Emmys 2021: Analyzing Early Frontrunners and Foibles in 12 Key Races

Just before the start of final-round voting for the 73rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Variety analyzes the competitive stakes in a dozen key races.

Drama Series
Of the eight drama series nominees, the majority are Emmy veterans in this race, though admittedly their respective success has varied. Netflix’s “The Crown,” which clocked in as one of the two most-nominated programs this year overall (with 24 noms), scored its fourth nomination; both Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (21 overall noms) and NBC’s “This Is Us” (six overall noms) also secured their fourth nods in this category. “The Handmaid’s Tale” represents the only winner of the bunch thus far, though. Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian,” the other half of that most-nominated program titleholder, has returned to the ballot for the second consecutive year, while FX’s “Pose” (10 overall noms when you include the short-form reality spin-off in the count) is also back on the ballot for the second time, though not consecutively. The freshmen are Amazon Prime Video’s “The Boys” (five overall noms), celebrated here for the first time but for its second season; the first season of Netflix’s “Bridgerton” (12 overall noms); and the first and only season of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” (18 noms), which was announced to not be returning after nominations-round voting closed. “The Crown” has the “always a bridesmaid…” status, but this year could be its turn to stand in the spotlight, especially if Television Academy members continue to vote down the line on the final-round ballots the way they appeared to on the nominations-round ones.

Lead Drama Actor
This race looks as if it will come down to a veteran vs. a freshman: “Pose’s” Billy Porter and “The Crown’s” Josh O’Connor. Porter has already won once, having picked up the statue in 2019 for the first season of the FX ballroom culture period piece (this is his third consecutive nomination in total), but O’Connor is coming off a hot streak at the winter awards, where he snatched up a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award and a SAG ensemble award. Both men are being celebrated here for the final time since “Pose” signed off in June, and O’Connor’s role has been recast as Season 5 of Netflix’s royal family drama moves into a later time period in Prince Charles’ life. Other nominees in the running are Sterling K. Brown, the 2017 winner who landed his fifth consecutive nod for “This Is Us”; Matthew Rhys, who won this category in 2018 for “The Americans” and is back on the ballot with his new period drama, “Perry Mason”; and Jonathan Majors (“Lovecraft Country”) and Regé-Jean Page (“Bridgerton”), other first-time nominees with only this chance to be celebrated in their respective roles. (“Lovecraft” was not renewed, while Page simply will not be starring in the second season of the Shondaland-Netflix period romance).

Lead Drama Actress
Coming off a Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG ensemble win, “The Crown’s” Emma Corrin is an early favorite in this category. But the race get tighter than it currently looks as time ticks on. After all, she faces stiff competition from threetime Emmy winner Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Mrs. America”), who saw her first-ever Emmy attention in the lead category for “In Treatment,” as well as 2017 winner Elisabeth Moss, back with her third nomination for “The Handmaid’s Tale”; newcomers Mj Rodriguez (“Pose”) and Jurnee Smollett (“Lovecraft Country”); and her own co-star Olivia Colman, who scored her second consecutive nom as Queen Elizabeth II. The ultimate decision may come down to visibility as it gets closer to final ballots being cast. Rodriguez has already seen a boost in that area because she made history with her nomination (she is the first transgender performer to be nominated in a major acting category) and stands to make history again if she wins.

Comedy Series
In the tumultuous world we’ve been living in amid a contentious presidential election and global pandemic, comedies have been a breath of fresh air. And the Television Academy really leaned into celebrating the freshest of them, nominating four rookie series here and two other first-timers in the category. The former are Netflix’s “Emily in Paris” (two noms), which was a surprise when it made it onto the Golden Globe ballot and an even bigger shock now, HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” (nine noms), “Hacks” (15 noms) and Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso” (20 noms), which is now the most-celebrated freshman comedy. The latter are “Cobra Kai” (four noms), which scored stunt nominations for its previous seasons but broke in bigger now, surely thanks to its new home at Netflix, and Hulu’s “Pen15” (three noms), which picked up a comedy writing nom in its freshman year but also came back stronger this time around. Rounding out the race are two veterans: ABC’s “Black-ish” (six noms overall when you include its election special) and the final season of Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method” (six noms). With “Ted Lasso” dropping its second season amid voting, it is all but a lock for a win here. However, if one show could sneak up and surprise in September, it is “Hacks,” which already drew more attention than expected with its sheer number of noms and is led by lead comedy actress front-runner Jean Smart.

Lead Comedy Actor
This category only has five guys in the running this year due to fewer submissions overall: Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish”), Michael Douglas (“The Kominsky Method”), William H. Macy (“Shameless”), Jason Sudeikis (“Ted Lasso”) and Kenan Thompson (“Kenan”). With the exception of Sudeikis, all are veterans at the Emmys — though Thompson is new to this particular race. (He has five other nominations in supporting comedy actor and music and lyrics for “Saturday Night Live,” including one win). This is Anderson’s seventh consecutive nomination for his role on the ABC sitcom, while Macy is seeing a sixth nom (but first since 2018) for the Showtime series that came to an end this year. Previous winner Douglas (“Behind the Candelabra”) is up for the third consecutive time as the titular character on Netflix’s buddy comedy, with the final season moving him into a new stage and success in his life. As beloved as these men clearly are by the Academy, this is yet another race in which it appears the first-time nominee will net the win. With Sudeikis’ series (for which he is multi-nominated since he co-created it and serves as a writer on it) a shoo-in, he is, too.

