Emmys 2021: Who Will Win, Who Should Win

Ahead of Sunday night’s ceremony, we place our bets on likely winners and shout out those shows and stars poised to get robbed

Popular on Rolling Stone

Last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards were defined by dominance. Pop TV’s Schitt’s Creek became the first series in Emmys history to sweep all four acting categories in its genre, while also winning for writing, directing, and Outstanding Comedy Series. HBO’s Watchmen and Succession didn’t do quite as well in, respectively, the limited series and drama categories, but they came close. It was a night where the concept of sharing the wealth seemed largely foreign to the voters of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Schitt’s Creek won all those awards for its final season, though. Watchmen was a miniseries with no current plans to return. And Succession sat out the last year due to Covid. As a result, this year’s Emmys will at least have some new winners, even if it appears that another feel-good comedy will have a night nearly as strong as Schitt’s Creek had last fall.

Here are our takes on the nominees that are the most deserving, those that look to have the best shot of taking home a trophy at Sunday night’s ceremony on CBS, and those who were just plain snubbed in the major categories.

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES

black-ish (ABC)
Cobra Kai (Netflix)
Emily in Paris (Netflix)
Hacks (HBO Max)
Pen15 (Hulu)
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

Should win: Look, you and I and everyone who’ll be gathered in the Microsoft Theater in L.A. on Sunday knows that a certain comedy about a mustachioed football coach is going to take home the prize. And a very easy argument could be made that it’s the deserving winner. So let’s just take a moment here to appreciate how wonderful it is that Pen15 — a weird, raunchy, beautiful, awkward, ridiculous comedy starring two women in their thirties playing themselves as middle-schoolers — made the cut for its fantastic second season. In a non-Lasso year, things may have shaken out differently.

Will win: Whatever inevitable (and undeserved) backlash Ted Lasso has experienced for its second season, it’s the universally-adored first season that’s up for consideration here. Like Schitt’s Creek a year ago, it’s hard to imagine the feel-good Ted losing any category for which it has one or more nominations this year.

Robbed: While Ted Lasso was soaking up all the awards love, another Apple comedy, Mythic Quest, had a superb second season. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a show involving so many people from the long-snubbed It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia couldn’t get Emmys traction, but it’s still a shame, especially with Emily in Paris somehow making the cut (as if the Golden Globes never really went away, but just infected other awards shows).

OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES

The Boys (Amazon Prime Video)
Bridgerton (Netflix)
The Crown (Netflix)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
The Mandalorian (Disney+)
Pose (FX)
Lovecraft Country (HBO)
This Is Us (NBC)

Should win: One of the weird things about Emmys eligibility these days is that shows which eventually get second seasons, like Big Little Lies (or, we’re guessing, Mare of Easttown) can be submitted as limited series. Meanwhile, HBO declined to order a second Lovecraft Country season, effectively making it a limited series, even though it’s nominated here. However you categorize it, the highs of that one and only season, and its mashup of supernatural horrors with real-life racist ones, were higher than that of any show it’s up against. Plus, a win here or elsewhere would make room in the broadcast to pay tribute to Lovecraft co-star Michael Kenneth Williams, whose death last week will cast a pall over the ceremony.

Will win: This feels like the year that Netflix finally breaks through and wins a best series award. The question is which U.K.-based drama earns the streaming giant that distinction. The Crown has been knocking on the door for a while, and seems more built to appeal to the older-skewing TV Academy membership. (They even lazily gave Claire Foy a guest actress Emmy over the weekend for a one-scene cameo.) But Bridgerton was a phenomenon throughout the holidays, perhaps second only to Ted Lasso last year. In lieu of flipping a coin, we’ll guess that the focus on Princess Diana gives The Crown a win.

Robbed: Year two of Apple’s For All Mankind was one of the most thrilling and poignant TV drama seasons in recent memory, but Emmys voters don’t appear to be aware the show exists. It also might have been nice to see HBO’s In Treatment revival make the cut in this category, but the psychology drama never did so in its Gabriel Byrne incarnation, either.

