Emmy Nominations Wish List: Under-the Radar Picks for 2021

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Emmy Nominations Wish List: Under-the Radar Picks for 2021

The Primetime Emmy Awards are a fickle beast. They’re outdated, woefully so, from their very categorizations on up. What really defines a comedy or drama these days? And why aren’t we making more space to celebrates great television in a landscape that—even during a global pandemic—is stacked with excellence?

Given the limitations of the Emmys, I wish we could ignore them altogether. But they still represent something to the industry and, occasionally, get things right enough to bolster those who deserve it. It is in that spirit that we at Paste TV offer some of our personal, under-the-radar picks for who we wish would be nominated. There are plenty of others we love that we almost know will be, and others that we remain hopeful for, like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Amanda Peet in Betty Broderick, Elizabeth Olsen for WandaVision (the Emmys generally snub genre series with the exception of Game of Thrones, but look at The Mandalorian last year! Anything could happen!)

But for some truly out-of-the-box thinking, check out our picks below. Hey, the Emmys may not love them the way they should be loved, but we do.

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Outstanding Actor in a Drama: Antony Starr, The Boys

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The Boys, Amazon’s dark, subversive take on our current cultural obsession with superheroes, is precisely the sort of show the Emmys rarely reward. Dark, very violent, and unafraid to tackle what can only be considered adult themes, it’s a wild ride from start to finish that deals with issues ranging from sexual assault to encroaching fascism. But the glue that holds the show together is Antony Starr’s deft, disturbing performance as Homelander, a sociopathic reimagining of Superman who is both utterly terrifying and completely recognizable to modern-day audiences. A ghastly vision of American exceptionalism gone wrong, Starr still somehow manages to make a character who should be little more than a parody utterly compelling to watch. —Lacy Baugher-Milas


Outstanding Actress in a Drama: Brandee Evans, P-Valley

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Starz has not had great luck with the Emmys in the past, particularly regarding its popular Outlander series, whose actors have deserved nods several times over. So while it’s unlikely that P-Valley will get any awards love, we can certainly celebrate the power of its breakout star Brandee Evans. Her portrayal of the hard-nosed Mercedes, a popular dancer ready to get out of the grind and start her own studio to help empower young girls in her city, is something of a revelation. Strong, empathetic, determined—Evans dominates every scene she is in as an extraordinarily compelling performer who gives P-Valley its beating heart. Plus, she rocks that poll. —Allison Keene


Outstanding Drama: The Wilds

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At first glance, The Wilds sounds like a rehashing of previous stories: it’s a similar concept to Lost but centered on a group of teen girls who landed on a mysterious island while en route to a “girl power” seminar. Each episode explored one girl’s backstory via flashback, just like the seminal ABC drama, and slowly unraveled the reasons they were all on that plane in the first place over the course of the season. It’s easy to write it off as a ripoff. But The Wilds not only found a way to make the format and themes its own, but also packed the show with plenty of dark twists, compelling humanistic drama, and genuinely shocking situations. 

Teen dramas rarely get recognition at awards shows, but The Wilds is so much more than your average teen drama. The plotting is pristine and the performances are captivating, and when you reach the first season’s conclusion, you’re handed way more than just a look down the hatch. It deserves a nod for pulling off the balancing act and doing it with style. —Radhika Menon


Outstanding Comedy: PEN15 (Hulu)

Created by and starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, PEN15 is a cringe-inducing, hysterical middle school comedy. Playing tweens despite being women in their early 30s, Erskine and Konkle give equally heartfelt and humorous performances, and in the show’s incredible second season, it’s almost hard to tell they aren’t truly the awkward, uncomfortable middle schoolers they’re portraying. PEN15 was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Writing in 2019, and after impressive growth from its first season, an Outstanding Comedy Series nomination is certainly well-deserved (and we remain hopeful). Reaching new comedic and emotional highs in Season 2, PEN15 tackles teen heartbreak, racism, and those pesky “friends” moms always have a knock for clocking as trouble. It excels at making us laugh to the point of tears, only to immediately pivot, leaving us crying along with those sad, misunderstood kids. Making a mark in the generally male-dominated, coming-of-age comedy genre, PEN15 is the answer to the prayers of young girls everywhere looking for a comedy that isn’t scared to show just how gross and truly funny teen girls can be. —Kristen Reid


Outstanding Actress in a Comedy: Anna Baryshnikov, Dickinson

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Much like her real-life counterpart, Lavinia, Anna Baryshnikov runs the risk of being overshadowed by her character’s more famous sibling. Apple TV+’s Dickinson is, ostensibly, about the life and work of poet Emily Dickison—and lead Hailee Steinfeld shines in that role. But it’s a testament to the writers and actors of the quirky period comedy that the other members of the household feel like three-dimensional humans as well. While the actual Lavinia is the one to be credited for finding her sister’s life’s work after her death, she herself is a footnote in history, and one we’re taught to pity because she neither married nor had a life outside of her family. In Dickinson at least, Lavina is lively and inventive. She dates and laughs and twerks. And, this season, she even attempts to lure a suitor with an elaborately choreographed rendition of Lola Montez’s “spider dance” (a whip is involved). — Whitney Friedlander


