Last night marked the second pandemic Emmys, and though it’s been another challenging year on the whole, at least it’s been an exciting year for TV. Streamers continued to dominate with new and returning favorites like The Crown and The Handmaid’s Tale. Disney+, the streaming newcomer but heavy hitter, upped its game with another stellar season of The Mandalorian and a strong slate of Marvel shows. Prestige miniseries gained an even larger audience share, with would-be watercooler series like The Queen’s Gambit and Mare of Easttown generating plenty of online chatter.
With all these stellar programs, let’s review the highs, lows and snubs that occurred at the 2021 Emmys.
The 2020 Emmys were widely considered the best of the pandemic-era awards shows, with COVID workarounds resulting in some charmingly absurd moments. This year’s proceedings started off relatively strong with a chummy audience participation rendition of the late Biz Markie‘s Just a Friend that featured a rapping Rita Wilson and Michael Douglas getting his groove on.
That was followed by the night’s standout moment: first presenter Seth Rogen (dressed as a dapper Peter Rabbit) hilariously scolded the Emmys for cramming so many maskless bodies into what he called a hermetically sealed tent with three chandeliers. After all, when the virus wasn’t as rampant last September, awards were handed out in Zoom rooms by faceless people in hazmat suits. Someone had to address the potential for what could be seen as hypocrisy (or at least cognitive dissonance) head-on, and Rogen was the right man for the job.
Many of the evening’s winners were not only deserving but seemed genuinely touched and humbled by the moment and couldn’t help themselves from literally shouting out the people they wanted to thank. Mare of Easttown‘s Evan Peters was awarded his first Emmy for what was arguably the year’s best performance as sweet, naive and occasionally very drunk Colin Zabel. Veterans Jean Smart and Kate Winslet both received extended standing ovations and gave heartfelt speeches in response. Michaela Cole, recognized for writing her series I May Destroy You, struck an inspirational tone, as did Governor’s Award honoree, the legendary Debbie Allen. Lifetime achievement awards can sometimes be the moment where live award shows hit a rut, but Allen was warm and captivating, even as she ignored the ticking clock on her speech.
The Academy made an effort to showcase improvements in representation (at least in terms of presenters and nominees). The cast of Reservation Dogs spoke up on behalf of Indigenous stories. Gold medal winners Allyson Felix and Jessica Long, repping the female, Black and disabled communities, drew attention to the mental health issues facing elite athletes. And more than one presenter mentioned the increased number of women and people of color who’d made the cut. Seeking out some representation of his own was chronically under-recognized comedy great Conan O’Brien, who didn’t win, but who did crash the stage and nevertheless stole the show on three separate occasions.
The 2021 ceremony looked more like a traditional awards show, but it was, unfortunately, a fairly basic and sloppily-produced one. Host Cedric the Entertainer was serviceable; he was low-key and not particularly ambitious in his duties, making predictable dad jokes but keeping the production moving along. The presentation of the awards themselves was another matter. Announcers read some nominees before the presenters took the stage. Others did their routines prior to the nominees being introduced. The effect involved dozens of professional performers all confused about what they were supposed to do, resulting in more than a few flubbing their copy.
None of the pre-taped or pre-planned segments were worth their while, but Ken Jeong’s COVID prop comedy and a skit about the fly on Mike Pence’s hair were both cringe-worthy. So was Scott Frank (director of The Queen’s Gambit) in his acceptance of his award. In contrast to Debbie Allen’s friendly dismissal of the clock, Frank condescendingly waved off the orchestra three times as he read what appeared to be a two-page long typed speech.
Though the Emmys talked a good representation game, when it came time to reveal the winners, its too often self-congratulation about diversity was immediately followed by a white man taking home the trophy. That’s not to say many of those white men weren’t deserving; it just made for awkward optics.
Compared to other award shows, the Emmys have a reputation for predictability and consistency — maybe to a fault. There were no egregious snubs this year, at least not among the winners, although many fans and critics have lamented the absence of shows such as The Good Lord Bird from the nominations. The prevailing series — Ted Lasso, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit — were all the frontrunners. Most acting winners, including almost the entire cast of Mare of Easttown, were expected, though there had been buzz and hope for Elizabeth Olsen and Kathryn Hahn. If there was one surprise, it came in the Best Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series category when Ewan McGregor heard his name called for Halston. He’d been up against Paul Bettany for his work on WandaVision, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. from Hamilton.
Disney+ may have scored double-digit nominations for its hugely popular Star Wars and Marvel series, but it didn’t manage to nab any above-the-line wins. As the Emmys have proven slow to change and slow to recognize emerging talent and influence in the past, Disney+ need only wait its turn. It wasn’t that long ago that Netflix was the new kid on the block. Now in 2021, Netflix was the most awarded studio with a total of 44 wins.
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It was a great year in television, but how was it reflected in 2021's Emmy Awards Ceremony?