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DANIEL FIENBERG We’ve known since last fall that the story of the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards will be “change.” Nobody who snagged an Emmy in any major acting, writing, directing or series category last year would be eligible to repeat.
Yes, this year is a chance for change, and in that spirit, let me emphasize the following: The limited/anthology series category is where the stars and the best things on TV are. It’s home to my favorite show of 2020 (HBO’s I May Destroy You) and the most essential thing I’ve watched in 2021 (Amazon’s The Underground Railroad). Six months ago, it seemed as if it might be a lock for Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, but it definitely doesn’t anymore.
ROBYN BAHR I couldn’t agree more: Limited series are where TV’s most innovative work is happening. With an economy of time and a focused story, auteurs have proved that six to 10 episodes can be sculpted into something forceful and whole.
Gambit-mania seemed to peak right around its Golden Globe and SAG Award wins, and since then, Mare of Easttown has been the “It” series. I nearly forgot that I May Destroy You, which arrived a full year ago, is only just now eligible for awards due to wonky submission cycles. Creator and star Michaela Coel just cleaned up at the BAFTA Television Awards, and after she was snubbed at the Golden Globes just ahead of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s seismic implosion, an Emmy win would feel like the icing on the cake.
I’d love to see HBO Max’s It’s a Sin and Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird shine during awards season. Both take brutal subject matter — the AIDS epidemic in Britain and the American abolition movement, respectively — and create watchable stories through comically authentic characterizations. The entire It’s a Sin ensemble is Emmy-worthy to me, though I’d especially love to see dynamic lead Olly Alexander, heart-wrenching supporting player Callum Scott Howells and knife-sharp guest star Neil Patrick Harris receive nominations. As for The Good Lord Bird, the fantastically absurd chemistry between Joshua Caleb Johnson and Ethan Hawke deserves serious Emmy love. And I can’t forget to mention WandaVision‘s Paul Bettany and Kathryn Hahn, who somehow render a cerebral android and an ancient witch sexy as hell.
FIENBERG The Good Lord Bird seems to have lost a bit of buzz despite its National Book Award-winning pedigree and a wonderful supporting performance from Daveed Diggs as a hilariously lusty Frederick Douglass. I’m with you that It’s a Sin deserves to be looking at series, writing and acting noms — don’t forget Lydia West as the saintly Jill or Keeley Hawes’ brief-but-devastating turn as a mom in denial. You almost have to tell people that Russell T. Davies’ frequently joyful five-parter isn’t as miserable as they might fear.
I’m still a big fan of The Queen’s Gambit‘s polished, literate entertainment for grown-ups, and I think Anya Taylor-Joy is more indispensable to that series’ success than Kate Winslet is to Mare. I’ve compared the mature appeal of The Queen’s Gambit to Netflix’s The Crown, which looks like a lock in nearly every drama category — and that’s in large part because its rivals are so flawed.
Speaking of drama series, there’s nothing wrong with the popcorn pleasures of Bridgerton or The Mandalorian, but they feel light to me. The Handmaid’s Tale and Pose definitely don’t feel light but are more hit-and-miss now than they were at their peaks — not that I’ll quibble with recognition for Elisabeth Moss or Billy Porter. Voters have better options. New Pulitzer Prize winner Katori Hall’s P-Valley is distinctive, raunchy and alive in a way few shows can match. Apple TV+’s For All Mankind is a slow-building beauty with a great ensemble cast. In Treatment should at least land in acting conversations for Uzo Aduba, John Benjamin Hickey and Anthony Ramos.
BAHR Don’t get me started on the Shakespearean brilliance of P-Valley! Nicco Annan as a Mississippi strip club’s gender-queer mother hen and Brandee Evans as a retiring star dancer are what Emmy dreams are made of — both are searingly funny and heart-rendingly impassioned.
Otherwise, the drama category feels fatigued this year, with stalwarts lingering like alumni who stick around campus after graduating (This Is Us, The Handmaid’s Tale, Pose) and new blood creeping in like too-green freshmen (Bridgerton, The Nevers, Perry Mason, The Mosquito Coast). The only staple that truly wowed me was The Crown.