Outstanding Actor in a Comedy: William Zabka, Cobra Kai

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One of the best TV stories of 2021 has been so many people discovering the pure delight of Cobra Kai. For two seasons, while the show went largely ignored on YouTube Premium, I told everyone I possibly could about the series. Once the show moved to Netflix, everyone discovered it. And here’s hoping that everyone includes the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Because I need to see William Zabka nominated as Lead Actor in a comedy series. Here’s the truth: Johnny Lawrence could have been a one-note character, a washed-up has-been who hit his peak in high school. But Zabka never lets that happen. Johnny may be technologically challenged (he doesn’t really understand “the Facebook”) and stuck in the ‘80s (where hairbands and 8 track tapes ruled) but his character is never a caricature. Under Zabka’s deft performance, Johnny is constantly fighting his inner demons and trying to do the right thing. Cobra Kai is Johnny’s story and the show would not work without Zabka’s nuanced take. He makes a character who was the high school, villain bad boy, the multi-layered hero of the story. One of my favorite moments in Season 3 came when Johnny was looking for pictures of himself to post of (the) Facebook and he whips out pictures of Zabka from his Tiger Beat glory days. Zabka, you see, is in on the joke but never a joke. If he’s snubbed once again by the Emmys, I will show NO MERCY.—Amy Amatangelo


Outstanding Limited Series: City of Ghosts (Netflix)

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City of Ghosts is almost impossible to describe. One part gentle animated kids’ series, one part deeply humane city documentary, one part wild artistic experiment, animator Elizabeth Ito’s short, six-episode love letter to the richly storied, non-famous neighborhoods of Los Angeles landed on Netflix so quietly back in early March that literally no one I’ve raved about it to has even heard of it, let alone seen it floating in amongst their personalized recommendations. Sure, part of that might be that few of those same people I’ve raved to live/share a Netflix queue with kids under the age of eight (City of Ghosts’ most obvious target audience), but for as complex, funny, and emotionally overwhelming as the innovative series is, it really deserves to be thrown in front of the widest audience possible. No other show, after all, is experimenting so productively with the animation styles it uses to tell its story: The majority of City of Ghosts’ backgrounds consist of real, stylized photos of Los Angeles, while different episodes incorporate everything from stop-motion animation to borrowed footage from live-action shows from the 1970s (see this clip for the latter). No other show, after all, is experimenting so effectively with how it uses dialogue to tell its story: In true documentary style, both the kids who make up the core Ghost Club and the L.A. residents (both ghostly and living) who they interview over the course of their project to document lived experiences across L.A. speak like real people—which is to say, awkwardly, and with many pauses, repeats and ums. This would be a compelling enough approach on its own, but Ito takes the “real people” idea a step further, echoing her use of real photos as background illustrations by casting actual neighborhood experts from around the city as the adults her fictional kids go out to interview—legendary punk rocker (and Atomic Café owner) Nancy Sekizawa, included. 

Look: I know that wishing an animated kids’ series could get some Primetime Emmy shine is a fool’s errand, but for City of Ghosts, I’m willing to be the fool. (That said, if it would mean that we’d get more seasons of City of Ghosts in the future, whether they stay focused on L.A. or take the Ghost Club on a trip around the globe, feel free, Outstanding Limited Series voters, to ignore this rave altogether. Netflix—you’re on watch.) — Alexis Gunderson


Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series: Nick Robinson, A Teacher

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Suffering perhaps from difficult marketing, A Teacher is likely to be overlooked in a crowed limited series field that features a host of mega movie stars. But the quiet FX on Hulu series deserves more attention than it got at the time: A Teacher charts the “relationship” between a high school student (Nick Robinson) and his young teacher (Kate Mara), investigating the emotional mistakes and manipulations that lead the consummation of something that is, by all rights, abusive in nature. Robinson is exceptional as a soulful student who gets pats on the back and congratulations for this so-called affair, even though it essentially destroyed him in so many ways. The way Robinson conveys this, which such quiet nuance, is extraordinary, especially in the later scenes when his character is coming to terms with—and pushing away—the weight of this encounter and what it means to heal.—Allison Keene


Outstanding Creature in a All of Television: Baby Yoda, The Mandalorian

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This is no joke! Baby Yoda, a.k.a. Grogu, has already won Creative Arts Emmys and will no doubt win more. But frankly, he’s ready for prime time. When you consider that the Emmys are supposed to celebrate achievements in performance, how many can truly hold a candle to Grogu? Yes Grogu is a machine, an expensive one, and is manipulated by an expert coterie of puppeteers. But that is also a performance, one that also works without the help of language. It’s such an affecting performance that an entire industry has grown up around this small alien creature. We want to protect him and his little teefies, even though he has the power to crush us all if he chooses to go to the Dark Side. It’s not just about his cuteness or his little sackcloth; that’s all part of it. It’s about his expressions, his reactions, his movements. The practical artistry on display is astounding, yes, but there’s something even more to it, something personal, something that has touched us in a way that few characters ever could. Many were stunned last year when The Mandalorian was nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the same could happen again. While much of its success is down to sharp writing and intriguing characters (including our beloved Mando), I can’t help but think a large part of that honor was really just a way to celebrate Baby Yoda. So why not just give it to him directly? —Allison Keene



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