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Emmy Analysis: Voters Get Awfully Lazy in the Acting Categories

Do they really have to give all those nominations to actors from just a handful of shows?


There’s so much television and streaming content out there these days that it’s impossible to wrap your head around it all, but did Television Academy voters even try?

That’s an inescapable question when you look at the nominations in the acting categories for the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, which were announced on Tuesday morning. In one acting category after another, many of them with hundreds of eligible contenders, the same programs showed up. Voters were seemingly very, very comfortable (or do I mean lazy?) with making their choices from a small handful of shows.  

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” for instance, landed 10 acting nominations, while “The Crown” got nine and “Ted Lasso” and “Hamilton” got seven each. “Saturday Night Live” had 11 actors and hosts nominated, one shy of the record of 12 acting nominations set by “The West Wing” in 2002.

And that resulted in some very lopsided categories. Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series category consists of four “SNL” hosts, plus Morgan Freeman for “The Kominsky Method.”  

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series consists of four nominees from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” three from “The Crown” and one lone entrant from anywhere else, Aunjanue Ellis from “Lovecraft Country.” Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series has four nominees from “Ted Lasso,” two from “SNL” and one each from “Hacks” and “The Kominsky Method.”

And the filmed version of “Hamilton,” which was eligible in the Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) category and initially faced questions about whether its performers even qualified in the acting categories, cleaned up with two of the five nominations in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie category, three of the six in supporting actor and two of the six in supporting actress.

It was an embarrassment of riches for a small handful of shows, helping “The Crown” almost double the number of nominations it got in its first three seasons, 13 in each year, to 22 this year. And it was enough to help “Ted Lasso” become the most-nominated first-year comedy in Emmy history, nudging “Glee” 20 to 19.

As “Ted Lasso” shows and as was expected, 2021 was a year for new shows: With many of last year’s nominees in the drama and comedy series categories out of the running because of pandemic-related production delays, first-year shows grabbed half of the eight comedy-series slots and three of the eight drama-series ones. That included not just the slam-dunk choices like “Lasso,” “The Flight Attendant,” “Hacks” and “Bridgerton,” but also a pair of surprises in “Emily in Paris” and “The Boys,” both of whom were well down the list on most prognosticators’ charts.

The freshman class could have done even better if “Girls5eva,” “Made for Love,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” or “The Mosquito Coast” had gotten in — but instead, voters turned to past nominees (“black-ish,” “Pose,” “This Is Us”) and to a pair of comedies that have been in the running before but haven’t been nominated: “Cobra Kai” and “Pen15,” the latter being one of the Television Academy’s most adventurous and satisfying choices.

The Outstanding Limited Series category had its own satisfying choice when Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” a critical favorite that got some heat with voters late in the game, scored a program nom to go with ones for actors Coel and Paapa Essiedu. But may have come at the expense of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” which went into the race with loads of prestige but could only manage a single nomination, for cinematography.

Other curiosities included Ethan Hawke being overlooked for his monumental and deeply weird performance in “The Good Lord Bird”; the lead actors of Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” failing to land nominations; and Bill Camp, in some ways the heart of “The Queen’s Gambit,” being swept aside for a “Hamilton” trio in a category he was thought to have a strong chance to win.

Plus, the widely-maligned Oscars ceremony was nominated in the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category, apparently out of habit.

Looking ahead, “Ted Lasso” and “The Crown” are clearly the shows to beat in the Emmy series categories, though you shouldn’t underestimate “Hacks” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The limited-series categories remain too close to call, with many of the year’s most celebrated and buzziest shows squaring off: “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Mare of Easttown,” “WandaVision” …

And poor Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, with its paltry nine qualifying shows and two nominees, is increasingly looking like a useless category that exists only to boost the already-record number of nominations and wins for “Saturday Night Live.”

Of course, maybe they want to keep rewarding “SNL” because it serves another valuable purpose for Emmy voters: It makes it so much easier to figure out who to vote for in the acting categories.