Closing the chapter on the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards with a monumental night for Netflix, a big comeback for Mare of Easstown, and why this year’s voting process might have been affected by many outside factors.
After what has seemed like the longest Emmy season in the history of the award the 73rd Emmy Awards are finally here. On Sunday the Television Academy announced their picks for the best television of the year and the biggest surprise of the night was just how much consensus there actually was.
For the most part this year’s ceremony went as expected with The Crown, Ted Lasso, and The Queen’s Gambit taking home the three biggest awards of the night. All three shows were anointed as the early frontrunners nearly a year ago and since then they seemed to have barreled through the season. Voters, audiences, and critics couldn’t get enough of these shows.
The frontrunner status for these shows never waivered and all three held onto the top spot for nearly a year. Between this year’s crop of winners and past favorites like Succession and Watchmen the summer and fall are proving to be some of the most lucrative months when it comes to Emmy season.
Beyond the actual winners the biggest news of the night was that Netflix finally took home the top award after years of completely shaking up television. It was a huge night for the streaming service with The Crown take home the prize for Outstanding Drama Series and The Queen’s Gambit taking home the prize for Outstanding Limited Series. This was an accomplishment eight years in the making, going all the way back to their first nomination for House of Cards in 2013.
The success of The Crown is perhaps the most interesting result of the night. The phenomenon behind the show’s fourth season helped Netflix rightfully earn their first prize for Outstanding Drama Series – in large part due to our culture’s need for nostalgia, obsession with Princess Diana, and the timely correlation to how the media is currently treating Megan and Harry.
Strangely when it came to the elements focused on Diana were the only ones that Emmy voters did not award with statues. Emma Corrin’s breakthrough performances as Princess Diana ultimately lost to costar Olivia Colman while the Diana focused episode “Fairytale” was beat out by the season finale “War.” That same Diana heavy episode previously lost a handful of craft prizes that it seemed destined to win.
As expected Ted Lasso was the top comedy of the year taking home four Primetime Emmys and three at the Creative Arts ceremony. The big surprise of the comedy races came when Hacks won both the writing and directing awards. In the past couple of years the comedy that has won the top award usually takes home at least one of those awards, so the fact that Hacks was able to take home both prizes was a big surprise and further proof that comedies about the “world of comedy” always do well at the Emmys.
Early on in the season it seemed like Emmy voters had finally gotten over their genre bias with shows like The Mandalorian (24 nominations), WandaVision (23 nominations) and Lovecraft Country (18 nominations). Even a show like The Boys was able to break into the lineup for Outstanding Drama Series. In the end though Emmy voters, especially the actors branch, proved that they are still hesitant to actually give these shows the win. Not even a beloved character actor like Kathryn Hahn could ride that popularity to a win. As Disney+ grows even more popular it will be interesting to see if anything can break through or if they will have to accept the nominations as the win for now.
Overall voters stuck to their favorite shows across the board. Only two shows were able to break up that pattern when I May Destroy You won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series and when Ewan McGregor of Halston won the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series. It is becoming more and more rare for other shows to break through these sweeps. It’s even more rare for other networks to breakthrough with both of these wins coming from HBO and Netflix.
In the past couple of years Emmy voters have become known for the mini sweeps that take over the night. Last year Schitt’s Creek made history by winning all seven comedy awards while the top limited series of the night usually takes home a majority of the acting prizes; think Olive Kitteridge, Big Little Lies, American Crime Story.
This year Emmy voters took that trend to another level and repeatedly rewarded the same shows across the board. The acting peer groups loved Ted Lasso and Mare of Easstown and gave them three out of the four acting prizes in their respective categories while The Crown swept through the night with seven wins.
It made it increasingly hard for actors in other shows (as popular as they are) to sneak ahead. Kathryn Hahn ended up losing for WandaVision, Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez lost for the final season of Pose, and Michael K. Williams wasn’t able to win even on his fifth and final career nomination.