Lead Comedy Actress
There is one fewer nominee in this category than last year, and it is another battle between legends of various capacities. Double nominee Jean Smart (“Hacks” here and supporting limited series/TV movie actress for “Mare of Easttown”) is a three-time prior winner and has six nominations across comedy, drama and limited series but has stepped into the lead category for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Aidy Bryant (“Shrill”) has been a comedy staple since she joined “Saturday Night Live” in 2012 and has earned three Emmy noms for that series (including in supporting comedy actress this year), but this is also her first time in the lead race. Allison Janney (“Mom”) has five nominations for that CBS sitcom alone: three in this category and two in supporting comedy actress, including a win 2015. Tracee Ellis Ross is nominated for the fifth time for “Black-ish,” and Kaley Cuoco (“The Flight Attendant”) received a first-ever nom despite being a sitcom staple for a dozen seasons prior on “The Big Bang Theory.” It is Smart who seems destined to come out on top overall, especially after coming off a still-talked-about Emmy-nominated turn in “Watchmen” last year.

Limited/Anthology Series
One race that is too close to call is the newly minted limited or anthology series. (Ironically, after rebranding, no anthologies actually made it onto the final-round ballot.) Although winter awards darling “The Queen’s Gambit” from Netflix (18 overall nominations) has been a longtime favorite, HBO’s “I May Destroy You” (nine overall noms) has picked up renewed steam this summer after winning BAFTAs and a Peabody. HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” (16 overall noms) and Disney Plus’ “WandaVision” (23 overall noms, the second most of any program) were all anyone could talk (and tweet) about when they were delivering new episodes, and that sense of excitement could be renewed now. And then there’s Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad” (seven overall noms), which didn’t score in any of the acting races and could be a way to celebrate the entire stellar ensemble (and director Barry Jenkins) at once here — but admittedly right now that feels like a long-shot.

TV Movie
Two out of the five spots this year went to Amazon vehicles (“Sylvie’s Love” and “Uncle Frank”) with Netflix scoring a spot for “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square,” HBO nabbing one here with “Oslo” and Lifetime getting back in the Emmy game with “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.” While HBO is the incumbent (with “Bad Education”), “Oslo” hasn’t had the same kind of buzz and the early odds are on one of the Amazon projects. “Sylvie’s Love” submitted in film categories during winter awards season, which may have caused some category confusion during nominations-round voting that could still be lingering. Due to star Paul Bettany’s exposure with his “WandaVision” lead acting nom, “Uncle Frank” just may pull into first place.

Lead Limited Series/TV Movie Actor
This is another complicated race, as seeming early favorite — “The Undoing’s” Hugh Grant — could be overshadowed by more recent headline-makers. Grant, who vied for “A Very English Scandal” in 2019, is the lone acting nominee for the HBO limited series. That could give him the edge if voters still want to celebrate it. However, first-time nominee Bettany is in a show whose buzz hasn’t died down (“WandaVision”), especially since it picked up so many Emmy nominations, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Emmy-winner for original music and lyrics in 2014, may score some extra sentimental points for being up for his Tony Award-winning creation “Hamilton.” Admittedly, Miranda may split some votes with co-star Leslie Odom Jr., who received his first-ever live-action nomination this year. Returning to the Emmy race for the first time since 2017, when he was nominated in this category for “Fargo,” Ewan McGregor delivered the most recent performance out of all of these, with “Halston” dropping just before close of eligibility.

Lead Limited Series/TV Movie Actress
Coming into Emmy season, “The Queen’s Gambit’s” Anya TaylorJoy has already racked up an impressive awards haul, cleaning up at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG Awards. Therefore, she was looked at as the one to beat, even before she officially made the ballot. But her fellow nominees don’t make things easy for her: Michaela Coel (“I May Destroy You”) just won the BAFTA and has been raved about by countless peers and voters for weeks during FYC; Kate Winslet (“Mare of Easttown”) took on her first live-action television role in a decade — and she did win back then (for “Mildred Pierce”); and both Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Olsen finally received their first Emmy nominations for taking on the Queen of Soul in “Genius: Aretha” and bringing Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff to a new medium in “WandaVision,” respectively. It honestly feels foolish to overlook any one of these formidable women. What it may come down to is what is being selected to win in the limited/ anthology series race.

Variety Talk Series
For the past five years, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” has won this race, but for the past three years it has seemed like Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” could be on the verge of sliding in. Since it hasn’t happened yet and since the HBO series is the most nominated out of the talkers (seven overall noms), it seems almost certain the streak will continue. In addition to “The Daily Show,” though, CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” always comes in strong (five overall noms), as does TBS’ “Conan,” which could draw some extra attention simply for being the end of an era. Also on the ballot is ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

Competition Program
When Emmy voters are on a tear with an unscripted series, they really go to town. That’s why VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (nine total noms for the flagship, plus two for spin-off “Untucked”) is likely to keep its crown a fourth time as the category champ. CBS’ “The Amazing Race” (four overall noms) and NBC’s “The Voice” (seven overall noms) get it: they were previously consecutive winners, too. Bravo’s “Top Chef ” (five overall noms) is also a previous winner (in 2010, ending “The Amazing Race’s” streak), while Netflix’s “Nailed It!” nabbed its third consecutive nomination but has yet to take home the trophy. If the Academy is so inclined to shake things up this year, “Nailed It!” would be the expected successor. A new kid claiming the throne is how it worked the last time this category changed over, anyway.

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