Can the deliciously gruesome The Boys break through? Few 2020 shows shocked, frightened or invigorated me more than Amazon’s brutally subversive superhero dramedy. Exploring what the U.S. would really look like if superheroes existed, the series is a sociopolitical Hollywood satire that harpoons the greedy insincerity endemic to American culture. The gore is primo, Aya Cash as a neo-Nazi supervillain is the best baddie I’ve seen in years, and Antony Starr, who plays a twisted Captain America type, is both vulnerable and terrifying.
FIENBERG I’d honor something like Lovecraft Country for the audacity in its horror-social drama pastiche. Its highs are incredibly high, but for a show that hasn’t aired since last fall and hasn’t been renewed, it could just as easily be in the limited field. At the same time, I’d almost guarantee that if Winslet says the word, in a Delco accent, HBO would make a second Mare season like that — and it might do better in the drama categories.
We should thank our lucky stars that Hacks came along to give Ted Lasso some competition in the comedy categories. Pre-Hacks, the leading rival was The Flight Attendant, a show that’s much more of a soapy drama than a comedy. Kaley Cuoco’s career-redefining producer-star turn deserves something shiny, but let’s face it: She suffers from not being Jean Smart.
We are heading toward one of the worst lead-actor-in-a-comedy fields in Emmy history. Jason Sudeikis is unbeatable, and Academy organizers should realize that if voters are resorting to shows like Kenan or Mr. Mayor — and I love Kenan Thompson and Ted Danson — it might be better to just not bother trying.
BAHR I’ve got a wishful-thinking contender that’ll make you wince: Chad! I found TBS’ coming-of-age comedy absolutely charming thanks to bold writing and Nasim Pedrad’s lead performance as a 14-year-old Persian-American boy who’s both too immature and too priggish to make the leap from nerd to hottie. Pedrad completely melts into the role — all petulant tears and unwieldy flails — and is just as mind-blowing as 30-somethings Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing middle schoolers on PEN15, a show that is so good, so real, that I can’t help but scream at the TV while watching (in either distress or joy).
Back to Jean Smart, my official crush of 2021. What I love about Hacks isn’t just how well she plays the va-va-voom Vegas comic Deborah Vance, but how well she plays Deborah Vance playing the Deborah Vance persona. Smart can nail the aging diva role, but what floors me is how expertly she nails the rhythms of her character’s stand-up comedy. Let’s not forget Deborah’s foil in Hannah Einbinder’s Gen Z comedy writer Ava. Einbinder takes a lot of punches playing an annoying arriviste, but her adept grimness allows Smart to glitter by comparison.
Where Mike Schur comedies get to be sweet, exploring how stubborn people learn to grow, Tina Fey comedies get to be sour, digging into how betas learn to wield power — see Peacock’s Rutherford Falls and Girls5eva. Rutherford Falls is about a town reckoning with how its colonial history has impacted its Native population, especially through the acolyte-mentor relationship between a museum coordinator and her casino-running boss (standouts Jana Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes). While that show is more stimulating than funny, Girls5eva, following a group of 40-something women re-navigating pop stardom, is so packed with one-liners, sight gags and jokes-within-jokes that it’s impossible to watch each episode just once.
FIENBERG I was not a supporter of Chad, but in a weak comedy year, I can get behind anything with true audience passion, even if that means we’re entertaining hopes for, say, Ralph Macchio in Cobra Kai. Could a dedicated-if-undersized audience be beneficial for something like Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest, with its under-the-radar blend of nerdiness and sensitivity? Can some voters look past some off-putting tones to see how brilliant Cristin Milioti and Ray Romano are in the techno-satire Made for Love or how cleverly Dickinson plays with semi-real literary history? Will any voters want to stick it to NBC for canceling Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, one of the most inspired shows on broadcast?
There are ways to salvage the comedy categories. It’s just going to take some effort — and who trusts Emmy voters to do the work?
This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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