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Emmys 2021: What We Watched During the Pandemic

Jason Sudeikis (l.) and Hannah Waddingham in Ted Lasso
Jason Sudeikis (l.) and Hannah Waddingham in comedy Emmy contender ‘Ted Lasso.’ (Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

From Ted Lasso’s relentless optimism to The Underground Railroad’s devastating storytelling, from Bridgerton’s frothy romance to The Handmaid’s Tale’s wrenching violence, this year’s Emmy-nominated shows all reflect the constantly changing culture in their own unique ways. In a time where audiences mostly consume their entertainment on demand from their homes, these are the shows that stood out.

The outstanding drama nominees reveal the true range of television in 2021, with romance, science fiction, superheroes, family drama and historical drama all in play. 

Stacked Field for Drama 

Netflix’s The Crown — with 24 nominations in 2021, including for outstanding drama series — is the favorite to finally win the top drama Emmy after the show has been nominated for each of its four seasons. Season four began telling the tortured story of Prince Charles and Princess Diana with lead actor and actress nominees Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin channeling their royal counterparts through nuanced performances. 

While season four of The Crown is set in London in the ’80s, the story it told was remarkably resonant, especially as Charles and Diana’s son, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, struggled to redefine their own relationship with Buckingham Palace. 

Disney Plus’s The Mandalorian, in season two, tied The Crown with 24 nominations, many of which are in the craft and technical categories.

Coming in with 21 nominations is Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a show that continues to feel prescient as politics divides the country. The Handmaid’s Tale was named outstanding drama in its first season, which premiered in April 2017.

The Handmaid’s Tale came to life as we were seeing the rise of the far right throughout the world, and then [Donald] Trump made it to the White House,” executive producer Warren Littlefield said. “Hulu decided that they had a show that spoke to the moment and they promoted us in the Super Bowl. In many ways, we’ve been seen as a voice of the resistance against what we were experiencing here in the U.S. and what people were feeling throughout the world.”

In season four, Handmaid Offred (star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss) is dealing with the ramifications of helping many of Gilead’s children escape across the border to Canada and trying to escape herself, even though that means leaving her own children. 

“June’s journey to freedom as she is getting through that compound where bodies are just desperate to get out — when that boat pulls away, in our visual narrative, people are throwing themselves to try and touch that freedom, which June is fortunate enough to get,” Littlefield said. “We’re living a version of that as we look at Afghanistan and realize what all those people are going through. We don’t predict the future … [but] we seem to echo the world that we inhabit. I hope we bring a sense of the fight against those who oppress us and against authoritarian regimes, both foreign and domestic.” 

Also nominated for best drama series are Netflix’s Bridgerton, HBO’s Lovecraft
Country
, FX’s Pose, Amazon’s The Boys and NBC’s This Is Us, which returns to the category after missing in 2020. All  of those shows in their own ways deal with issues of race, class, identity and social justice.

Olivia Colman in The Crown

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown (Image credit: Netflix)

Lead actress in a drama series is a stacked category, including awards heavy-hitters Olivia Colman, playing Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Moss, who won the Emmy in this category in the show’s first season. Even with those two in the mix, the front-runners are two Emmy newcomers: The Crown’s Corrin, who won the Golden Globe, and Pose’s M.J. Rodriguez, who made history as the first transgender actress to be nominated in this category. Also nominated are In Treatment’s three-time Emmy winner Uzo Aduba and Lovecraft Country’s Jurnee Smollett.

Josh O’Connor, like his Crown counterpart Emma Corrin, has a good shot at taking the win for lead actor in a drama series, with Billy Porter of FX’s Pose, a former winner in this category, also considered a contender. Bridgerton’s instant star, Regé-Jean Page, could also grab a win here. Also nominated are Perry Mason’s Matthew Rhys, who won an Emmy in 2018 for FX’s The Americans; Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors, who is about to star as the next major villain in the Marvel Universe; and two-time Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown for This Is Us.

‘Lasso’ a Comedy Favorite

Apple TV Plus’s sunny sensation Ted Lasso is almost the universal pick to sweep the comedy categories. Like Schitt’s Creek last year, Ted Lasso, which was developed out of a popular branded content piece for NBC Sports, provided audiences with a much-needed break from the unrelenting bad news of politics and the pandemic. 

