first nom for a drama ever — and she stands a much better shot than she would have if co-star Reese Witherspoon had joined her in that race. However, the two Netflix leading ladies, Ozark's Laura Linney and The Crown's Olivia Colman, probably stand a slightly better shot, along with the Killing Eve stars Jodie Comer (last year's surprise winner) and Sandra Oh. The nomination for Euphoria's Zendaya over The Handmaid's Tale's past winner Moss, Westworld's Evan Rachel WoodJanelle Monáe for Amazon's Homecoming and Claire Danes for Showtime's departing Homeland, among others, was not anticipated by many.

Succession, meanwhile, owns the expanded supporting drama actor field with three of the eight slots — Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen — while The Morning Show's Billy Crudup and Mark Duplass, The Handmaid's Tale's Bradley Whitford, Westworld's Jeffrey Wright and Better Call Saul's aforementioned Esposito round out the field. With Better Call Saul's Banks — and Ozark's Tom Pelphrey — surprisingly out of the mix, it's anyone's game: Whitford is a longtime TV Academy favorite, Culkin plays a tremendously colorful character and Esposito is a respected vet who has never won before, so perhaps one of them?

Last year's supporting actress winner, Ozark's Julia Garner, seems likely to repeat, though she is up against heavyweight competition in The Crown's Helena Bonham Carter, Big Little Lies' Meryl Streep and Laura Dern, Westworld's Thandie Newton, Succession's Sarah Snook, The Handmaid's Tale's Samira Wiley and Killing Eve's Fiona Shaw. It's disappointing not to see Cynthia Erivo here for HBO's The Outsider, which, hard to believe, wound up with but a single nom, for Jason Bateman's guest acting.

The lead comedy actor field is the same as last year's — Black-ish's Anthony Anderson, The Good Place's Ted Danson, The Kominsky Method's Michael Douglas and Schitt's Creek's Eugene Levy — save for the winner, Barry's Bill Hader (ineligible this year), being replaced by Ramy's deserving Ramy Youssef, who may actually have a shot of winning, as he did at the Golden Globes, though the odds-on favorite is probably Levy. It was a bit surprising that Curb's David didn't knock someone out, but I somehow don't think he'll be losing sleep over it.

The surprise exclusion of lead comedy actress, meanwhile, was Better Things' Pamela Adlon. That category features four returning nominees — Maisel's 2018 winner Rachel Brosnahan, plus Dead to Me's Applegate, Schitt's Creek's Catherine O'Hara and Black-ish's Tracee Ellis Ross — along with Cardellini and Insecure's Issa Rae, first-timers for those shows. O'Hara, Brosnahan and Rae seem poised to duke it out.

In the comedy supporting categories, Maisel's Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein look well-positioned to repeat. Shalhoub will be up against co-star Sterling K. Brown, Kominsky's Alan Arkin, Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andre Braugher, Ramy's Mahershala Ali and SNL's Kenan Thompson, as well as two first-time acting nominees, The Good Place's William Jackson Harper and Schitt's Creek's Dan Levy. Borstein will face her co-star Marin Hinkle, SNL's past winner Kate McKinnon and her co-star Cecily StrongGLOW's Betty Gilpin, and three first-time acting nominees: The Good Place's D'Arcy Carden, Schitt's Creek's Annie Murphy and Insecure's Yvonne Orji.

The limited series acting categories are all about Watchmen (Jeremy Irons in lead actor; Regina King, who has won three Emmys in the past five years, in lead actress; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jovan Adepo and Louis Gossett Jr., but oddly not Tim Blake Nelson, in supporting actor; and Jean Smart in supporting actress) and Mrs. America (Cate Blanchett in lead actress and Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale and Tracey Ullman in supporting actress).

Among the male leads, Irons will be challenged by Mark Ruffalo for HBO's I Know This Much Is True and Hugh Jackman for Bad Education, Paul Mescal for Normal People and Jeremy Pope for Hollywood. MIA: El Camino's Aaron Paul and The Loudest Voice's Russell Crowe. Of the distaff leads, King and Blanchett are the neck-and-neck frontrunners, especially with the Unbelievable leads sidelined. Little Fires Everywhere's Kerry Washington has a better shot than she would if co-star Witherspoon had been nominated in the same category. Unorthodox's breakout Shira Haas is a long shot. And popular Octavia Spencer, who is always wonderful, will probably be content with a nom, as her show, Netflix's Self Made, was poorly reviewed, and most had regarded Witherspoon and The Clark Sisters' Ellis as likelier nominees.

Watchmen's supporting actor trio will face two Hollywood stars, Jim Parsons and Dylan McDermott, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's Tituss Burgess, which seems too close to call. And Watchmen's supporting actress nominee Smart, whose performance has already been recognized with the Critics' Choice Award, will probably face her strongest threat from Unbelievable's Toni Collette, rather than the Mrs. America quartet (how does one pick among them?) or Hollywood's revered vet Holland Taylor. (It was a bit surprising to see TV Academy's fave Allison Janney miss for Bad Education, along with Watchmen's Hong Chau.)

A few other random facts: Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are nominees for best cinematography for a nonfiction program, Apollo 11; the Oscars, Golden Globes and Tonys are nominated for an Emmy — best variety special (live); film Academy president David Rubin is a nominee for best casting of a drama series, Big Little Lies; double acting nominees include Bateman, Brown, Esposito (also up for guest acting in The Mandalorian) and Maya Rudolph (guest acting in The Good Place and SNL); Dave Chappelle, between his Sticks & Stones Netflix special and his Kennedy Center Honors special, is associated with two of the five variety special (pre-recorded) nominees; two former first ladies are the subject of nominated docs, Hillary Clinton (Hulu's limited series Hillary) and Michelle Obama (Netflix's documentary or nonfiction special Becoming); the late Lynn Shelton received a directing nom for Little Fires Everywhere and the late Fred Willard received a guest acting nom for Modern Family; and four of the seven main title nominees — Carnival Row, The Morning Show, The Politician and Watchmen — were produced by Angus Wall's Elastic Studios.