What Will Win and What Should Win at the 2021 Emmy Awards

Will this “king” and this queen emerge as Emmy winners? Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Apple TV+ and Netflix

Last year’s Emmy Awards were preceded by a great deal of uncertainty, not about who would win but about how the largely virtual COVID-era ceremony would unfurl on television. But there was no reason to worry because it was all totally fine and very normal.

By contrast, the 2021 Emmy Awards will be held tonight at a live, in-person ceremony, to be broadcast on CBS and streamed on Paramount+, because COVID is over! Just kidding, it’s totally not, which is why the festivities will take place at the Event Deck at L.A. Live, an indoor-outdoor venue that will reportedly allow for more effective social distancing.

This year, it feels like we can focus a little more attention on who will walk away with an Emmy statuette in their hands. In an attempt to figure that out, I shall now turn to my equivalent of the Steve Kornacki election map — my brain, which is filled not with numbers but educated TV-awards guesses — and attempt to predict what will happen tonight. One thing I can say for a fact: Jimmy Kimmel and Jennifer Aniston will not light a fire on the Emmy stage. I mean … I’m pretty sure.

Outstanding Drama Series

The Boys (Amazon)
Bridgerton (Netflix)
The Crown (Netflix)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Lovecraft Country (HBO)
The Mandalorian (Disney+)
Pose (FX)
This Is Us (NBC)

Doesn’t it seem like The Crown has won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama already? Well, it hasn’t. It’s been nominated in this category for every season of its existence, but it hasn’t won top honors, nor, for that matter, has a Netflix series in this category. While there are other worthy nominees, my gut tells me this fourth nom will be the charm for The Crown, which delivered the first of its two Diana seasons according to its usual high standards, but also with enough splash to compel Oprah Winfrey to ask Harry and Meghan about it in the most-watched TV interview of the year.

Will win: The Crown 

Should win: The Crown.

Outstanding Comedy Series

Black-ish (ABC)
Cobra Kai (Netflix)
Emily in Paris (Netflix)
The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
Hacks (HBO Max)
The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
PEN15 (Hulu)
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

With 20 nominations, Ted Lasso is the most nominated scripted comedy this year, and it’s really hard to imagine it not winning. In fact, I can potentially see it pulling another Schitt’s Creek and sweeping all the comedy categories, given how much it’s dominated many of them (see Supporting Actor). Its closest competition is Hacks, which could pull off an upset but would be a genuine surprise.

Will win: Ted Lasso

Should win: Probably Ted Lasso, but I would definitely squeal like a preteen girl if PEN15 somehow won.

Outstanding Limited Series

I May Destroy You (HBO)
Mare of Easttown (HBO)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
WandaVision (Disney+)

This is the most competitive category of the night, and what wins is going to depend, to some degree, on the impact of the recency effect. Earlier this year, after Golden Globe and SAG Award wins, The Queen’s Gambit seemed like a potential lock here, but then Mare of Easttown, WandaVision, and The Underground Railroad came along. However, given the number of awards The Queen’s Gambit won at last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys and the number of prognosticators who still think it’s going to win, I feel like the chess drama might have remained a few strategic moves ahead of its rivals.

Will win: The Queen’s Gambit

Should win: I May Destroy You, but that’s even more subject to recency-effect issues, since it first aired in the summer of 2020.

Outstanding Variety Talk Series

Conan (TBS)
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)
Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC)
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (CBS)

Every late-night talk-show host had to make major adjustments during the pandemic last year, broadcasting from home, alternate locations, or, in John Oliver’s case, a blank white void. I do not expect Emmy voters to alter their habits in this category, however. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver has won for the past five years, and I fully anticipate a sixth win — unless the voters decide to give this Emmy to Conan, which ended its run this year and with it, Conan O’Brien’s long stint as a beloved late-night talk-show host. O’Brien’s shows have Emmys to their credit in Writing and Interactive categories, but it would be nice to see him receive this level of industry recognition. Even though I still think Oliver will take this one again, I do think O’Brien has a shot.

Will win: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

Should win: Conan

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series

A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO)
Saturday Night Live (NBC)

It’s terrible to have two nominees. Just give both of them an Emmy! It’s rude otherwise! That said, it’s more than likely that Saturday Night Live is going to win here, since it has for the previous three years.

Will win: Saturday Night Live

Should win: I say Saturday Night Live for this reason: It managed to stage near-weekly live comedy in the middle of a pandemic and a fraught election season, when people needed whatever laughs the late-night mainstay could bring.

Outstanding Competition Program

The Amazing Race (CBS)
Nailed It! (Netflix)
RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1)
Top Chef (Bravo)
The Voice (NBC)

RuPaul’s Drag Race has won this for the past three years, and it seems poised to repeat.

