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Unpacking the 73rd Emmy Awards Nominations: Snubs & Surprises

The surprises, snubs, and overall trends of this year's nominees

2021 Emmy Awards Nominations
Illustration by Allison Aubrey
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    The 73rd annual Emmy nominations were announced this morning, with ever-shifting and expanding categories adding plenty of chaos to the sorting, categorization, and, yes, also honoring of TV shows across a truly daunting number of channels and platforms.

    A process that once enacted dull annual routines, as shows like Frasier and NYPD Blue notched nom after nom after nom, has at least become less predictable and more eclectic — though that doesn’t mean it lacks for frustrations and controversies in addition to the pleasant surprises. Let’s review some of those surprises, snubs, and overall trends in this year’s nominees. (View the full list of nominations here.)

    SNL Goes For the Gold: Current Saturday Night Live cast members have become fixtures among nominees in recent years — but most often for their work on the show itself. This year, both Aidy Bryant and Kenan Thompson received nominations in the supporting categories for their work on the show, as well as for leading comedy series that aired simultaneously with their SNL work.

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    Bryant scored a Best Actress in a Comedy Series spot for Shrill, while Thompson’s long-delayed NBC sitcom Kenan netted him a Best Actor in a Comedy Series nom. Both have been nominated before for SNL — as performers, and as lyricists for nominated songs. Their non-SNL recognition comes at the ending and beginning of their shows’ respective lifespans; Shrill just finished a three-season run on Hulu, while Thompson’s show has only aired ten episodes.

    Elsewhere in the SNLverse, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Bowen Yang all received supporting nominations in the comedy category; you have to wonder if non-sketch performers grimace at the number of spots SNL’s record-sized cast is able to nominate in these categories. (That said, standout Yang deserves all the awards.) Ditto the guest-performer slots for comedy, where SNL took another five spots with Kristen Wiig, Dan Levy, Maya Rudolph, Daniel Kaluuya, and Dave Chappelle (for a hosting gig that included all of two sketches and one monologue!).

    Semi-related, alum Jason Sudeikis didn’t host or perform on SNL in Season 46, but his vehicle Ted Lasso scored a ton of nominations and seems like the odds-on favorite to win Best Comedy Series.

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    Netflix Comedy Mania: I mean, how else to explain the Best Comedy Series presence of Cobra Kai and Emily in Paris over the more network-y (if not always actually on-network) likes of Girls5Eva, Rutherford Falls, or Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? Granted, Cobra Kai has a strong following, but it wasn’t widely presumed to have a nomination in the bag. And with Emily in Paris, Netflix has accomplished what NBC rarely could: Getting one of its most critically dismissed, comfort-food lazy-watches into Best Comedy Series! It’s like if Caroline in the City scored a spot in 1996.

    People Still Watch The Kominsky Method: Speaking of Netflix, their comedy series has always been a starry affair, but while Michael Douglas has been consistently nominated at the Emmys, the show as a whole kinda feels more like a Golden Globes deal, doesn’t it? Yet its not-especially-hyped third and final season, which debuted just a couple of months ago, received nominations for both Douglas and the series as a whole (as well as a guest shot from Morgan Freeman, playing himself. Last Vegas fans must have been beside themselves!).

    Justice For Lovecraft Country: HBO’s high-profile, recently-canceled series performed like a show that everyone fully expected to be back for Season 2 — probably because a lot of voters assumed exactly that. It was nominated for Best Drama Series, alongside stars Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett, supporting actors Aunjanue Ellis and Michael K. Williams, guest star Courtney B. Vance, and the writing for the first episode. The surprise was less the nominations than the sheer number of them — and to see them juxtaposed with an unceremonious cancellation.

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    But No Justice For Small Axe: The Amazon-released series of movies directed by Steve McQueen was specifically left out of the Oscar race by the streamer/conglomerate, presumably in hopes of capturing Emmy recognition instead. No dice, as a true anthology series was nudged out of the limited/anthology category for an all-limited-series lineup.

    Though it seems unlikely that the ebullient Lovers Rock, for example, would have made headway at the Oscars, it seems like Amazon screwed up by not putting the compelling, stirring courtroom drama Mangrove into the movie race, where McQueen’s reputation might have held more sway. In any event, it’s an absolute bummer that the Emmys didn’t bother with such a bracing, ambitious, successful use of the television format.

    Not Throwing Away Their Shot: More category weirdness comes courtesy of the acting categories in the limited/anthology/movie category (confusingly, TV movies have their own category for the programs themselves, but are combined with limited and anthology series for their acting, directing, and writing awards). Basically the entire damn cast of the stage musical Hamilton was nominated for Emmys by virtue of Disney+ airing a filmed version of the Broadway production, shot back in 2016 and once intended for theatrical release. Is that why Hamilton itself didn’t make the cut in the TV movie category?!

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    History Has Its Eyes on Her: Mj Rodriguez’s Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series nomination for Pose makes her the first transgender performer to receive a nod in one of the major acting categories. Rodriguez is the third openly trans performer to garner Emmys love, after Laverne Cox and Rain Valdez for Orange Is the New Black and Razor Tongue, respectively. Pose is also up for Outstanding Drama Series, and star Billy Porter is nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

    Ladies’ Night: In the leading actor category for limited/anthology/movies, the Hamilton boys are joined by a crazy lineup of movie stars from the UK: Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, and Hugh Grant. It reflects just how lady-dominated the actual limited series nominees are; four of the five nominees have accompanying leading actress noms, while only one has a leading actor. Notably, The Underground Railroad is underrepresented in the acting categories, though it did make it into arguably the most competitive category of the season.

    Nominating Britney Spears: Spears is expected to appear in court tomorrow (July 14th) for another hearing in her conservatorship battle, and there’s more positive news on the #FreeBritney front, as Framing Britney Spears (The New York Times Presents) lands an Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special nomination.

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    Limited Series Rules: This has been reflected in online buzz for ages, but the Emmys really make it clear how many TV events of the past year were limited or anthology series (or really, just limited series; as mentioned, the excellent Small Axe anthology didn’t make the cut). The kind of big square-off we used to see in Best Drama Series is now happening over in limited, with I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Underground Railroad, and WandaVision offering a mix of the buzziest, most-watched, and most-acclaimed shows of recent memory.

    By comparison, it’s harder to get excited over the Best Drama category that includes long-in-the-tooth faves like This Is Us, The Handmaid’s Tale, and, of course, The Crown; always The Crown.

    Quibi Lives!: The short-lived Quibi revival of Reno 911! received a nomination for short-form programming. I think we can all agree, then, that this makes the grand Quibi experiment a smashing success.

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