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The 2021 Emmys were always going to be an exercise in anarchy. Between an eligibility window marred by COVID-impacted disappearances — count Atlanta, Succession, Euphoria, Ozark and Better Call Saul among shows taking the year off — and the conclusion of other favorites, there won’t be a single acting or series winner available to repeat in the drama, comedy or limited fields.
On the comedy side, that vacuum was largely caused by the end of Schitt’s Creek, which celebrated an unprecedented sweep last fall. But that’s only a start. For various reasons, the only 2020 comedy series nominee to even air in this Emmy period was The Kominsky Method. No enthusiasm was curbed, no things were done in the shadows, and Mrs. Maisel got no opportunity to be marvelous.
This presents an opportunity — an opportunity for disaster. Emmy voters have the very real chance to either infuse an already moribund category with intriguing, edgy new life or reduce an entire Emmy field to obsolescence.
Maybe, if we’re being completely honest, the latter sort of slash-and-burn approach is necessary anyway. It seems close to inevitable that the cast of Saturday Night Live could land as many as a half-dozen actors in a supporting field in which they clearly shouldn’t be eligible, and maybe what it will take to instigate some sort of new “best performance in a variety or sketch series” category would be shutting out dozens of supporting actors from worthy shows.
Some consideration also needs to be given to the proliferation of limited series and what it means that two of the best half-hour shows in the eligibility field — I May Destroy You and WandaVision — are “limited series” and not “comedies,” despite not being inherently close-ended stories. Granted, neither show would clearly be a comedy anyway. Then again, neither is The Flight Attendant, but the HBO Max series has such a funny beginning and star Kaley Cuoco is so versatile that we’re willing to ignore that it’s a dark alcoholic murder mystery by the end.
For months, the Emmy race for comedy series appeared to be boiling down to Ted Lasso and … well, that’s it. Ted Lasso. The heartwarming Apple TV+ series and uplifting meme generator has been treated as such a foregone conclusion that it’s almost like nobody else needs to show up. I don’t fully object, but I hope the Lasso love extends to the farthest reaches of the terrific ensemble — not just Jason Sudeikis and Hannah Waddingham, but Juno Temple, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt and Nick Mohammed.
Recent arrivals like HBO Max’s Hacks and Netflix’s Master of None — talk about a show that has been completely miscategorized for a third season that’s wholly dramatic — might help provide options, but Emmy voters may need to dig deeper to find even a modicum more of relevance.
What shows would this critic suggest voters check out to avoid resorting to something like Young Rock just because it would be nice to see Regular-Age Rock on the red carpet? I’d start with Hulu’s PEN15, which launched as a show with a gimmick — 30-something stars masquerading as teens, but not in a creepy Dear Evan Hansen way — but has become one of the most perceptive, painful and funny explorations of adolescence to grace the screen. NBC’s Superstore didn’t have its best year, but who among us did? The smart working-class sitcom handled COVID-19 well, and this is the last chance to recognize it. Apple TV+’s Dickinson became wilder and more consistent in its second season, Peacock’s Girls5eva delivered actual and frequent laughs. And yes, Hacks is quite good, gets better with each episode and should be saluted for more than just Jean Smart.
By all means, though, salute Jean Smart. It just happens that if any category has potential to overflow, it’s comedy actress — where once again I’d say any field should start with PEN15 stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both so vulnerable and so perfectly ridiculous. Emmy voters missed out on Jane Levy last year, but the Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist star remains impeccably joyful and fragile in her NBC bubble show, which could really use the boost — so don’t forget about co-stars Alex Newell and John Clarence Stewart. Speaking of forgetting, Emmy voters have a tendency to nominate Cristin Milioti’s male co-stars but not her, yet it should be obvious how integral she is to the deadpan absurdity of HBO Max’s Made for Love.
All that is without getting to a never-better Alia Shawkat in HBO Max’s Search Party, Girls5eva standout Renée Elise Goldsberry, super-likable first-timer Jana Schmieding of Rutherford Falls or Charlotte Nicdao, the heart and soul of Mythic Quest on Apple TV+.
There are so many tremendous comic actresses out there that my next proposal is to just give Ted Lasso star Sudeikis his Emmy now and expand the actress nominees to 15. Sudeikis can’t be beaten. That actor field is so weak, it may be time to start asking: Can men actually be funny? But that’s a different column.
This story first appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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