Critic’s Notebook: Few Surprises in the 2021 Emmy Nominations

Emmys 2021 Nominations
Apple TV+; HBO

Surprises were few in the 2021 Emmy nominations, honoring a year when a number of past contenders—including last year’s drama winner, HBO’s Succession—weren’t even in the running because of pandemic production delays. But the races are tight in several categories, although there are some clear favorites. Here’s a breakdown of some key match-ups in comedy, drama, and the jam-packed limited series categories. As usual, with very few exceptions (namely Saturday Night Live), the broadcast networks might as well stay home.


Simply put, this is Ted Lasso’s year. The lovable Apple TV+ fish-out-of-water comedy is the front runner for series and lead actor (Jason Sudeikis), and toss a coin for which of the six nominated supporting players will get their own trophy. (My money’s on Hannah Waddingham as the team owner and Brett Goldstein as the gruff team captain.)

The only serious competition comes from two HBO Max breakouts: Hacks, where the wonderful Jean Smart simply has to win as a struggling Las Vegas comedy legend; and The Flight Attendant, with Kaley Cuoco’s tipsy damsel in distress a strong runner-up.

The surprise: the best-series nomination for the insipid Emily in Paris (why not Younger if going the Darren Star route?)

The disappointment: Among many, no love for NBC’s lamented Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, CBS’s underrated (and also canceled) The Unicorn, and Apple’s terrific Mythic Quest.

Wish they’d got noticed: Girls5Eva’s Renée Elise Goldsberry (though she did get a nod for Hamilton), Made for Love’s Cristin Milioti, and my longest of deserving long shots, Resident Alien’s Alan Tudyk, whose bravura performance as an alien in human skin is a masterpiece of sustained invention.

Girls5eva cast peacock

GIRLS5EVA (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)


Again, there’s a definite front-runner in Netflix’s The Crown for its one-two punch of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana drama. Gillian Anderson (Thatcher) and Emma Corrin (Diana) are favored in their categories, although I’d love to see Olivia Colman recognized for her subtle take on the middle-aged Queen. Josh O’Connor, who won a Golden Globe as the tormented Prince Charles, has tougher competition with Pose’s dynamic Billy Porter (a past winner), Bridgerton’s charismatic Regé-Jean Page, and even the revisionist Perry Mason’s melancholic Matthew Rhys (a past winner for The Americans).

Perhaps the nominated show making the most noise is Lovecraft Country, a bold if messy blend of racial allegory and horror that HBO surprisingly canceled a week ago. With 18 nominations, including five for its cast—though passing over Wunmi Mosaku in supporting was a mistake—Lovecraft should have been a keeper. (Wonder if HBO is rethinking their decision.)

Lovecraft Country Season 1

Lovecraft Country (Credit: HBO)

Pleasant surprise: the lead actress nomination for trans actress Mj Rodriguez of Pose. Brava!

Shocker: Amazon Prime Video’s subversive superhero series The Boys joining genre faves Lovecraft and The Mandalorian in the best-series race.

Wish they’d been noticed: Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim, the android heroes of HBO Max’s impressive Raised by Wolves; the core cast of This Is Us (though kudos to Chris Sullivan); and for guest actress, a posthumous nod to Diana Rigg would have been welcome for her hilarious eccentric in PBS’ All Creatures Great and Small.

Limited Series

In many ways, this is where the action is, and where much of the best work is done on TV. All five of the top limited series are worthy, and I’d be flummoxed to have to pick a favorite among WandaVision, Mare of Easttown, The Underground Railroad, I May Destroy You and the presumed front-runner, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. I’m delighted that WandaVision did so well, topping the field with 23 nominations (many of them technical), including for the appealing leads and the amazing Kathryn Hahn—yes, the catchy “Agatha All Along” tune was nominated.

The year’s biggest and most inexplicable snub: ignoring Ethan Hawke’s electrifying turn as abolitionist John Brown in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird. If he’d been nominated, I’d have regarded him as a can’t-lose.

The Good Lord Bird Ethan Hawke Showtime

The Good Lord Bird (William Gray/SHOWTIME)

More thoughts:

  • The year’s strongest category: Lead Actress in a Limited Series/Movie, with The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya-Taylor Joy favored in an incredible lineup including Mare’s Kate Winslet, Destroy’s multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel, Genius: Aretha’s amazing Cynthia Erivo, and WandaVision’s versatile Elizabeth Olsen. All deserve to win, and I hope whoever does gives a shout-out to Railroad’s remarkable and overlooked Thuso Mbedu.
  • With seven acting nominations among its gifted ensemble, Hamilton’s showing feels like a repeat of 2016’s Tony Awards.
  • Too many hairstylists may have been Nicole Kidman’s undoing, as she failed to earn a nomination alongside co-star Hugh Grant for HBO’s The Undoing.
  • In the ever-underwhelming TV-movie category, I’m giving HBO’s compelling recent-history drama Oslo a slight edge over Amazon Prime Video’s period romance Sylvie’s Love.
  • And how did FX’s Fargo fall off the map entirely this year?
Chris Rock poses as the leader of The Cannons

Fargo (Elizabeth Morris/FX)

And finally …

All hail Team Coco, as TBS’s Conan earns its first nomination in the variety-talk category since its first season, just after the show sailed into the sunset. Goes to show it’s never too late.

The 73rd Emmy Awards, Sunday, September 19, 8/7c, CBS