Critic’s Notebook: Few Surprises at the 2021 Emmys

The 73rd Emmy Awards
Cliff Lipson/CBS

With only a few exceptions, the 2021 Emmys went pretty much as expected, with the top prizes going to Ted Lasso (comedy), The Crown (drama) and The Queen’s Gambit (limited series). Netflix nabbed the big wins the Goliath streamer has long desired while Apple’s Ted Lasso completed the streaming hat trick.

For anyone who still doubts streaming is TV’s future (and present), this year’s awards show proved otherwise. And yet the Emmys will continue to air on good old broadcast TV for the foreseeable future, and the Emmy show itself reflected that old-school mentality, with bleeps whenever a winner swore and painful shtick slowing down a typically bloated ceremony.

Cedric the Entertainer affably established a party atmosphere early on, and with the audience sitting (and drinking) at tables under a tent, the vibe felt more like the Golden Globes — albeit with less sketchy personnel. As the night wore on, Cedric unfortunately wore out his welcome, and nothing is more aggravating on this sort of show than watching sketches fall flat and eating up time, then watching deserving winners fight back against being played off the stage.

Inevitably, a presenter mocked the drawn-out proceedings, that honor falling to Amy Poehler, announcing the suspenseful (I’m kidding) pre-recorded variety special category (a Hamilton slam-dunk), adding to her rhetorical questions: “What time is it? And how do we get out of here?” This came just before the three-hour mark, with the “In Memoriam” segment and top series prizes yet to come. (The “In Memoriam” segment was marred by producers’ choice to put the musicians in the foreground too often, making it hard to see who some of the TV personalities being memorialized even were.)

At least the contingent gathered in London to celebrate The Crown and its many wins seemed to be having a ball in their swank lounge. (Josh O’Connor, the series’ young Prince Charles, was the designated player accepting in person in Los Angeles.) Olivia Colman’s win as the Queen over Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana was a mild upset, but Tobias Menzies was truly a surprise winner as Prince Philip over Lovecraft Country’s late and revered Michael K. Williams. Menzies was also a no-show on either continent, echoing the stunner at the Oscars when an absent Anthony Hopkins beat the late Chadwick Boseman for Best Actor. (Presenter Kerry Washington paid touching tribute to Williams, and there were also poignant moments when John Oliver and Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels saluted the late Norm Macdonald.)

Bringing some much-needed absurdist cheer was Conan O’Brien, who milked his also-ran status for all it was worth, most memorably when he crashed the winners’ circle during Stephen Colbert’s acceptance speech—not for The Late Show (as usual, the variety-talk award went to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver), but for the live variety special category with his election-night special on Showtime.

Probably the night’s biggest surprise was the strong showing by HBO’s Mare of Easttown, which many thought might be entirely eclipsed by The Queen’s Gambit. While the Netflix series won the limited-series and directing prize, its glamorous star Anya Taylor-Joy took a back seat to Kate Winslet’s powerful title performance as the deeply damaged Mare. Julianne Nicholson and Evan Peters won in supporting categories, a near-sweep of acting honors.

Kate Winslet at The 73rd Emmy Awards

Kate Winslet  (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

And while Ted Lasso cleaned up in comedy as expected with wins for the show, star/co-creator Jason Sudeikis, and Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein in supporting categories, HBO Max’s Hacks managed to upstage its rival with directing and writing wins joining the all-but-certain coronation of Jean Smart for her career-high role as a Las Vegas comic.

Overall, it was a strong year for women: with directing Emmys in comedy and drama, Michaela Coel’s well-deserved writing Emmy for I May Destroy You, and especially Debbie Allen’s resplendent moment in the spotlight as she accepted the Governor’s Award. She exhorted a new generation to “claim your power, claim your voice, say your song, tell your stories. It will make us a better place. Your turn.”

Finally, an Emmy moment worthy of an ovation.