By Tom O’Brien
Well, that wasn’t what I expected…Every year, the Emmy nomination announcement brings its share of surprises, WTF inclusions, and this year’s nominations, announced yesterday morning, were certainly no exception. There were a lot of the usual “What were they thinking?” kind of posts on social media all day, and that’s to be expected. But stepping back a moment to take in the entire list, my gut feeling was that, in many cases, I was surprised that I was surprised, though not by the actual nominees themselves — except for that looney-tunes Outstanding Limited Series category, most of the names announced made for entirely respectable nominees — but instead in the shift of momentum that those nomination numbers revealed. After some small series over-performed and some favorites under-performed, it was clear that today’s nominations changed the dynamic of the race in each one of the high-profile series categories.
Responsible Emmy prognosticators would likely pause for a few days and let the dust settle before making their updated predictions known. Fortunately, I have no sense of responsibility in that regard, so let’s dive in together to explore the state of the races at this moment in time and make our best guess as to who will win, who could win, and who to look out for in the Emmy races for Outstanding, Comedy and Limited Series.
OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
“Abbott Elementary” (ABC)
“Barry” (HBO Max)
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO Max)
“Hacks” (HBO Max)
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime)
“Only Murders in the Building” (Hulu)
“Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+)
“What We Do in the Shadows” (Hulu)
The nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series this year went pretty much as expected, with the possible exception of “Atlanta,” which had a four-year gap between seasons, being bumped out by perennial bridesmaid “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Where things got seriously shaken up, however, was in the total number of nominations each nominee received, a statistic that offers a revealing look at the strengths and weaknesses of each show.
With their nomination totals in single digits, both “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “What We Do in the Shadows” should just enjoy being invited to the party. Much more surprising, however, was the dramatic drop in nominations for former Emmy champion “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” from 20 in 2020 to just 12 this year (and none for its writing and directing), likely dooming the chances for a “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” repeat series win.
The prospect of a series win is much brighter for the remaining nominees, although each comes into the race with distinct pluses and minuses. For example, the 15 nominations for “Barry” is a slight drop from its 2019 total, snagged nominations in most key categories. However, what may work against “Barry” from winning the top comedy prize is the widespread perception that Season 3 plays more like a drama than a comedy. This approach has rarely found favor among Emmy voters in this category. “Succession” probably had more laughs in it this year than “Barry,” and that’s not a good gauge for an Outstanding Comedy Series win.
On the other hand, HBO Max’s “Hacks” increased its haul Tuesday morning to 17 nominations and is generally thought to have come very close last year to winning the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, with its star, Jean Smart, triumphing in Lead Actress and the show itself beating “Ted Lasso” in the two key categories of writing and directing. This year, the acclaimed second season played like a series finale, providing satisfying conclusions for each of its characters. The challenge for “Hacks,” though, is that this year, it is no longer a one-on-one race with “Ted Lasso,” but one with several potential winners, changing the dynamic which may or may not work to the series’ benefit.
“Hacks‘” 17 nominations have placed it in a tie with the big surprise winner of the morning, “Only Murders in the Building.” The Hulu mystery comedy series was expected to do well, but its numbers suggest a strength in the race that could make it a major threat to unseat the current champ. Hulu’s decision to run the show’s second season around Emmy voting time was a shrewd one (the ploy certainly helped “Ted Lasso” last year). However, the big question is whether a series starring two septuagenarians can power past hipper shows and still attract an increasingly younger bloc of Emmy voters?
With its category-leading 20 nominations, reigning champion “Ted Lasso” would seem to have lost none of its appeal with Emmy voters. Even with a more contested race, the Apple TV+ comedy will likely be perceived as the category front-runner. Still, the road to Emmy #2 may have a few land mines along the way, which the show will have to negotiate skillfully. The first concern is the calendar — Season 2 finished airing in October 2021, almost an eternity in Emmy time, and its main rivals’ seasons ended much more recently and will be fresher in voters’ minds. In addition, several of the season’s storylines were considerably darker than in its upbeat first year, including a probe of Ted’s deep psychological issues and Nate’s controversial heel turn (expertly realized by Nick Mohammed) in the season finale. Make no mistake, “Ted Lasso” may still win the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, but in this race, it’s going to have to fight to keep its crown.