As a result there was a lot of uproar about the overall voting process and the makeup of the Television Academy. There was a lot of anger, and rightfully so, that this year’s group of Primetime acting winners were exclusively white.
However in recent years the Television Academy has gone through major overhauls to bring the Emmys into the 21st century. The Television Academy is much more diverse and younger than the Oscars and Grammys. In the past couple of years they’ve brought in thousands of new members; women, people of color, and younger voters. They’ve also started removing members who no longer work in television. As white as this year’s group of winners was it was still the most diverse group of nominees the Emmys has ever had.
Instead there were other reasons that this year’s winners were uniform. Most notably, voters simply weren’t plugged into the awards circuit as much as they have been in the past. There weren’t as many events as there were just a couple years ago to remind them of the wide array of programming. There were little to no chances for a young ingenue to introduce themselves on the campaign circuit or for word of mouth to build for an unlikely contender.
More importantly, we have all been preoccupied with the world around us. Between a pandemic, politics, a never-ending war, and the anxieties of a rapidly changing industry and local economy voters simply didn’t care as much as they have in the past.
In the end it was simple. Television Academy members, without the chance for buzz and word of mouth to build, simply picked their favorite shows and checked them off up and down the ballot. As passionate as many of us are for these shows, the average voter doesn’t have the time or energy to catch up with every single shows, especially in a world with more television than ever.
The Biggest Surprises of the Night
The biggest surprise of the night came in a category that no one could confidently make a prediction in; Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series. In a lineup void of any clear frontrunner Emmy voters went with Ewan McGregor for his performance in Halston. On paper this win makes a lot of sense and he probably should have been the perceived frontrunner from the beginning but the limited series had no other major nominations (besides a couple for its crafts).
The back-to-back wins for Ewan McGregor and Mark Ruffalo prove that Emmy voters, even when they don’t necessarily love a show, will always go for the revered actor.
After winning three Emmys last weekend for directing, writing, and music direction the Netflix special Bo Burnham: Inside seemed like the clear frontrunner for Outstanding Variety Special. In the end though inventive music special lost to a recording of Hamilton which clearly benefited from the overwhelming support of the actors branch.
Do Things Need to Change?
The pandemic may have exacerbated these broad sweeps at the Emmys but the recent trend really began when voting was opened up to the entire membership after years of blue ribbon panels.
With thousands of industry voters filling out their ballots we were bound to see more sweeps. But as annoying as they are these changes have also ushered in some of the most exciting wins in recent years. This new Television Academy has awarded the likes of Zendaya, Tatiana Maslany, and Jodie Comer – performances that likely would have never won under the old voting system.
The Television Academy would be much better off convincing their full membership to actually fill out their ballots. In recent years they have let it slip that there are times when huge chunks of voters never take the time to vote and when they do they only vote for a couple of categories. That’s the laziness that leads to these mini sweeps.
Maybe there is a world where the Television Academy can create a hybrid voting system. One that embraces the opinions of its entire membership while also weighing in results from some sort of blue ribbon panel. It might also be interesting to have panels consist of members of the television industry and journalists and critics. While the average voter doesn’t have time to watch every show critics certainly do and that might be able to shake up some of these sweeps.
The bigger change needs to come in the reality and variety categories where the same handful of shows continue to win year after year. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took home its sixth consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series, SNL won the award for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series for the fifth year in a row, and RuPaul’s Drag Race won its fourth consecutive award for Outstanding Reality Competition Series (although nowhere close to The Amazing Race’s ten wins).
There’s no easy solution to ensure that these categories don’t become repetitive, at least one that can be made by the leadership within the Television Academy. Some online have suggested that shows be disqualified after a certain amount of wins but in the end that would mean the awards are no longer about the best of the year. The best solution might be to take these categories back to the blue ribbon panels and ensure that the judging panel views all of the submitted episodes. These panels would also need a reform ensuring diversity across race, age, and peer groups within the academy.
What were your big takeaways from this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards?