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If last year’s Emmys were the first proof that a pandemic-era awards show is possible, this year’s will highlight the entertainment we consumed during all that time spent at home — and based on the nominations, it seems many of us turned to television as a means of escape.
Ted Lasso is the clear frontrunner in the comedy race with 20 noms, setting a record for the most-nominated freshman comedy in history. But the success of the Apple TV+ show — which stars Jason Sudeikis as a happy-go-lucky American soccer coach who travels across the pond to lead a struggling English football club — stems from its summer 2020 launch amid the COVID-19 pandemic when collective morale seemed at an all-time low. Its kill-them-with-kindness brand of comedy, which in turn pokes fun at the toxic masculinity of the sports world, represents a dramatic shift in the comedy race. It’s hard to imagine Ted Lasso faring well against Veep‘s cynical political satire (that show earned three consecutive series wins between 2015 and 2017) or the edgy, sophisticated critical favorites The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag, which won in 2018 and 2019, respectively. As endearing as last year’s winner, Schitt’s Creek, could be, there’s no way David Rose would have been able to glance at Ted Lasso’s homemade “Believe” poster without snickering.
While Ted Lasso is not without its harder edges, its protagonist’s unbreakable optimism and uncanny talent for finding the best in others give the show a surprising wholesome quality. No other comedy series this year is as kindhearted, including returnees Black-ish (with a third series nom for ABC) and Netflix’s The Kominsky Method (its second). HBO Max’s Hacks has a mean streak that rivals the biting material of Deborah Vance, the Vegas stand-up played by Jean Smart; The Flight Attendant, also on HBO Max, mixes irreverence with the macabre in its mystery series; Hulu’s delightfully weird PEN15 sees co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle mining the indignities of adolescence for uncomfortable laughs.
The two biggest surprises in the comedy category also represent the power of populist programming amid a particularly challenging year. Netflix’s Emily in Paris, which sees a naive young woman from the Midwest seeking adventure abroad, is pure escapism — a lighthearted and low-stakes tour through the City of Light that gave viewers the European vacations they were missing amid quarantines. (Critics, however, found it lacking in depth.) Meanwhile, Karate Kid sequel Cobra Kai elevated itself beyond a cult favorite martial arts comedy to a bona fide contender with its third season; the move from YouTube Red to Netflix no doubt raised its profile. Neither show, however, received noms for its cast or writing, lowering their chances for a big win.
Netflix’s top dramatic offerings are nearly as frothy. Just as real-life royal drama captured attention on both sides of the Atlantic this year — Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s bombshell sit-down with Oprah Winfrey also earned a nod — the fourth season of The Crown regurgitated the ’80s tabloid fodder of Charles and Diana’s disastrous marriage for a new generation of royal obsessives — and led to the cast bringing in nine of the acting category’s 24 noms.
The Shonda Rhimes-produced Bridgerton, an instant success upon its Christmas 2020 launch (and Netflix’s most watched series ever), is just as juicy and melodramatic as the streamer’s other series set within the English aristocracy. But the fresh take on the Regency era — with its diverse cast, a pop music-inspired soundtrack and an over-the-top sex appeal that satisfied the most insatiable romance buffs — follows a pop cultural trend that brings new life and contemporary attitudes to a formerly stodgy costume drama genre. (See also: Disney+’s Hamilton, which nabbed 12 Emmy noms six years after the musical debuted on Broadway in 2015.)
“Drama” can hardly be considered a reliable description this year, as the category includes three sci-fi/fantasy series in its lineup. Game of Thrones may have opened the field when it earned its first of four series wins in 2015. (In 2017, the debut of genre fresh takes in Westworld and Stranger Things may have pulled voters away from HBO’s fantasy series — the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale took home the prize that year.) This year, Amazon Prime’s The Boys, HBO’s Lovecraft Country and Disney+’s The Mandalorian earned series noms, with HBO’s horror-drama also earning noms for stars Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Michael K. Williams and Aunjanue Ellis. But while Lovecraft‘s gore and scares may be shocking features for a drama nominee, it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the real world, tackling the realities of racism in America more aggressively than series lacking time travel, witchcraft and monsters. The Boys, an hourlong superhero satire, also serves as a critique of American imperialism and nationalism while skewering the comic book genre in ways the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t dare. And The Mandalorian? The most escapist of the bunch, complete with the coos of a little green Grogu.
Considerably less escapist are such Trump-era holdovers as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and FX’s Pose, one a terrifying fantasy of dystopian fascism, the other a period-set celebration of queerness and chosen family. Both are beloved by critics and audiences alike and seem engineered to speak to our complex political era (despite neither being set in the present day). Lastly, NBC’s This Is Us is the sole broadcast network show to earn a drama series nom, but its fifth season is not nearly as buzzy as its competition.
Notably absent from the drama race this year are the dark, anti-hero-driven shows served up by television’s household-name-level auteur class (the likes of Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner and Beau Willimon) that have ruled the Emmys over the past decade — but that’s why the limited series category exists, as A-list creative and acting talents have flocked to one-and-done series. HBO’s Mare of Easttown has much in common with True Detective (a drama nominee in 2014), while The Queen’s Gambit‘s stylish period setting and complicated protagonist recall four-time drama series winner Mad Men. The three other nominees — HBO’s I May Destroy You, Amazon’s The Underground Railroad and Disney+’s WandaVision — round out a category dominated by female-led stories of trauma and recovery. If such material is reserved for the limited series, maybe it’s because audiences want that darkness in concentrated doses. It’s a dark and dreary world out there, and viewers more than ever want to tune out while they tune in.
This story first appeared in the July 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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