This brings us to the wild card in the race: ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” With only seven Emmy nominations, the show seriously underperformed, suggesting a lack of strength from other branches, even as star/creator Quinta Brunson became the first Black woman to receive three comedy Emmy nominations. Still, the one reason I wouldn’t dismiss “Abbott Elementary” in the race, despite its low numbers, is passion. Like 2019’s “Fleabag,” an Emmy champ that also had a low nomination total, people who love the show really love the show, and that can do wonders in pulling an underdog nominee through (see “CODA“). I’m not predicting a giant upset just yet, but don’t sleep on this one. This race is not over yet.
WILL WIN: “Ted Lasso”
COULD WIN: “Hacks”
LOOK OUT FOR: “Only Murders in the Building”
GIANT UPSET IN THE MAKING?: “Abbott Elementary”
OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
“Better Call Saul” (AMC)
“Euphoria” (HBO Max)
“Severance” (Apple TV+)
“Squid Game” (Netflix)
“Stranger Things” (Netflix)
“Succession” (HBO Max)
The eight nominees for Outstanding Drama Series span a wide variety of genres and histories. Two contenders, for example, are in their final seasons, which always carries the possibility of a farewell Emmy. “Ozark,” which has already ended its run, has earned three Emmys (two for Julia Garner and one for Jason Bateman’s direction), but if a series win was in the cards, I suspect it would have happened by now. “Better Call Saul,” also winless in the series category, is halfway through its valedictory season, but if a win is to come, it will likely be honoring the show’s second-half finale.
One of the biggest surprises of Tuesday’s nominations was the overperformance of HBO Max’s “Euphoria,” whose 16 nominations go way beyond the appeal of its Emmy-winning star Zendaya, revealing a depth of support for the teen drama that could make it a real dark horse for the win. Another nominee with teen girls in its center is Showtime’s freshman series “Yellowjackets,” which earned a promising seven nominations. Though the series may not be in contention for the win its first time out, its devoted fan base and critical acclaim will likely keep it in the awards mix in the future.
Another nominee helped by the calendar is Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” whose partial Season 4 episodes aired just as voting was about to begin and reaped 13 nominations for its effort. If “Stranger Things” is to win an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, however, I suspect it would likely be for its fifth and final season, which is scheduled to be shot this fall.
Suppose we’re seriously looking for which series has the best chance of winning this year’s Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. In that case, I suspect that it will come down to one of three contenders — one former series champion now being challenged by two unexpected freshman upstarts.
Few Emmy prognosticators had Apple TV+’s “Severance” on their radar early in the year. The series premiered quietly in February and seemed destined to be lost amid the never-ending pool of new streaming series. But audiences slowly found the paranoid workplace thriller, which, with its production design of blank walls and fluorescent lighting, simply doesn’t look like any other show on TV. Anecdotally, I’ve been asked by more colleagues about “Severance” than any drama series over the past few months, so it may be peaking at just the right time.
The biggest streaming story in the fall of 2021 was the phenomenal success of “Squid Game,” a Korean-language survival drama that not only garnered critical acclaim but quickly became the most-watched series in the history of Netflix. Still, because of the show’s language barrier, the idea of the series becoming an Emmy juggernaut seemed, at best, far-fetched. That all changed at this January’s SAG Awards when its stars Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon bested their counterparts in the lead acting roles and proved to industry watchers that “Squid Game” was an award force with which to be reckoned. Rather than giving a previous winner yet another trophy, Emmy voters might feel like making history by awarding the first series Emmy ever to a show, not in the English language.
But I suspect that the previous winner, “Succession,” will not be one to go quietly. The COVID-delayed third season of the 2020 Emmy champion came roaring back with a storyline that pits the Roy offspring pitted against their father (again) over the possibility of Waystar being acquired by another company, offering its cast even more juicy material that both critics and fans have relished over for three seasons. And in 2022, the series has continued its winning ways, taking this year’s ensemble cast award from the Screen Actors Guild in January. Still, with a pair of new series that provides fresh and powerful competition, “Succession” may have the fight of its Emmy life this year, but any fan of the show knows never to underestimate the Roy family.
