In the world of the Emmys, there’s nothing as exciting as a blank slate. TV’s biggest award show tends to favor repetition, from Modern Family’s five-year winning streak to the late-era dominance of Game of Thrones. So when a reigning winner finds itself ineligible, either because it’s on hiatus or just no longer on the air, that frees up room for some sorely needed fresh blood, or at least fervid speculation about what lucky show could fill the vacuum.
This year, the Emmys were due for more turnover than usual. The incumbent for Outstanding Comedy Series, Schitt’s Creek, earned an astonishing clean sweep last year for its sixth and final season, ensuring it wouldn’t pose a threat to a new crop of contenders. (The winner before that, Fleabag, had also run its course—one of many reasons comedy has proved more dynamic than drama as of late.) Meanwhile, Succession holds the current title of Outstanding Drama, and very well could in the future. But for now, Succession is on an extended break, just one of many productions put on indefinite hold by the pandemic.
Even though this year’s ceremony will be held in person, COVID-19 still looms over the entertainment industry, as it does the world at large. “These nominations represent the work done in television through the most challenging year I can think of,” said Television Academy chairman Frank Scherma ahead of Tuesday’s reveal. That includes many deserving series that managed to eke out great work on socially distanced sets. Notably, it does not include some longtime Emmy favorites whose screwed-up schedules pushed them outside this year’s eligibility window: not just Succession, but also Ozark, Stranger Things, Insecure, What We Do in the Shadows, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
That left the Academy’s membership with a lot of open spots to fill. It would be both inaccurate and insensitive to call a handful of award nominations a silver lining to such a devastating year, both within television and without. But there’s a causal link between the pandemic’s disruptions and some of the more surprising breakthroughs in this year’s crop of honorees. The coming-of-age comedy Pen15 earned a nod in its second season—a rarity for the Emmys, which tend to toast a series at its beginning or its end. Amazon’s acid superhero satire The Boys broke into the drama field. (Ironically, this didn’t stop voters from digging either WandaVision or The Mandalorian, precisely the massive franchises The Boys viciously lampoons.) And though it’s in a different category, Cobra Kai—formerly a YouTube original—appeared to inherit Stranger Things’ nostalgia slot while also speaking to the power of the Netflix bump. Each of these nominees could once plausibly lay claim to the title of cult hit. No longer obscured by more established players, they’ve now lost the qualifier.
The nominations also reflected the past year of TV in other, less intentional ways. 2020 was nothing if not chaotic, upending our expectations for how daily life was meant to flow. “Chaotic” also applies to some of the more jaw-dropping picks from Tuesday morning. There’s a distinctly cursed energy, for example, to nominating Emily in Paris, the critically flambéed Netflix comedy that appeared to bribe the Golden Globes with free trips to France. To the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s (minimal) credit, it seems you don’t have to be on creator Darren Star’s payroll to enjoy his latest trifle—though the Academy still managed to one-up its smaller, more visibly corrupt competitor by acknowledging Michaela Coel, the I May Destroy You auteur who got entirely shut out by the Globes.
Elsewhere, the Emmys, like Marie Kondo, loved mess. The Limited Series grouping, which also includes TV movies in fields like acting, has become one of the Emmys’ most competitive in recent years, dominated by prestige miniseries led by movie stars. This year, however, it seems set to favor Hamilton, a straightforward staging of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical that aired last July Fourth weekend on Disney+. (Renée Elise Goldsberry was nominated not for her scene-stealing turn as Wickie Roy in Girls5Eva, but for her breakout as Angelica Schuyler.) Hugh Grant, one of just two non-Hamilton actors up for the lead prize, was nominated for confessing he “killed the family sister” in the unabashedly absurd The Undoing. And Disney+ seized the opportunity to turn its IP into not just a market force, but a cultural one. WandaVision earned three times as many writing nods as I May Destroy You, a technicality—as a single writer, Coel could be nominated only once—that still stood in for a larger truth. Over in Drama, The Mandalorian built on its breakthrough last year with a trio of acting nods.
Yet all this upheaval, trickling down from a larger seismic shift, belies some ways in which the Emmys are still the Emmys. The old inertia still manifests in past-their-prime picks like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Kominsky Method, and This Is Us. And in some new favorites, you can see the makings of an Emmy presence for years to come. Apple TV+ may have initially bet on The Morning Show, but it was Ted Lasso that came in strong with a whopping 20 nominations, spread throughout the production staff and ensemble cast. Hacks was already heavily favored to bring home a trophy for lead Jean Smart, but its 15 nominations also extended to the likes of supporting actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins and guest actress Jane Adams.
Other trends have held up, albeit with different examples than usual. Emily in Paris aside, the comedies (Hacks, The Flight Attendant) tend to be stronger than the dramas; the female performers (Jean Smart, Anya Taylor-Joy) tend to be more buzzed about than the male ones (William H. Macy, Matthew Rhys). Both trends reflect TV’s broader status quo. And even without Donald Trump to boost its ratings, Saturday Night Live continues to all but own the comedy acting awards. (Bowen Yang earned a nomination for his work on the flagship, while Kenan Thompson was doubly acknowledged for his work on both SNL and his own sitcom.)
The Emmys have, in short, retained their essential Emmy-ness. But ahead of the actual ceremony this September, it’s the absences and fresh faces that stand out above the carryovers, a noted departure from years past. It also reflects how TV has felt over the past 15 months, for viewers and creators alike. We’re still sorting through the pandemic’s upheaval. The members of the Television Academy are no exception.