Call it another COVID-19 pandemic casualty, but for the first time in a decade, the number of scripted series that aired in the calendar year of 2020 decreased from the previous year (493, down from 532). And that dip has affected the number of series vying for Emmys this year.
Since the Emmy eligibility calendar runs from June 1 of the previous year to May 31 of the current year, many of the shows that aired in 2020 were eligible for, nominated at and even winners at last year’s Television Academy-hosted ceremony. And as the COVID-19 pandemic carried on into 2021, the output continued at a slower pace. Could peak TV’s actual peak finally be behind us? That remains to be seen as the industry moves beyond production restrictions, but in the meantime there are fewer candidates for Emmy gold this season.
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It “might not feel it’s as competitive as it has been in years past,” says Robin Thede, creator, showrunner and star of HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” “But I think the truth is that we’ve survived a year of a global pandemic and there was less TV in general. So, I don’t think the numbers should be looked at in the same way [as] in a traditional TV-making year.”
Even though numbers are down, it does not mean they are small. This year there are 133 drama series, 68 comedy series, 37 limited series and 41 TV movies on the nominations-round ballots.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller says everyone is a winner, simply for “managing to successfully and safely make television during this unprecedented time,” but the truth is only one per category will still be crowned at the Sept. 19 ceremony.
To get a sense of what may come out on top (or at least make the final ballot), Variety polled more than 130 contenders across categories to find out what they’ve watched and hope to see nominated on July 13.
With so many riches from which to choose, it should not be surprising that their answers included myriad titles. However, one stood out as a clear front-runner: HBO and Michaela Coel’s limited series “I May Destroy You” had 21.5% of polled contenders selecting it as something they hope to see on the final ballot.
Coel “reinvented the wheel with that show,” says “WandaVision” creator Jac Schaeffer. “I think that it is groundbreaking in the truest sense of the word. She took subject matter that can be so tough and alienating and complex, and she invited us entirely inside the experience and it was funny and deeply surprising, and the twists and turns of that show go so far beyond narrative cleverness. And it changed me as a person and as a storyteller.”
Adds “Pose” co-creator and showrunner Steven Canals: “I think Michaela Coel is great and [‘I May Destroy You’] was one season of television in which every episode made me feel and really forced me to go inward. I think we’re in a place right now where there’s such a glut of television — I feel like it’s like going to a used vinyl shop where you’re just flipping through used records, trying to find the good stuff, and there’s too much stuff, and a lot of it, frankly, is not great. And that was one that made me sit up in a way that television hadn’t in a while.”
Other widely popular shows with this crop of contenders are Apple TV Plus’ freshman comedy “Ted Lasso” and Netflix’s limited series “The Queen’s Gambit,” both of which were name-dropped by 7.4% of those polled.
“I love sports, so that really interested me,” says “Mare of Easttown” creator Brad Ingelsby, “but I just love the optimism of that show. I was unexpectedly charmed, and I just kept watching it. I was like, ‘I’m just going to watch another one. I’m going to watch the next one.’”
Following not too far behind are Netflix’s royal family period drama “The Crown,” now in its fourth season, with almost 6% of contenders saying they want to see it nominated, as well as the sophomore outing of Hulu’s “Pen15,” selected by 5.2% of these contenders.
“I’m not sure I have ever laughed that hard and both of those actresses [Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle] are so good at absurdist comedy, but also, they both have moved me at different times,” says “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” star Jane Levy. “Cringe comedy is some of my favorite stuff, so I just think that they are both so brilliant and their show is so good.”
The overall list, however, is quite diverse and varied — and not just limited to live-action or scripted projects. Netflix’s animated comedy “Big Mouth” and Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” got shout-outs, for example. On the unscripted side, incumbent competition program winner “RuPaul’s Drag Race” from VH1 received more love, and the yetto-be lauded “Couples Therapy” from Showtime and “Legendary” from HBO Max were several series that got mentions.
Programs just starting to pick up more fans as the eligibility window was closing and the nominations-round ballot deadline was looming include HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” HBO Max’s “It’s a Sin” and “Hacks,” and Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad.”
“What I am telling everyone is a masterpiece is ‘The Underground Railroad,’” says uber-writer and producer Kenya Barris (“Blackish,” “Grown-ish,” “Mixed-ish”). “It is rough, but you can stop any frame and take a picture of that frame and hang it up. It is truly beautiful and moving, and I think Barry Jenkins did an amazing job. I think it’s an American masterpiece.”
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