OUTSTANDING LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES

HBO, Netflix

I May Destroy You (HBO)
Mare of Easttown
(HBO)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
WandaVision (Disney+)

Should win: On a technical level, Underground Railroad leaves not only the rest of this impressive field in the dust, but almost anything made for television over the past several years. Visually, aurally, and performance-wise, it’s an absolute stunner. But it could also be a narrative muddle at times, where I May Destroy You had more consistency in vision and execution. That gives Michaela Coel’s sexual-assault drama a slight edge over Barry Jenkins’ slavery epic.

Will win: That voters largely ignored Underground in other major categories suggests it doesn’t have the broad-based support to win. At last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, it couldn’t even win for cinematography, where it should have been an easy victor as one of the most beautiful-looking television shows ever made. Instead, that award and eight others went to The Queen’s Gambit, which appears immune to the recency bias that sometimes hurts shows that premiered early in the eligibility window. Domination of the technical categories is a good omen for the Netflix chess miniseries, though I wouldn’t count out the emotional punch of either Mare or Destroy.

Robbed: While the comedy and drama series categories have been allowed to expand their number of nominees, the limited series categories — where arguably the best work in television is being done these days — are largely sticking to five nominees apiece. That left no room at the inn this year for Showtime’s devastating historical satire The Good Lord Bird, HBO Max’s AIDS epic It’s a Sin, HBO’s coming-of-age drama We Are Who We Are, and Steve McQueen’s collection of powerful films, Small Axe, for Amazon. (Though the latter may have also suffered from all the “is it TV show or a group of movies?” confusion.)

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Anthony Anderson, black-ish
Michael Douglas, The Kominsky Method
William H. Macy, Shameless
Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso
Kenan Thompson, Kenan

Should win: A pretty blah category filled with tired nominees (Macy, Douglas) and odd ones (everyone loves Thompson, but how many voters actually watched Kenan?) leaves Sudeikis as the obvious choice. Ted Lasso has a lot of strong attributes, but if its star isn’t believably endearing as the world’s most positive-seeming coach, none of the rest of it works.

Will win: Bet Sudeikis early, bet Sudeikis often.

Robbed: Like Sudeikis, Michaela Coel, and several of this year’s other acting nominees, Mythic Quest star Rob McElhenney wears multiple hats as a writer and executive producer on that show. But his acting deserves recognition too, as he very delicately toes the line between sociopathic narcissism and something much more human and vulnerable.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Aidy Bryant, Shrill
Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant
Allison Janney, Mom
Tracee Ellis Ross, black-ish
Jean Smart, Hacks

Should win: A tough call between the two HBO Max stars, Cuoco and Smart. Cuoco has to hold together the disparate tones of The Flight Attendant and make it function as a thriller, a comedy, and a character study, without one element undermining the others. Smart, meanwhile, is wonderful in a career-capping role as a showbiz legend determined to prove she still has something left to say. Let’s go with Smart — as much for her recent run of excellence everywhere (Fargo, Watchmen, Mare of Easttown) as for how great she is in Hacks — even though either would be a terrific winner.

Will win: When in doubt, look to what Emmys voters have done before. They actually like Smart a lot, having given her 11 nominations (including two this year, for Hacks and Mare) and two wins. But Janney is an Emmys machine, with six former wins, including two for this role (albeit back when she was submitting as a supporting actress). That Smart is playing a performer may give her a slight edge, though, since Hollywood enjoys nothing more than honoring people who play actors, singers, and comedians.

Robbed: It may have been hard for voters to choose between Pen15 stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, but then why not just nominate both? And while HBO Max already has two representatives on this list, Cristin Milioti was pretty terrific in Made For Love. Renee Elise Goldsberry was nominated for the filmed version of Hamilton, but not for how hilarious she is on an actual television show, Peacock’s Girls5Eva, while Charlotte Nicdao is just as crucial to the creative success of Mythic Quest as McElhenney.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
Jonathan Majors, Lovecraft Country
Josh O’Connor, The Crown
Regé-Jean Page, Bridgerton
Billy Porter, Pose
Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Should win: Page exploded into the public consciousness as the dashing Duke of Hastings. Sometimes, these awards should go to the most nuanced or wide-ranging performance, but sometimes it feels right to honor the work that turned someone into a star.