Will win: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Should win: I’m going to say Nailed It! because I think both Nicole Byer and extremely amateur chefs who can’t distinguish between sugar and salt deserve some Emmy respect for once.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy

Anthony Anderson, Black-ish (ABC)
Michael Douglas, The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
William H. Macy, Shameless (Showtime)
Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Kenan Thompson, Kenan (NBC)

Ever since Sudeikis accepted a Golden Globe in a hoodie, this Emmy has seemed like his to lose. Clearly the TV Academy has a lot of love for Ted Lasso, and while the entire ensemble on that show is excellent, the series falls apart if the guy playing Ted Lasso can’t pull off Ted Lasso. Sudeikis does, and I think he will win.

Will win: Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso

Should win: Jason Sudeikis

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy

Aidy Bryant, Shrill (Hulu)
Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
Allison Janney, Mom (CBS)
Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish (ABC)
Jean Smart, Hacks (HBO Max)

This is another case in which one nominee pops out from the rest, and that’s Jean Smart. As a veteran comedian with no patience for the millennial writer her agent stuck her with, Smart is wry, revelatory, and maybe the best she’s ever been, which is saying a lot since she’s consistently terrific. Unless there’s a major upset, this is her moment.

Will win: Jean Smart, Hacks

Should win: Jean Smart

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama

Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (NBC)
Jonathan Majors, Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Josh O’Connor, The Crown (Netflix)
Regé-Jean Page, Bridgerton (Netflix)
Billy Porter, Pose (FX)
Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason (HBO)

The Emmy pundit set — yes, there is such a thing — has come to the consensus that this award comes down to two men: O’Connor, who made Prince Charles so sad and maddening in the fourth season of The Crown, and Billy Porter, who bid heartbreaking farewell to Pray Tell on the last season of Pose. Porter has won this award before, but I can see him doing it again, especially because he shared his own HIV story publicly as the season was ending. Technically that shouldn’t matter, since this is about who gave the best performance, but that sort of art-imitating-life narrative might be persuasive to any conflicted voters.

Will win: Billy Porter, Pose

Should win: Porter or Matthew Rhys, who was excellent in Perry Mason, even though its first season wasn’t quite as consistent.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

Uzo Aduba, In Treatment (HBO)
Olivia Colman, The Crown (Netflix)
Emma Corrin, The Crown (Netflix)
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
MJ Rodriguez, Pose (FX)
Jurnee Smollett, Lovecraft Country (HBO)

The consensus opinion is that Emma Corrin will win for her sensitive portrayal of a young Princess Diana in The Crown. I’m not sure that is an absolute. There is a possibility MJ Rodriguez, the first trans Emmy nominee in this category, could win for her fierce performance in Pose. I also can’t count out Olivia Colman; she did not win last year for assuming the part of Queen Elizabeth post–Claire Foy because Zendaya scooped up the Emmy. With Imelda Staunton taking over the royal role in season five, this is the last chance Colman has for an Emmy for that performance. I think she might get it, although Zendaya’s win last year could just as easily be an argument that voters might choose a younger, emerging talent.

Will win: Olivia Colman, The Crown

Should win: Colman or Elisabeth Moss, who was next-level intense in this season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie

Paul Bettany, WandaVision (Disney+)
Hugh Grant, The Undoing (HBO)
Ewan McGregor, Halston (Netflix)
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (Disney+)
Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton (Disney+)

Bless Ewan McGregor, but it’s hard to imagine him winning for Halston, and I suspect Miranda and Odom may cancel each other out. That leaves Bettany and Grant, and I think Grant, previously nominated for his excellent work in A Very English Scandal, has the edge. His turn as a shifty murder suspect in The Undoing is more consistently dramatic than Bettany’s often (though not exclusively) comedic work in WandaVision, and Emmy deciders do love their drama.

Will win: Hugh Grant, The Undoing

Should win: Paul Bettany. I would argue that as Vision, he has to be both a charming physical comedian and a dramatic actor who can find the humanity in outlandish scenarios, which requires greater range — but that’s just me. (Also, technically Ethan Hawke should be winning this for The Good Lord Bird, but apparently that is also just me.)

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie

Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You (HBO)
Cynthia Erivo, Genius: Aretha (National Geographic)
Elizabeth Olsen, WandaVision (Disney+)
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown (HBO)

The most obvious answer here is Anya Taylor-Joy, who has already been honored for her role as a drug-addled, alcoholic chess genius by the Globes and the SAG Awards. Based on support for the series, she seems like a good bet to win. But I wonder if voters might split the Gambit-Mare difference and give the Outstanding Limited Series award to the former and Lead Actress to the latter. Winslet, who brought such depth to her portrait of a grieving detective with an accent fit for a Wawa, may be hard to overlook. For what it’s worth, Coel’s thoughtful work in I May Destroy You is hard to overlook too, but I suspect Emmy voters will do it anyway.

