Hollywood Reporter’s TV Critics Break Down the Emmy Frontrunners and Possible Surprises

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DANIEL FIENBERG The producers of the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards have a choice: Either structure the show the traditional way and accept that you’re building to two hours of completely predictable wins in the drama and comedy categories, or avoid that anticlimax and put the limited series categories at the end, taking advantage of their uncertainty and greater star power as well as their quality.

That’s how we’re playing things. Leave the Underground Railroad/Queen’s Gambit/I May Destroy You/Mare of Easttown showdowns for the end, and let’s kick things off on the comedy side with possibly two of the most forgone of forgone conclusions in Emmy history: Jason Sudeikis is guaranteed to win lead actor for Ted Lasso and Jean Smart is bordering on comparable inevitability for Hacks.

I want to begrudge Sudeikis his win because of how boring that outcome is, but in a ridiculously thin field — everybody loves Kenan Thompson, but come on — he’s actually the best contender for his impeccably earnest, cookie-baking bundle of inspirational quotes. Similarly, nobody could begrudge Smart anything, especially this career-peaking turn as a no-filter stand-up legend, but I have a lot of affection for the way Kaley Cuoco anchors the dramatic beats of The Flight Attendant as a quintessential Hitchcock Blonde and also manages to be tremendously funny in the show’s first few episodes.

At least there’s minor suspense in the comedy supporting fields?

ANGIE HAN More suspense, yes, though not necessarily much variety. Ted Lasso takes up six of the 15 slots across both categories, and Saturday Night Live takes up another five — leaving just four slots to represent every other comedy show now airing. It’s hard to bet against AFC Richmond at this point, so my money’s on Brett Goldstein (as the deliciously sour Roy Kent) and Hannah Waddingham (as the complicated Rebecca Welton) to join Sudeikis in the winners’ circle for their essential work in keeping both Ted Lasso and Ted Lasso from tipping over from sweet to saccharine.

And yet … what true Ted Lasso fan doesn’t love an underdog? I know the show’s victory in best comedy series is a forgone conclusion, and I get it — I adore Ted Lasso, too. But The Flight Attendant was one of the most thrilling high-wire acts I had the pleasure of enjoying last year, balancing a propulsive mystery with earnest character work and deft comic beats. If I’m letting myself fantasize about a world where a serious upset might be possible, that’s where my mind is going.

FIENBERG No, definitely not much variety, which sounds like an invitation for my latest rant on the need to put all the SNL actors in a separate variety acting category. Supporting actor in a comedy is another one where I’m OK with bowing to inevitability, as long as inevitability is Brett Goldstein, such a gruff, obscenity-spewing delight on Ted Lasso and aided by the timing of his possibly even better work in the second season.

With supporting, I at least have quibbles because, to my mind, both Hannahs — especially Einbinder, who just gets better as Hacks‘ season goes along — are female leads (or co-leads) in their respective shows. Move Waddingham to lead actress, and Juno Temple (as Keeley Jones) would get my vote for stealing every moment of Ted Lasso and turning every stereotype of a WAG (wives and girlfriends of professional athletes) on its ear. Plus, how perfect would Roy and Keeley winning together be? (If I had an actual vote, given the categories, I’d give it to Einbinder, whose submission episode, involving her character’s father’s funeral, is top-notch.) On the comedy series front, Ted Lasso is going to win, but Hulu’s PEN15 deserves (and could use) the recognition more for a truncated second season that got richer, more relatable and was somehow cringier than the first.

All signs point to The Crown being every bit as much a sure thing on the drama series side, unless voters feel like the fourth season was so long ago that it already had its coronation. The second half of the final Pose season was emotional and joyful, while the highs in the bumpy first-and-only season of Lovecraft Country were creepy, allegorically rich and fully committed to period lunacy, but both might have been too uneven.

Which drama earns your crown, and what is your order of succession for acting royalty?

HAN I’m happy to kneel to The Crown, to be honest. The fourth season felt like the strongest yet, offering the most pointed critique we’ve seen so far of the institution it’s portraying. It’s not that earlier seasons painted royal life as some fairy-tale fantasy; to the contrary, The Crown has always made a point of the restrictions and sacrifices that come with the role. But the introduction of two key outsiders — Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher — allowed the series to cast the institution in a harsh new light without losing sight of the humanity of its characters.

