The variety categories at this year’s Emmys are facing a conundrum. In December, the Television Academy voted to combine Outstanding Variety Talk Series and Outstanding Variety Sketch Series into a single category, only to change its mind a couple of months later after facing an outcry from critics who thought that comparing, say, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” with “Saturday Night Live” was a classic case of apples-and-oranges.
The problem is that there were only 14 eligible sketch series last year, which made the category a candidate for elimination under the Academy’s old “rule of 14” — and this year it was even worse, with only nine entries. That’s definitely not enough to warrant a separate category, regardless of how much Lorne Michaels would hate to compete against John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. And it means that under rules that now tie the number of nominees to the number of entries, the category will have a paltry two nominees this year. Plus, under another new Emmy rule that says any category with fewer than 25 entries for two consecutive years is eligible to be merged with another category, the variety-sketch category could be on the chopping block again after this year’s Emmys.
But for now, the category exists in all its paltry glory, along with the slightly healthier variety-talk category (20 entries), the skimpier-than-usual live variety special category and the very competitive pre-recorded variety special category. In the reality field, meanwhile, most of the usual suspects are back – which is pretty much business as usual for reality, which tends to see the same shows nominated over and over.
OUTSTANDING VARIETY TALK SERIES
Number of nominees: 5
Here’s what voters like in this category: Funny people who’ve been on “The Daily Show” talking about current events and politics, and Jimmy Kimmel (who was never a “Daily Show” correspondent but is quite good at talking about current events and politics). For the last three years in a row, the slate of nominees in the category has included “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which always wins, and “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Prior to 2020, the category usually had six nominees, which left room for James Corden and Bill Maher to sneak in, and even Jimmy Fallon in the days before he tousled Donald Trump’s hair. But now the category is set at five, which makes it tough for Corden or Maher or Fallon or Seth Meyers (who’s been lurking on the outside for years) or “Desus and Mero” to crash the party. Could “Conan” get a boost of goodwill from voters with his nicely timed retirement? He could, but this is a category where voters are really creatures of habit.
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”
“The Daily Show With Trevor Noah”
“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Watch out for: “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” “Conan,” “Desus and Mero,” “Real Time With Bill Maher,” “The Late Late Show With James Corden”
OUTSTANDING VARIETY SKETCH SERIES
Number of nominees: 2
Based on Emmy rules, this category really shouldn’t exist. But it does, albeit with only nine eligible shows and a pair of nominees this year — and one of those nominees is bound to be “Saturday Night Live,” which already has more nominations and more wins than any other show in Emmy history, and which has won in this category for the last five years in a row. (Not coincidentally, five years is how long this category has existed.)
So “SNL” will land the first spot without breaking a sweat, and then the eight other shows will compete for a single slot. “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which was nominated last year (when the category had a full three nominees), is the clear favorite to take the second spot. The other contenders are “The Amber Ruffin Show,” “How to With John Wilson,” “Studio C,” “Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and “Ziwe.” The last of those shows has gained a lot of heat in recent weeks and would be an exciting newcomer in a category that could use one — but its heat probably won’t help it squeeze into a box built for two.
“Saturday Night Live”
“A Black Lady Sketch Show”
Watch out for: “Ziwe,” “The Amber Ruffin Show”
OUTSTANDING VARIETY SPECIAL (LIVE)
Number of nominees: 5
It was difficult to stage live programs in the Zoom-happy environment of the past year, and that shows in the number of entries in this category: 23, down from 29 in last year’s voting. And while the category is often filled with live awards shows, many of the ones we’ve seen recently haven’t exactly been awards-worthy: The Oscars and the Golden Globes got some of their worst reviews ever to go along with their worst ratings ever — and while it’s hard to imagine anybody voting for a show put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, it’s possible the Oscars will squeeze in out of force of habit.
The Grammys, though, won raves for their socially distanced and music-heavy production, and that should get it its first nomination in nine years. The Super Bowl halftime show has only been nominated once in the last three years, but this year’s version starring The Weeknd doesn’t have much competition in the large-scale extravaganza department, though Joe Biden’s inauguration-day “Celebrating America” special is a strong contender as well. And on the political front, “Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand: Building Back America Great Again Better 2020” is in good shape if its title fits on the ballot, and Seth Meyer’s pre-election “Closer Look Thursday” has a shot too.
“The 63rd Annual Grammy Awards”
“Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand: Building Back America Great Again Better 2020”
“The Pepsi Super Bowl LB Halftime Show Starring The Weeknd”
“Celebrating America – An Inauguration Night Special”
“Closer Look Thursday”
Watch out for: “The Oscars,” “2020 MTV Video Music Awards”
OUTSTANDING VARIETY SPECIAL (PRE-RECORDED)
Number of nominees: 6
In contrast to the live variety special category, this one is chock full of contenders: 116 qualifying shows, enough to bump it up to six nominees. And it has no shortage of heavyweights: There’s filmed theater (“Hamilton,” “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Spike Lee’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia”), comedy (“Bo Burnham: Inside,” “8:46 – Dave Chappelle,” “Kevin Hart: Zero F**ks Given,” “Chelsea Handler: Evolution,” “Michelle Buteau: Welcome to Buteaupia,” “Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!”), musical events (Beyonce’s “Black Is King,” “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You,” “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” Taylor Swift’s “Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions”), reunions of beloved TV shows (“Friends: The Reunion,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion,” “30 Rock: A One Time Special”) and timely issue-oriented specials (“Between the World and Me,” “Full Frontal Wants to Take Your Guns,” “John Lewis: Celebrating a Hero”).
