Abrams, the voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, received a nomination for her guest turn on ABC’s “Black-ish.” But six of the seven shows with the most nods were marquee titles on streaming platforms — “The Crown” (Netflix), “The Mandalorian” (Disney Plus), “WandaVision” (Disney Plus), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu), “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV Plus) and “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix) — with “Saturday Night Live” (NBC) the lone exception.
The Emmys — which will air Sept. 19 on CBS — aren’t exactly a reliable barometer for excellence, with too many smaller shows, like “P-Valley” and “Philly D.A.,” falling through the cracks. The best case that can be made for the awards in 2021, when the TV landscape has been irreparably fragmented not just by demographics but by subscriber base, is that it helps solidify a reigning canon of water-cooler shows. And if the goal is to help TV become a community-building medium again, the 2021 slate of nominations are more than sufficient, collecting the highlights of the past year on TV and reflecting how scattered they are across various channels and services.
The once stodgy Television Academy, which votes on the Emmys, continued its recent trend of recognizing new hits and zeitgeist-capturing programming. Whereas breakout series once had to wait until their sophomore seasons for the Emmys to take notice, first-season shows like “Ted Lasso,” “Bridgerton” and “Hacks” had no trouble distinguishing themselves this year. (It may have helped that academy voters, like the general public, watched a lot more TV in the past year because of quarantine.) Other pop-cultural phenomena heeded by the Emmys: “Hamilton” (Disney Plus), “Bo Burnham: Inside” (Netflix), “Oprah With Harry and Meghan” (CBS) and the “Friends” reunion on HBO Max (though notably not the genuinely news-making “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion on the same platform).
“Game of Thrones” may have left behind a permanent change to the Emmys’ drama category. Based on this year’s nominees, at least, science fiction and fantasy seem to have shed entirely the longtime perception of their being lesser genres. Four rather different sci-fi shows made the cut this year: the superhero dystopia “The Boys” (Amazon Prime), the feminist nightmare “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Star Wars space western “The Mandalorian,” and the race-conscious road-trip series “Lovecraft Country” (HBO). The rest of the drama nods went to period pieces: the Austen-on-steroids “Bridgerton,” the time-hopping weepie “This Is Us” (NBC), the Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher chapter of “The Crown,” and the recently concluded final season of “Pose” (FX), which racked up nods for its stars Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez, the first lead trans actress to nab an Emmy nod. Next year, though, expect the return of the iron fist of 2020’s victor, the Murdoch-inspired family saga “Succession” (HBO).
In recent years, category fraud and wildly disparate tastes in humor have made the Emmys comedy race a site of unchecked chaos. This year is no different, with a network stalwart like “Black-ish” going head to head against new favorites like the “Karate Kid” sequel “Cobra Kai” (Netflix) and the American-in-England soccer comedy “Ted Lasso,” as well as niche critical darlings like the standup dramedy “Hacks” (HBO Max) and the puberty cringefest “PEN15” (Hulu).
I still don’t know a single soul who watches the Michael Douglas headliner “The Kominsky Method,” nor anyone who unironically binged the blandly aspirational yet scandal-plagued “Emily in Paris.” Yet both were nominated alongside the extremely fun (and extremely not a comedy) murder mystery “The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max). But even with the biggest proportion of streaming shows among the Emmy’s three major categories (drama, comedy and limited/anthology series), the comedy race apparently found Peacock a bridge too far, with no nods for the instantly beloved pop satire “Girls5eva,” with its breakout star, Renée Elise Goldsberry, receiving her sole nomination for “Hamilton.” Nor was there any rekindled affection for the muted (and self-indulgent) third season of “Master of None” (Netflix), a former Emmys favorite, which perhaps pivoted too far from its original concept for academy voters to remember why they fell in love in the first place.
The late-night category became all-male once again, with “Conan” supplanting “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” in the talk-show race alongside “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” Notably, the two high-profile female-centric entrants into the late night world, “Ziwe” and “The Amber Ruffin Show,” chose to compete in the variety sketch series category, which only anointed two nominees anyway: “Saturday Night Live” and the frequently hilarious but fatally outmatched “A Black Lady Sketch Show” (HBO).
But female protagonists had a lock on the limited or anthology series race, a notably somber category that had trauma as a through line among the nominees. Genre-bending shows like the sexual-assault meditation “I May Destroy You” and the sitcoms-and-superheroes mash-up “WandaVision” (Disney Plus) made up the lighter end of a category that also included the small-town crime drama “Mare of Easttown” (HBO), the chess-prodigy tale “The Queen’s Gambit” and Amazon Prime’s harrowing slave-fugitive drama “Underground Railroad” (the only one of these shows to not have its lead actress nominated).
And while “The Undoing” may have given HBO its biggest ratings since “Big Little Lies,” the anticlimactic mystery was snubbed, as was star Nicole Kidman (though co-star Hugh Grant received a nod). Also unrecognized were “Small Axe” (Amazon Prime), which may have suffered from category confusion, especially with promotional materials calling it a series of five films, and the truly transcendent John Brown bio-series “The Good Lord Bird,” which boasted an equally impressive (and equally ignored) lead performance by Ethan Hawke.
It would’ve been an embarrassment to have missed the trigger for one of the biggest showbiz stories in ages. Thankfully, the academy seems to have been just as rapt as the rest of us were.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)