Emmys 2021: Variety Critics Discuss I May Destroy You, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown Nominations

The field for the 73rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards nominees was narrower than it had been in recent years, but there were still plenty of pleasant surprises to be found (and admittedly a couple of head-scratchers). Here, Variety chief TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke run through the most interesting and exciting honors.

D’Addario: “Game of Thrones” is long gone, but here’s one way its impact is still felt — genre has taken over the Emmys. “The Mandalorian” shares the most-nominated-series distinction (with “The Crown,” which at times can feel like high fantasy in its own way). And it’s nominated for drama series alongside “The Boys” and “Lovecraft Country,” with “WandaVision” showing up broadly and deeply in the limited series field.

These shows vary in quality, and none might have been quite so successful in a non-COVID year with more robust competition. But together at the Emmys this year, they suggest a growing acceptance of TV’s more surreal side even in the absence of “Game of Thrones.” (The embrace isn’t total — it was interesting to see “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” not perform nearly as well as its Marvel stablemate.)

With all that said, my rooting interests lay elsewhere in drama: I’m a somewhat conditional fan of “The Crown” and think — speaking, perhaps, of the fantastical — that a long shot win for the gorgeous third season of “Pose” would be a wonderful parting gift. Perhaps there’s a better shot for “Pose” star Mj Rodriguez in lead drama actress, which would be richly deserved. Anyone you’re rooting for, in drama or elsewhere?

Framke: I was absolutely thrilled to see Rodriguez recognized for “Pose,” not just because this makes her the first trans woman to land a major Emmy acting nom, but also because she has deserved it from the beginning. Her Blanca has always been the beating heart of “Pose”; without her steady guidance and empathy, there are so many moments when the show would have been adrift.

Unfortunately, I don’t think she, nor anyone besides “The Crown,” has much of a shot at actually winning, given the Netflix giant’s total dominance across all its subcategories. You know the voters have come to a truly overwhelming consensus about a show when even an actor dropped into a single episode to read a speech in a flashback (i.e. Claire Foy) gets a nomination. Yes, “The Handmaid’s Tale” did make its now traditional sweep in all the supporting categories, but the prestige and lasting impression of “The Crown” so many months after its premiere feels nigh unbeatable.

As I and many others suspected, the limited/anthology series category — limited to fewer nominees than either comedy or drama — seems to be the most stacked this year. It’s wonderful to see Michaela Coel and “I May Destroy You” getting as many nods as they deserve, and it’s hard to argue the impact of shows like “Mare of Easttown” and “The Queen’s Gambit.” I was also downright relieved to see “The Underground Railroad” land a nomination despite a truly confusing rollout from Amazon, if also very disappointed to realize that none of its incredible actors got recognized. What strikes you about the limited series category, Dan?

D’Addario: I’ve already mentioned “WandaVision,” whose inclusion feels technically correct if somewhat unfair; it’s a stand-alone series, yes, but it trades on our familiarity with these characters in the grand ongoing universe of Marvel entertainments. But what intrigues me is what seems to be a showdown between “Mare of Easttown” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” two shows that found success in precisely opposed ways. “Mare” was a classic HBO show — a very established star taking a big swing in a show that built its buzz Sunday night after Sunday night. “Gambit,” on the other hand, was an archetypal Netflix success. It was a bit scruffier, with rising talent and something to prove, and made to be binged. This showdown, to me, pits against each other the things both outlets do well, though I’ll admit I’m pulling for Kate Winslet and for “Mare.”

I never had any doubt that “Mare of Easttown” would make it in (if anything, I’m surprised that its network-mate “The Undoing,” and star Nicole Kidman, didn’t), but as the announcements were read, I was suddenly paranoid “Hacks” star Jean Smart might not. Good on the Emmys for making room for that HBO Max streaming show and for all three of its central cast (Hannah Einbinder and Carl Clemons-Hopkins were nominated too); the underperformance of Peacock’s worthy “Girls5Eva,” another showbiz satire, suggests how easy it is for streaming series to get lost in the shuffle.

Framke: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s always as simple as “a show that drops all at once automatically gets less sustained attention than those that drop weekly” — just look at “The Queen’s Gambit” or “Bridgerton” — but I do wonder if we’re about to see more streaming Emmy plays ditch binge-drops from here on out.

Shows that made every episode available like “Girls5Eva” and “The Underground Railroad” struggled to break through while ones like “WandaVision,” “Mare of Easttown” and notably the second season of “The Boys” became weekly events. Or maybe we’ll see more hybrid approaches like that of HBO Max with “The Flight Attendant,” which dropped a few episodes a week instead of just one. Either way, it seems clear that with the sheer volume of TV available to voters right now, keeping eyes on any one show is both more difficult and more crucial than ever.

In that respect, one show that does not appear to have had trouble maintaining attention is “Ted Lasso,” which just absolutely overwhelmed the comedy category in “Crown”-esque fashion. I knew people love the show (as do I!) but was still surprised by the strength of its showing.

D’Addario: As a “Lasso” skeptic, I was less shocked, if only because its amiable tone and we’re-all-in-this-together message seemed to meet a challenging moment in the same way “Schitt’s Creek” did last year. It seems well-equipped to pick up that baton and be a sort of standard-bearer for uncynical TV comedy.

To my eye, only one thing in the drama field represents the year in TV, and what people use TV for, as well: “The Crown,” an elegantly made soap opera about the family of Queen Elizabeth II, whipsaws between criticizing its characters and venerating them. Its attitude toward celebrity and power is very 2021. Speaking of last year’s winners, “The Crown,” at its juiciest, fillets its subjects while also enjoying the trappings of their wealth in a manner that feels very “Succession.” I strongly suspect it’ll win.

Framke: It will, and that will be, fine. In the meantime, I’ll be happy with the nominations for shows like “Pen15,” the writing staff of “The Amber Ruffin Show,” and Jessica Walter landing a posthumous nod for voicing Malory Archer on “Archer” (which is, somehow, her first recognition in this category). The Emmys will always have their favorites, and there will always be some “Emily in Paris” curveball to provide fuel for snarky commentary, but there are still plenty of worthy nominees to celebrate anyway.

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