As for its cast, I was especially taken with Josh O’Connor’s portrayal of Prince Charles as a man whose (understandable!) unhappiness hardens into callousness. I was less enamored of frontrunner Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher, which felt more like a great impression than a great performance. But as you say, The Crown is a heavy favorite, and there’s little chance of it going underappreciated. So I’d be thrilled to see some of the love spread out toward actors like Lovecraft Country‘s Jonathan Majors, who continues to be one of the most interesting breakout stars of the past few years, or Pose‘s Mj Rodriguez, whose win would be history-making.

The races I’m most excited about, though, are in the limited series category. Not only do I not know who’s going to win, but I’m not even sure who I want to win. For now, I’m pulling for I May Destroy You, which resisted the usual tropes of sexual-assault narratives to reach something thornier, more complicated and more humane. But it’s really a three-way tie for me among that series, Mare of Easttown and The Underground Railroad. I enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit and WandaVision plenty, too.

Are you finding it any easier than I am to pick out the winners here?

FIENBERG Before going to the limited categories, I’d love to quickly advocate for a slew of non-Crown acting winners, even if I know that it will be mostly Windsors making speeches on Sept. 19. I couldn’t bring myself to push Pose or Lovecraft over The Crown for series, but Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez both were searing and sometimes joyous, even when Pose was stumbling, while Lovecraft supporting players Aunjanue Ellis and especially Michael K. Williams are long overdue for Emmys. There are ways to keep the drama fields interesting.

Fortunately, the limited series categories will be fascinating regardless of who the winner ends up being. Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit and WandaVision all had moments as cultural phenomena, while I May Destroy You and The Underground Railroad offered groundbreaking approaches to tone and format. There are no bad choices here.

My own preference would be I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s HBO half-hour that captured the rage, dark humor and emotional exposure of 2020 without needing to name-check current events, but Barry Jenkins’ astonishingly ambitious Underground Railroad adaptation is on a level of its own when it comes to cinematography, score and technical reach.

From there, I’d spread the wealth. There’s too much good stuff for any one limited series to dominate like Watchmen did last year. Give lead actor to Paul Bettany, who was a romantic powerhouse, a sitcom expert and a superhero on WandaVision. Acknowledge how central Anya Taylor-Joy and her intense, inquisitive and vulnerable eyes were to The Queen’s Gambit. Give Julianne Nicholson her due for carrying the closing episodes of Mare of Easttown. And then let’s honor Paapa Essiedu for making I May Destroy You more than just the Michaela Coel show.

How do things shake out for you?

HAN I’m with you in principle, if not necessarily in specifics: I’d love if everyone could take home a little something. (Well, everyone except Hamilton — nothing against that show, but the TV purist in me just can’t bring myself to care if they take home a pile of Emmys to set by their pile of Tonys.) Coel’s and Essiedu’s layered performances helped make I May Destroy You impossible to ignore, even as the subject matter could be hard to watch. Bettany remained a consistent delight as WandaVision flitted through eras, tones and genres from episode to episode. His co-star Kathryn Hahn, on the other hand, brought the element of surprise, tearing into her role with all the wicked glee she could muster.

But even as I’m thinking it through, I’m feeling a twinge of disappointment that we can’t also reward Kate Winslet for carrying Mare of Easttown on her weary shoulders. Or Nicholson for the intensity she brought to a shocking turn. Or Taylor-Joy for ruling The Queen’s Gambit with a delicate flick of her wrist. … You get it. Heck, now I kind of want to go back and put The Underground Railroad as my top pick for limited series, just because it’s somehow been overlooked in the acting categories. I guess the silver lining here is that however things shake out, I’m probably going to feel pretty good about it.

FIENBERG See? You have one part of the show where everybody could win and deserves to win and two parts where only Ted Lasso and The Crown are going to win. I just hope the Emmy producers don’t make me sit through a full telecast to find out if Jason Sudeikis is going to win.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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