Will win: Again, this feels like a year where everything finally comes together for The Crown, which would make O’Connor the favorite. But never bet against a former winner like Porter, especially when they have a submission episode as good and shamelessly tear-jerking as the one where a dying Pray Tell travels to his hometown to get closure from old friends and family.

Robbed: The Boys’ unexpected drama series nomination didn’t translate into a nom here for leading man Antony Starr, but it should have. And if voters knew For All Mankind existed, they surely would have nominated Michael Dornan for his work as an astronaut fighting through PTSD to get back to the moon for one more grand adventure.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

HBO, Netflix

Uzo Aduba, In Treatment
Olivia Colman, The Crown
Emma Corrin, The Crown
Elizabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
Mj Rodriguez, Pose
Jurnee Smollett, Lovecraft Country

Should win: Smollett’s dance with the baseball bat in the third Lovecraft episode was as electric a moment as TV had in 2020, and it would be a wonderful breakthrough for Rodriguez to win for her tremendous work across all three Pose seasons. That said, the pick here is Aduba, who does both the best acting in the category and the most acting in the category, as one of only two characters onscreen for most of 24 intense, emotional, dialogue-heavy episodes of TV. (And in her submitted episode, she is spending a half-hour playing opposite herself.)

Will win: Colman seemed to have this award locked down a year ago, only to lose to Euphoria star Zendaya, who’s not in the running this time. Did Colman’s loss mean that voters don’t care for her Queen Elizabeth as much as they did Claire Foy’s? She still feels like the favorite here, though Corrin could push past her, given that Diana was so important to the latest Crown season.

Robbed: It would have been nice for Regé-Jean Page’s Bridgerton co-star Phoebe Dynevor to get a nomination to match his, no?

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Paul Bettany, WandaVision
Hugh Grant, The Undoing
Ewan McGregor, Halston
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton

Should win: It’s Bettany more or less by default, since the category otherwise features two Hamilton actors who are great but shouldn’t be eligible (it is highly sketchy that the Emmys allowed so many performance nominations for a filmed version of a stage show); a genuinely bad performance by McGregor; and a performance by Grant that was sorely hamstrung by some creaky plotting that needed to keep his motives secret until the end. Bettany was very good at having to work in all those different sitcom worlds on WandaVision (and, like Uzo Aduba on in Treatment, he spent an episode acting opposite himself), but the heavy lifting on that show came from his co-star.

Will win: Voters loved Hamilton enough to give it 12 nominations, so put your money on Odom repeating his Tony win over Miranda.

Robbed: What even is the point of awards like this if not to honor a thunderous performance like the one Ethan Hawke gave as unhinged but heroic The Good Lord Bird abolitionist John Brown? Instead, he and Small Axe star John Boyega are on the outside looking in due to the Hamilton shenanigans and some of the category’s other lazy choices.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You
Cynthia Erivo, Genius: Aretha
Elizabeth Olsen, WandaVision
Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit

Should win: Savage. Just savage, and the rare category where any victory would feel utterly deserved. But we have to pick one, and Taylor-Joy gets the thinnest of margins over her peers because so much more of Queen’s Gambit rested on her magnetic, vulnerable performance than any of her competitors’ shows did. Without her, it’s a forgettable (if pretty) period piece; with her, it was a phenomenon.

Will win: A really tough call. Feels like the WandaVision nominations were that show’s awards, though, and if Coel gets honored for her sensational work, it’ll be as a writer rather than a performer. I had Winslet as the frontrunner prior to the Creative Arts ceremony, but now Taylor-Joy looks like the very slight favorite.

Robbed: While The Underground Railroad was most memorable for its sights and sounds, its performances — particularly by Thuso Mbedu as the story’s brutalized, determined heroine, Cora — were certainly worthy of recognition, even in a category as stacked as this one.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.