DANIEL FIENBERG We’ve known since last fall that the story of the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards will be “change.” No one who landed an Emmy in a major acting, writing, directing, or series category last year would not be eligible to repeat.
Yes, this year is a chance for a change, and with that in mind, let me stress the following: The limited series / anthologies category is where the stars and the best things on TV are found. This is home to my favorite show of 2020 (HBO’s I can destroy you) and the most essential thing I looked at in 2021 (Amazon The Underground Railroad). Six months ago, it looked like this could be a lockdown for Netflix The Queen’s Gambit, but this is definitely no longer the case.
ROBYN BAHR I totally agree: Limited editions are where the most innovative work in television takes place. With a saving of time and a focused story, the writers have proven that six to 10 episodes can be sculpted into something powerful and whole.
Gambit-mania seemed to peak right around her Golden Globes and SAG Award wins, and since then, Easttown mare was the “It” series. I almost forgot that I can destroy you, which arrived a year ago, is only eligible for rewards now due to wobbly submission cycles. Designer and star Michaela Coel just cleaned up at the BAFTA Television Awards, and after being snubbed at the Golden Globes just before the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s seismic implosion, an Emmy win would be like the icing on the cake.
I would like to see HBO Max It’s a sin and Showtime’s The good Lord bird shine during awards season. The two take a brutal subject – Britain’s AIDS epidemic and the American abolitionist movement, respectively – and create watchable stories through comically authentic characterizations. All It’s a sin The set is Emmy-worthy to me, although I’d especially love to see dynamic frontman Olly Alexander, heartbreaking supporting player Callum Scott Howells and guest star Neil Patrick Harris receive nominations. As for The good Lord bird, the insanely absurd chemistry between Joshua Caleb Johnson and Ethan Hawke deserves a serious Emmy love. And I can’t forget to mention WandaVisionIt’s Paul Bettany and Kathryn Hahn, who sort of make a cerebral android and ex-witch sexy as hell.
FIENBERG The good Lord bird seems to have lost some buzz despite his National Book Award winning pedigree and a wonderful supporting performance from Daveed Diggs as the hilarious and vigorous Frederick Douglass. I’m with you that It’s a sin worth looking at series, writing, and acting names – don’t forget Lydia West as Saint Jill or Keeley Hawes’ brief but devastating turn as a mom in denial. You almost have to tell people that Russell T. Davies’ often-cheerful 50-something isn’t as miserable as they might think.
I’m still a big fan of The Queen’s Gambitis polished, literate entertainment for adults, and I think Anya Taylor-Joy is more essential to the success of this series than Kate Winslet is for. Mare. I compared the mature appeal of The Queen’s Gambit to Netflix The crown, which looks like a lock in almost every dramatic category – and that’s largely 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 seem light to me. The Handmaid’s Tale and Pose sure don’t feel light but are more hit and miss now than they did in their prime – not that I’ll quibble with the gratitude of Elisabeth Moss or Billy Porter. Voters have better options. Katori Hall’s, new Pulitzer Prize winner Valley-P is distinctive, raunchy, and alive in a way few shows can match. Apple TV + For all mankind is a slow-building beauty with excellent all-round distribution. Processing 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 Valley-P! Nicco Annan as queer mother hen from a Mississippi strip club and Brandee Evans as a retired ballet dancer are what Emmy dreams are made of – both are extremely funny and passionate.
Otherwise, the theater category is feeling tired this year, with mainstays lingering like alumni staying on campus after graduation (It’s us, The Handmaid’s Tale, Pose) and new blood seeping in like overly green freshmen (Bridgerton, Nevers, Perry mason, Mosquito Coast). The only staple that really impressed me was The crown.
Does the deliciously horrible The boys breakthrough? Few shows of 2020 shocked, scared, or invigorated me more than Amazon’s brutally subversive superhero drama. Exploring what the United States would really look like if superheroes existed, the series is a Hollywood socio-political satire that harpoons the greedy hypocrisy endemic to American culture. Gore is first, Aya Cash as a neo-Nazi supervillain is the best villain I’ve seen in years, and Antony Starr, who plays a twisted type of Captain America, is both vulnerable and terrifying.
FIENBERG I would honor something like Lovecraft Country for the audacity in his pastiche horror-social drama. Its highs are insanely high, but for a show that hasn’t aired since last fall and hasn’t been renewed, it might as well be in the limited realm. At the same time, I would almost guarantee that if Winslet utters the word, with a Delco accent, HBO would do a second. Mare season like this – and it could do better in the dramatic categories.
We should thank our lucky stars who Hacks came to give Ted lasso some competition in the comedy categories. Pre-Hacks, the main rival was The stewardess, a show that is much more of a soapy drama than a comedy. Kaley Cuoco’s career-redefining turn of producer-star deserves something brilliant, but let’s face it: she suffers from not being Jean Smart.
We’re heading into one of the worst lead actor areas in a comedy in Emmy history. Jason Sudeikis is unbeatable, and Academy organizers should realize that if voters resort to shows like Kenan or Mr. Mayor – and I love Kenan Thompson and Ted Danson – maybe it would be best not to bother to try.
BAHR I have a wishful thinking candidate that will make you wince: Chad! I found TBS’s coming-of-age comedy absolutely charming thanks to the bold writing and lead performance of Nasim Pedrad as a 14 year old Persian American boy who is both too immature and too arrogant. to go from nerd to hottie. Pedrad completely blends into the role – all the petulant tears and unwieldy plagues – and is just as breathtaking as 30-something Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing college kids on PEN15, a show so good, so real, that I can’t help but scream on TV while watching it (in distress or joy).
A look back at Jean Smart, my official crush of 2021. What I like Hacks isn’t just how much she plays the va-va-voom Vegas comic book Deborah Vance, but how much she plays Deborah Vance playing the character of Deborah Vance. Smart can play the part of an aging diva, but what surprises me is how well she masters the rhythms of her character’s stand-up comedy. Let’s not forget Deborah’s glitz in Ava, Hannah Einbinder’s Gen Z actress. Einbinder takes a lot of punches playing a boring upstart, but his adept grimace makes Smart shine in comparison.
Where Mike Schur’s comedies get sweet, exploring how stubborn people learn to grow up, Tina Fey’s comedies get sour, exploring how betas learn to wield power – see Peacock’s Rutherford Falls and Girls5eva. Rutherford Falls talks about a city that takes into account the impact of its colonial history on its indigenous population, particularly through the sidekick-mentor relationship between a museum coordinator and its casino boss (stars Jana Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes). Although this show is more stimulating than funny, Girls5eva, following a group of women in their 40s reconnecting with pop stardom, is so stuffed with lines, on-sight gags, and jokes in jokes that it’s impossible to watch every episode just one. time.
FIENBERG I was not a supporter of Chad, but in a year of weak comedy, I can back anything with genuine audience passion, even if that means we have hopes for, say, Ralph Macchio in Cobra Kai. Could such an undersized dedicated audience be beneficial for something like Apple TV + Mythic Quest, with its under-the-radar mix of nerdiness and sensitivity? Can some voters look past some off-putting tones to see how brilliant Cristin Milioti and Ray Romano are in techno-satire? Made for love or how cleverly Dickinson playing with semi-real literary history? Will voters want to stick it to NBC to cancel Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, one of the most inspired shows broadcast?
There are ways to save the comedy categories. It’s just going to take some effort – and who trusts Emmy voters to do the job?
This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.