Also nominated outstanding comedy series are ABC’s perennially nominated Black-ish; Netflix’s Cobra Kai, which it picked up from YouTube and just renewed for season five ahead of the season four debut; Netflix’s Emily in Paris; Hulu’s Pen15 and Netflix’s The Kominsky Method

All that Lasso love also puts series star, co-creator and executive producer Jason Sudeikis in the hot seat to repeat his Golden Globe victory with an Emmy. Much of Lasso’s supporting cast is also nominated, including Hannah Waddingham, Juno Temple, Brett Goldstein, co-creator Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammad and Jeremy Swift.

Joining Sudeikis in the lead actor in a comedy category are Black-ish’s Anthony Anderson, Kenan’s Kenan Thompson, Shameless’s William H. Macy and The Kominsky Method’s Michael Douglas. 

A late entry to the comedy field is HBO Max’s Hacks, starring lead actress nominee Jean Smart and supporting actress nominee Hannah Einbinder. Hacks, about an aging comedian and the cynical young woman who helps her freshen her act, premiered on HBO Max on May 13, just before the Emmy eligibility deadline closed on May 31. Nominated alongside Hacks is HBO Max sibling The Flight Attendant, starring and executive produced by Kaley Cuoco. 

Besides Smart and Cuoco, also nominated are Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross, Shrill’s Aidy Bryant and Mom’s Allison Janney, a previous winner for this role. Side note: Saturday Night Live cast members past and present cleaned up at this year’s Emmy nominations, with Thompson and Bryant also nominated in the supporting categories for Saturday Night Live, along with Bowen Yang, Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong. Filling out the supporting actor category is Hacks’s Carl Clemons-Hopkins and The Kominsky Method’s Paul Reiser. On the actress side is Rosie Perez for The Flight Attendant.

Because of their limited purviews, limited series are often the most incisive of the scripted series, telling intense stories quickly and with purpose.

Limited series is the only one of the major three series categories that seems to be a true toss-up. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit won Golden Globes for limited series and for lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy. But the chess-focused drama didn’t have to face HBO’s I May You Destroy You, which won a Peabody and was considered by many critics to be 2020’s best show but was ignored by the Hollywood Foreign Press, or HBO’s Mare of Easttown, which offered powerhouse performances from a trio of actresses: Kate Winslet in the title role, Jean Smart as Mare’s mom and Julianne Nicholson as Mare’s best friend. 

All three series — as well as Amazon’s The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s best-selling novel and created, directed and executive produced by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), and Disney Plus’s genre-bending WandaVision — are in the mix for the win.

‘Mare’ a Complex Contender

Mare of Easttown, starring and executive produced by Kate Winslet, tells the story of a woman who’s lived her whole life in a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania and has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a detective. As the story unfolds, so does the trauma that Mare has had to endure as she married and raised children herself. The story also includes many twists and turns as Mare tries to solve two cases that have affected her personally.

Kate Winslet in HBO's 'Mare of Easttown'

Kate Winslet in HBO’s Mare of Easttown. (Image credit: HBO)

“It’s never been on my mind to make something relevant, it’s not how I go about crafting stories,” show creator Brad Inglesby said. “What I try to do is write something, a character, a world with as much honesty as I can and as many specifics as I can and hope that if I’ve achieved that, then the honesty of that world will come through and impact people emotionally. What we were always trying to do with Mare was to make it as honest a portrait of a community as we could. We feel that if we portray people with honesty and complexity, then the audience will believe in these people, believe in this place and get immersed in the world.” 

Four out of five of this year’s limited-series nominees are heavily driven by the performances of their lead actresses: I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel, Mare’s Kate Winslet, The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy and WandaVision’s Elizabeth Olsen are all nominated, as is Cynthia Erivo for Nat Geo’s Genius: Aretha

Among the men, only WandaVision’s Paul Bettany is nominated along with the series in which he starred. Also nominated are Hamilton’s Lin Manuel-Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr., The Undoing’s Hugh Grant and Halston’s Ewan McGregor.

The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, will air Sunday, Sept. 19, on CBS. 

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.