awards season

The Emmys Have Gone Mildly Wild

Kenan Thompson’s Supporting Actor–Lead Actor twofer, Pen15’s season-two nod, and Ewan McGregor’s Halston performance together embody the Emmys’ signature blend of predictability and chaos. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Will Heath/NBC, Hulu and Netflix

Every year, watching the Emmy nominations is as much about seeing what’s considered the best in television as it is about seeing what the Television Academy considers a safely “Emmy eligible” show. The Emmys tend to fall back on familiar patterns, throwing a bunch of nominations behind series that become awards favorites, whether because they’ve received a big burst of audience attention over the past year or because they’ve won a lot of Emmys in the past.

But where categories aren’t clogged with the umpteenth Handmaid’s Tale or Crown nomination, they can occasionally reach for something surprising, new, or out of left field. (Did you ever think that Cobra Kai, late of YouTube, now on Netflix, would be an Emmy-nominated comedy?) This year, the tension between the TV Academy’s tendency to check off boxes on Emmy-ish shows and its attempts to capture the immense range of what transpired on TV over the past year was more palpable than ever. In some categories, things are pretty tame. In others, the nominees feel worlds apart. To get a sense of where the Emmys stuck to their standard ways and where they went wild, we catalogued some of the key categories in terms of the most voter chaos on display.

Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series
Chaos rating: 1 out of 10 
This category is literally four Saturday Night Live nominations (Alec Baldwin, Dave Chappelle, Daniel Kaluuya, and Dan Levy) plus Morgan Freeman playing himself on The Kominsky Method. Its one lone chaos point is for the very gentle and underwhelming cheekiness of nominating Baldwin for his Trump impersonation (again).

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Chaos rating: 1 out of 10 
If you were designing Emmy nominations by ratio, the result would look something like the Supporting Actress in a Drama category: You take three parts The Crown (Gillian Anderson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Emerald Fennell) for every four parts The Handmaid’s Tale (Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, and Samira Wiley) and then you add just a dash of something more unexpected (Aunjanue Ellis in Lovecraft Country) for flavor.

Outstanding Drama Series
Chaos rating: 2 out of 10 
In drama, the Emmys tend to be particularly set in their ways, sticking to established favorites, including The Crown, The Handmaid’s Tale, Pose, This Is Us, and The Mandalorian, and new fare that falls safely within traditional bounds, like HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Amazon’s The Boys, and Netflix’s Bridgerton. Were The Boys and Bridgerton the best shows on TV necessarily? Well, they certainly were talked about a lot, and so here they are.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Chaos rating: 2 out of 10 
We are shocked — shocked! — to see an Emmys category filled with nominations for The Crown and The Handmaid’s Tale. Uzo Aduba for In Treatment and Jurnee Smollett for Lovecraft Country shake things up a bit, but the one really big happy surprise here is Mj Rodriguez for Pose. It doesn’t up the chaos ranking for the category, because it’s so obviously a correct and good nomination, but it has taken way too long for her work to get recognized.

Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series
Chaos rating: 3 out of 10 
Not a particularly chaotic category in its nomination choices (I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, and The Underground Railroad are all strong selections, and The Queen’s Gambit was a shoo-in), but WandaVision’s equally deserved presence here is suggestive of what a big, awkward, disparate group Limited or Anthology Series is becoming. Limited Series used to be a very specific kind of descriptor for fancy HBO event productions and whatever your mom was watching on Masterpiece Theatre, and now it’s just a subcategory for everything.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Chaos rating: 3 out of 10
Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us), Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country), Josh O’Connor (The Crown), Regé-Jean Page (Bridgerton, but not going forward), Billy Porter (Pose), and Matthew Rhys (Perry Mason) are all pretty reasonable nominees considering the Emmys’ tastes. We’ve seen this blend of buzzy, prestige-y, and sexy every year, and yet what’s most surprising about this category might be that it is just so predictable. Why not throw in Pedro Pascal’s work under a helmet all season! Or go hard into populism and recognize Kevin Costner for Yellowstone! Too little chaos, somehow also a sign of chaos.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Chaos rating: 4 out of 10 
Sure, all the names track with the Emmys’ default nominees: You’ve got Anthony Anderson for Black-ish, Michael Douglas for Kominsky, and William H. Macy for Shameless. Do voters watch those shows or just know to tick those boxes every year? Who knows. But then there’s Jason Sudeikis for Ted Lasso — also not too much of a surprise, since the show’s quarantine popularity boom lifted almost everyone involved to nominations — and Kenan Thompson. Don’t get us wrong, Thompson is reliably wonderful on SNL, so this makes sense, but he got that nomination for Supporting Actor; this is a nomination for his NBC show Kenan, which is a fine-enough sitcom. Good news for network TV: Emmy voters are still watching you.

Outstanding Television Movie
Chaos rating: 5 out of 10 
It’s bonkers to see a category that includes everything from Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square to the play-to-movie adaptation Oslo to Lifetime’s Mahalia Jackson documentary to two Amazon movies (Sylvie’s Love and Uncle Frank), but bonkers is also what you come to this category for. In the streaming era, what is TV? What are movies? What are movies that only premiered on TV in a year when so many movies only premiered on TV because, you know, pandemic? Only guardian angel Dolly Parton knows for sure.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series
Chaos rating: 7 out of 10
Congrats to movie stars Hugh Grant and Ewan McGregor, who can still slip into categories like this and walk away with Emmy nominations, even if The Undoing and Halston weren’t that good. And congrats to Paul Bettany, who got a nomination for playing Vision across several sitcom realities on WandaVision, a slightly more off-the-beaten-track choice, but one in keeping with the Emmys’ recent embrace of Disney+ shows. But more important, it’s a real bold move to reward the performances of Hamilton (with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.) in this category, considering they were already heaped with Tonys years ago and primarily crafted for another medium. The Hamilton actors also take space in the already crowded Limited Series acting categories from other less-heralded performances that would have benefited from the attention. What of the performances in The Underground Railroad, or Ethan Hawke’s extraordinary The Good Lord Bird performance, or the work of the ensemble around Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You, or the performances of Small Axe? Regardless of whether you think of that as movies or TV, Small Axe submitted as a Limited Series and was entirely blanked by the Emmys.

Outstanding Comedy Series
Chaos ranking: 9 out of 10
You know how dogs from different breeds look like completely unrelated animals? A Pekingese is an entire world away from a Saint Bernard, and both of them have almost nothing whatsoever to do with a greyhound, and yet they’re all apparently still members of the dog species? In the spirit of that metaphor, we give you the Emmy nominations for Comedy Series: Black-ish and Emily in Paris and The Kominsky Method? But also Ted Lasso and Hacks! And Pen15! And to top it all off, The Flight Attendant! Sure.

Outstanding Variety Special (Prerecorded)
Chaos ranking: 27 out of 10
It’s so nice to sit down with a prerecorded variety special, an Emmys category that definitely does not feel at all like that one bag of stuff you’ve left at the very end of packing for a move, where you throw everything that did not fit into any other easily labeled box. You know, a prerecorded variety special, like, for instance, a brief but potent Chappelle sermon on police violence in America; or Bo Burnham’s 90-minute pandemic tour de force, Inside; or … the Friends reunion. Or the West Wing reunion/voting-boosterism special. Chaos reigns.

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The Emmys Have Gone Mildly Wild