Will win: Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown

Should win: Winslet or Michaela Coel

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy

Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Hacks (HBO)
Brett Goldstein, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Brendan Hunt, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Nick Mohammed, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Paul Reiser, The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
Jeremy Swift, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Kenan Thompson, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Bowen Yang, Saturday Night Live (NBC)

There is so much Ted Lasso representation in this category that I suspect voters may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of singling out just one and look elsewhere instead. Admittedly, though, it would be fun if Goldstein won so the debate about whether he’s an actual person or a work of CGI could get reheated.

I think the smart money this year is on Kenan Thompson. Television Academy members love him; this is his third nom in this category, and they also nominated him in the Lead Actor in a Comedy category for his sitcom this year. He’s also about to begin his 18th season on SNL, and his longevity coupled with his comedic ability may finally sway the voters.

Will win: Kenan Thompson, Saturday Night Live

Should win: Thompson, or Bowen Yang, who makes every sketch funnier. Plus, he was the Titanic iceberg, which should at least earn him an Emmy honorable mention or something.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy

Aidy Bryant, Saturday Night Live, (NBC)
Hannah Einbinder, Hacks (HBO Max)
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Rosie Perez, The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
Cecily Strong, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Juno Temple, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Hannah Waddingham, Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

There are solid arguments that could be made for every one of these nominees, but I can’t take my eyes off Hannah Waddingham and her presence on Ted Lasso. My hunch is that neither will the folks who decide the Emmys.

Will win: Hannah Waddingham, Ted Lasso

Should win: Waddingham, who is finally getting wider acclaim after years of strong work in British theater and television.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

Giancarlo Esposito, The Mandalorian (Disney+)
O.T. Fagbenle, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
John Lithgow, Perry Mason (HBO)
Tobias Menzies, The Crown (Netflix)
Max Minghella, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Chris Sullivan, This Is Us (NBC)
Bradley Whitford, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Michael K. Williams, Lovecraft Country (HBO)

Emmy voting closed on August 30, a week before Michael K. Williams sadly and unexpectedly died. I expected him to win before he passed, and I believe that will be the case, not only because his presence is so powerful in Lovecraft Country but because it was so powerful in everything he did. While a win for him would be because of Lovecraft Country, I also feel that it would serve as a make-up Emmy for the one he did not receive for The Wire. (Reminder: Throughout its entire run, The Wire was nominated for only two — two! — Emmys, both for writing, and never won a single trophy.) This Emmy will feel like a lifetime-achievement award.

Will win: Michael K. Williams, Lovecraft Country 

Should win: Michael K. Williams, Lovecraft Country

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama

Gillian Anderson, The Crown (Netflix)
Helena Bonham Carter, The Crown (Netflix)
Madeline Brewer, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Emerald Fennell, The Crown (Netflix)
Yvonne Strahovski, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Samira Wiley, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Can we all just agree that Gillian Anderson is going to win this so I don’t have to write a whole long paragraph? Okay, cool.

Will win: Gillian Anderson, The Crown

Should win: Gillian Anderson, The Crown

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie

Thomas Brodie-Sangster, The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton (Disney+)
Paapa Essiedu, I May Destroy You (HBO)
Jonathan Groff, Hamilton (Disney+)
Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Anthony Ramos, Hamilton (Disney+)

Once again, I believe the Hamilton actors, great as they are, will cancel one another out here. So if I put my finger up to test the wind — i.e., look at what the other experts are saying on Gold Derby — the weather suggests Evan Peters will win his first Emmy, deservedly, for Mare of Easttown. I’m going with that.

Will win: Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown

Should win: Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton (Disney+)
Kathryn Hahn, WandaVision (Disney+)
Moses Ingram, The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Julianne Nicholson, Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Jean Smart, Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Phillipa Soo, Hamilton (Disney+)

In my eyes, this is a contest between Hahn and Nicholson, with Smart as a possibility as well. Voters moved by Mare of Easttown may be inclined to reward Smart, or more likely Nicholson, if they opt to give Smart an Emmy for Hacks. That would be justified; her “My Ryan, my Ryan” speech in the season finale is unforgettable. But Hahn, who has been nominated for an Emmy once prior and has not won, created perhaps the most memorable TV character of the year. If WandaVision is overlooked in other categories, my sense is that it will at least be rewarded here.

