The Biggest 2021 Emmy Nominations Surprise Is: They Aren’t That Bad!

Maybe even... good?

TV Features Emmy Awards
The Biggest 2021 Emmy Nominations Surprise Is: They Aren’t That Bad!

I was ready to be angry with the 2021 Emmy nominations, full of ire over snubs and railing against the systemic problems of this corrupt awards body down to its very categories. But in truth, the 2021 nominations actually aren’t that bad. The major categories have a few good surprises mixed in with the usual nonsense, and as you get into Supporting and Guest actors things get fairly rote and boring, sure. But on the whole, the 2021 Emmys looks like won’t be horrifically offensive to television. That’s progress!

Having said that, the Emmys are still a problem. The awards aren’t necessarily a celebration of great television so much as a chess game that ends with arm wrestling. Networks and publicists and sometimes actors themselves are extremely careful about what they submit for, and where. What, truly, is the difference between a limited series that is later renewed for Season 2, or a series that is cancelled after one season? These are the meditations of madness that we must continue to consider, because of Emmy games.

Perhaps the Emmy voters were on point more this year, though, because there was simply a lot less television. The 2021 awards, more than 2020, are the true COVID-19 Emmys. The eligibility period ends in May, which means that in 2020, TV production was only just starting to ramp down because of precautions and restrictions. The 2021 nominations were more affected by the full result of pandemic shutdowns: fewer shows, fewer returning shows, few series (versus limited, once again the most competitive category).

If there is one positive way to describe these nominations, it’s that they are For the People. Cobra Kai! The Mandalorian! Ted Lasso! Bridgerton! WandaVision! The Boys! These series were all big, popular hits that were also indeed very good. The Emmys are rarely snobby (to a fault), but this year there does seem to be an uptick in shows that viewers-at-large did actually watch and enjoy and will feel some investment in.

But the other reality is that a lot of Emmy outcomes are based simply on who controls the most voters or has the budget to push for nominations—there is a ton of money spent hawking “For Your Considerations” throughout the year. HBO, historically, has had a major Emmy voting bloc (HBO/Max received the most nominations this year with 130), and Netflix has muscled in hard to that scene (Netflix had the second-most nominations with 129). But when you step outside of individual networks, another more corporate picture emerges: The Walt Disney Company—which owns ABC, Disney+, Freeform, FX, Hulu, and National Geographic—came out with 146 total nominations. (Also of note, Quibi, a dead platform whose originals now air on Roku, got 8 nominations while PBS only got 3. Distressing.)

Still, when it comes to “snubs,” this year the charge against the Emmys is fairly light. Should Ethan Hawke have been nominated for Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird? Yes. Should SNL be in a variety/sketch category to clear out the Comedy nominations so that something small and quirky like Girls5Eva gets recognized? Definitely. Did Carl Lumbly deserve a nomination for Falcon and Winter Soldier? Of course. Is it a crime that Shadow and Bone lost out on a costuming nod after providing the most stunning coats on TV this year? Saints above! Are some of these nominations, in general, a total joke (Emily in Paris)? Oui Oui.

And yet… there’s Jean Smart for Hacks, Michaela Coel for I May Destroy You, PEN15 for Outstanding Comedy, Regé-Jean Page (Bridgerton), Mj Rodriguez (Pose), Kathryn Hahn (WandaVision), Jean Smart again for Mare of Easttown—and that’s worth celebrating.

On the whole, the most shocking thing is perhaps how shockingly okay these Emmy nominations are. Some of your favorites won’t be here, it’s true, but a lot of genuinely good shows and performances are. Granted, we should pay a lot less attention to the Emmys, possibly even burning it completely to the ground and rebuilding it again in a way that makes more sense, or even pay more attention to awards from critics like the TCAs (imagine!) But for now, this is what we have and, frankly, for the Pand-Emmys… it certainly could have been worse.

The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, will take place September 19 on CBS and Paramount+

Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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