WILL WIN: “Succession”
COULD WIN: “Squid Game”
LOOK OUT FOR: “Severance”
Officially, this category is an absolute mess. But, in the legendary words of Marie Kondo, I love mess.
In the race for the Outstanding Limited Series Emmy, a.k.a. the annual demolition derby for high-quality long-form projects, at least a dozen top-flight miniseries this year were battling for a mere five nomination slots. The top contenders were so strong, in fact, that those series considered to be in the number 10 or 11 slots were thought to be extreme long shots at best. Well, two of those extremely long shots paid off on Tuesday morning.
“Inventing Anna,” a nine-episode Netflix miniseries focusing on a real-life New York con artist, premiered in February to decidedly mixed reviews — 63% on RT, a far lower number than most Outstanding Limited Series nominees usually received — and quietly disappeared from the conversation. That it received a nomination over its more acclaimed rivals came as a shock, but looking back on it, it probably shouldn’t have because of the project’s two big names — star Julia Garner (Emmy royalty) and creator Shonda Rhimes (television legend).
The other shocker, Hulu’s black comedy “Pam & Tommy,” came as a surprise given the fact that the series’ subject matter, the scramble over an unauthorized sex tape of a celebrity couple, is not one you’d think that would attract respectable Emmy voters, but here we are. I suspect that the actors’ branch, which gave nominations to stars Lily James, Sebastian Stan, and Seth Rogen, put it over the top, but I still think that “Pam & Tommy,” as fun as it might be, remains a long shot for the Emmy.
Only three of the pre-nomination front-runners are still in the race, but, happily, for them, they’re still at the front of the pack.
One of the strangest sub-genres to have emerged this year has been several business-executives-gone-wild series. Luckily the best of the bunch, Hulu’s “The Dropout,” was the one that got the nomination, largely thanks to a superb central performance by Amanda Seyfried as shady Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. The series also stood out from the pack by its approach to its story — the narrative is as much (if not more) about Theranos’ life and the early experiences that motivated her deceptions as it is about the scam itself. The result is less of a crime drama and much more a character study of a flawed woman whose deceptions ruined both lives and careers.
The nominee leading the early parade of 2022 awards would have to be Hulu’s “Dopesick,” an eight-episode miniseries chronicling America’s struggle with opioid addiction as seen in the personal lives of its victims and seen through the eyes of an Appalachian doctor (Michael Keaton). Though most of the individuals depicted are composite characters, their stories ring heartbreakingly true. They are brought to life by a first-rate cast, three of whom — Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever, Mare Winningham — earned Emmy nominations for their performances, one of 14 nominations garnered by “Dopesick.” More importantly, for its Emmy chances, the series carries an important message, and Emmy voters like to reward important.
Leading the Outstanding Limited Series nomination race with 20, HBO Max’s “The White Lotus” became a social media sensation in the summer of 2021, with audiences happily appalled each week by the latest outrage committed by the series’ privileged characters at a posh Hawaiian resort. The strength of the series is in its ruthless satiric take on the white elite embodied by its superb cast — eight of the series’ nominations are for its acting alone. In gauging its Emmy chances, it must be noted that by Emmy night, it will be over a year since the last episode aired, which is a long time. But its widespread nomination support suggests that “The White Lotus” hasn’t been forgotten and that Outstanding Limited Series Emmy may be in its sights.
WILL WIN: “Dopesick”
COULD WIN: “The White Lotus”
LOOK OUT FOR: “The Dropout”
Final voting by Television Academy members begins on August 12th and concludes on August 22nd at 10 pm PT. The Creative Arts Emmy ceremony will take place over two nights on September 3-4th, and the gala NBC telecast of the Primetime Emmy Awards is set for Sunday, September 12th. If these nominations are any indications of the surprises still ahead, this is going to be one interesting show.
Which of these shows do you think will win Outstanding Comedy, Drama and Limited Series at this year’s Emmys? Were there any nominations from yesterday that surprised you? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Tom and hear more of his thoughts on the Emmys and TV on Twitter at @thomaseobrien