Will win: Kathryn Hahn, WandaVision

Should win: Kathryn Hahn, WandaVision

Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series

B Positive, “Pilot,” James Burrows
The Flight Attendant, “In Case of Emergency,” Susanna Fogel
Hacks, “There Is No Line,” Lucia Aniello
Mom, “Scooby-Doo Checks and Salisbury Steak,” James Widdoes
Ted Lasso, “Biscuits,” Zach Braff
Ted Lasso, “The Hope That Kills You,” M.J. Delaney
Ted Lasso, “Make Rebecca Great Again,” Declan Lowney

It seems likely that Ted Lasso will win here. But for which episode? I’m inclined to say “Biscuits,” the second episode and the one that fully establishes the series’ tone, or “The Hope That Kills You,” the season-one finale that features that game with Man City and contains broader emotional scope.

Will win: Ted Lasso, “Biscuits”

Should win: Ted Lasso, “The Hope That Kills You”

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series

Bridgerton, “Diamond of the First Water,” Julie Anne Robinson
The Crown, “Fairytale,” Benjamin Caron
The Crown, “War,” Jessica Hobbs
The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Wilderness,” Liz Garbus
The Mandalorian, “Chapter 9: The Marshall,” Jon Favreau
Pose, “Season Finale,” Steven Canals

This is one of those times in which, as a board-certified Emmy predictor*, even I must throw up my hands and say, “I dunno.” I could see “The Wilderness,” the season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, winning or perhaps the series finale of Pose. But the most likely scenario is an Emmy for The Crown, which actually has won in this category once before. “War,” the season-four finale, is very well-done, but “Fairytale” examines the backstory behind one of the most famous royal moments ever, the wedding of Charles and Diana. It also features a scene in which Diana roller-skates to “Girls on Film,” and nine out of ten Emmy voters agree that contemporary television needs more roller-skating and more Duran Duran.**

*I am not board-certified in anything

**This is not a real statistic of any kind, nor was any survey on this matter ever conducted. I, Jen Chaney, am still right about this, though.

Will win: The Crown, “Fairytale”

Should win: The Crown, “Fairytale”

Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Anthology, or Movie

Hamilton, Thomas Kail
I May Destroy You, “Ego Death,” Sam Miller and Michaela Coel
I May Destroy You, “Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes,” Sam Miller
Mare of Easttown, Craig Zobel
The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank
The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins
WandaVision, Matt Shakman

All of these are worthy nominees, but I honestly don’t know how you can look at the sweep, care, and ambition that Barry Jenkins poured into The Underground Railroad and not give him this award. The question is whether enough Emmy voters looked at The Underground Railroad. I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they did; if they didn’t, expect this to go to The Queen’s Gambit.

Will win: The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins

Should win: The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins

Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series

The Flight Attendant, “In Case of Emergency,” Steve Yockey
Girls5Eva, “Pilot,” Meredith Scardino
Hacks, “There Is No Line,” Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky
PEN15, “Play,” Maya Erskine
Ted Lasso, “Make Rebecca Great Again,” Joe Kelly, Brendan Hunt, and Jason Sudeikis
Ted Lasso, “Pilot,” Jason Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt, and Joe Kelly

I don’t think it has a chance of winning, but shout-out to the pilot for Girls5Eva, a series that should have been nominated for Outstanding Comedy. Moving on, there is a very good chance the pilot for Ted Lasso wins here, but I also think Hacks could sneak in a surprise upset. Based on absolutely nothing but the mood I happen to be in at the moment I am writing this, I think Hacks might prevail. I also might be wrong. Aren’t these predictions valuable?

Will win: Hacks, “There Is No Line”

Should win: Hacks, “There Is No Line”

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series

The Boys, “What I Know,” Rebecca Sonnenshine
The Crown, “War,” Peter Morgan
The Handmaid’s Tale, “Home,” Yahlin Chang
Lovecraft Country, “Sundown,” Misha Green
The Mandalorian, “Chapter 13: The Jedi,” Dave Filoni
The Mandalorian, “Chapter 16: The Rescue,” Jon Favreau
Pose, “Series Finale,” Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk, Our Lady J, Janet Mock, and Ryan Murphy

It’s possible the Emmy could go to “Sundown,” the first episode of Lovecraft Country, which does an excellent job of establishing the half-real, half-heightened world of that series. But given the history of winners in this category, it might be a little too wild for some members of the Academy. The safer bet is probably The Crown.

Will win: The Crown, “War”

Should win: Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie

I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel
Mare of Easttown, Brad Ingelsby
The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank
WandaVision, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!,” Chuck Hayward and Peter Cameron
WandaVision, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience,” Jac Schaeffer
WandaVision, “Previously On,” Laura Donney

This is the one category in which I feel confident Michaela Coel’s brave and groundbreaking series will actually win something.

Will win: I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel

Should win: I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel

What Will Win and What Should Win at the 2021 Emmy Awards