Of those, “Hamilton” feels like a no-brainer, while “Bo Burnham: Inside” dropped unexpectedly and came on strong just before voting began. And Dave Chappelle has won two of the last three awards in this category.
“Bo Burnham: Inside”
“8:46 – Dave Chappelle”
“David Byrne’s American Utopia”
“Kevin Hart: Zero F**ks Given”
“What the Constitution Means to Me”
Watch out for: “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” “Black Is King,” “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You,” “Friends: The Reunion,” “Between the World and Me”
OUTSTANDING STRUCTURED REALITY PROGRAM
Number of nominees: 5
With only 34 entries, this is the smallest of the three reality categories, with two sure things in “Queer Eye” and “Shark Tank,” which have won the last seven awards in the category. (“Shark Tank” took four in a row from 2014 to 2017, and “Queer Eye” have won three consecutive Emmys since then.) Their competition includes “Antiques Roadshow,” which with 16 total nominations is by far the most-nominated show ever in the category, though it’s never won.
None of the other contenders have been nominated before, but you have to figure that “Dr. Pimple Popper” has gotten close in the past. Home-improvement mavens Drew and Jonathan Scott and Ben and Erin Napier each have a pair of contenders, the Scotts with “Celebrity IOU” and “Property Brothers: Forever Home” and the Napiers with “Home Town” and “Home Town Takeover.” And while “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” not on the ballot this year, is the most often-nominated culinary show, Ludacris and Selena Gomez offer twists on the genre with “Luda Can’t Cook” and “Selena + Chef,” respectively.
“Dr. Pimple Popper”
“Property Brothers: Forever Home”
Watch out for: “Celebrity IOU,” “Home Town Makeover,” “Selena + Chef,” “Farmhouse Fixer,” “Kids Say the Darndest Things”
OUTSTANDING UNSTRUCTURED REALITY PROGRAM
Number of nominees: 5
Only one of last year’s nominees, “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked,” is eligible this year, and it’s joined by “Life Below Zero,” “Deadliest Catch” and “Naked and Afraid” as the only shows on the ballot to ever have been nominated in the category. It seems likely that “Untucked” and at least one of the others will land noms in a field whose other contenders include “Becoming,” “Couples Therapy,” “Deaf U,” “Intervention,” “90 Day Fiance” (and three other “90 Day” shows) , “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and yep, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked”
“Life Below Zero”
Watch out for: “Naked and Afraid,” “Intervention”
OUTSTANDING COMPETITION PROGRAM
Number of nominees: 5
The heftiest of the reality categories, with 67 entries to only 34 in structured reality, Outstanding Competition Program is also one where voters tend to go for the same shows year after year. Last year was a shock since two streaks came to an end: “American Ninja Warrior” was bypassed after being nominated for the previous four years, and “The Amazing Race” saw its crazy streak of 17 consecutive nominations (with 10 wins sprinkled in there) come to an end.
Both of them could be back this year, but to do so they’d have to beat “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (three consecutive wins in the category), “The Masked Singer” (a nomination last year and growing pop-culture clout), “The Voice” (nine consecutive noms), “Nailed It!” (two in a row) and “Top Chef” (14 in a row). And that’s an even tougher task for newcomers like “Full Bloom” and “Supermarket Sweep.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race”
“The Masked Singer”
Watch out for: “The Amazing Race,” “American Ninja Warrior,” “Supermarket Sweep”
OUTSTANDING HOST FOR A REALITY OR COMPETITION PROGRAM
Number of nominees: 5
This category used to belong to “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, who won the first four years in a row, 2008-2011. But now it belongs to RuPaul Charles, who has topped Probst’s streak with a five-run run that began in 2016. RuPaul will no doubt be nominated again, probably alongside his fellow 2020 nominees from “Queer Eye,” “Top Chef” and “Nailed It!”
But last year’s category had six nominees and this year’s will have five, so that list leaves out the “Shark Tank” hosts who were nominated last year. They could well be nominated again — but so could a newcomer like Tiffany Haddish of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” or Leslie Jones of ”Supermarket Sweep.”
RuPaul Charles, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”
Nicole Byer, “Nailed It!”
“Queer Eye” hosts, “Queer Eye”
Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, “Top Chef”
Tiffany Haddish, “Kids Say the Darndest Things”
Watch out for: “Shark Tank” hosts; Leslie Jones, “Supermarket Sweep”; Jimmy Kimmel, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”; Jane Lynch, “Weakest Link”; Phil Keoghan, “The Amazing Race”