Emmys 2021: Our Critics on ‘I May Destroy You,’ ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and … ‘Hamilton’?

This year’s Emmy announcement brought a bit of justice for Michaela Coel’s powerful series as well as the usual array of predictable and odd choices.



By James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons

The 2021 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced on Tuesday. James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons, two television critics for The New York Times, conducted a brief conversation about the oddly persistent acclaim for “Emily in Paris,” whether “Hamilton” really needs any more awards and to what extent TV met the challenges of 2020.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK I guess I need to begin by congratulating “Emily in Paris,” which is clearly destined to be one of the most acclaimed series of the 2020s. And more seriously, actual congrats to “I May Destroy You,” which was shut out in the last Golden Globes nominations, so “Emily” can enjoy one more weird honor without being juxtaposed with that particular robbery.

Speaking of “weird,” it was obviously an odd year in TV. On the one hand the medium got a lot of shut-ins though quarantine; on the other, the Emmy-eligible schedule was hollowed out somewhat by Covid’s effect on production. And yet looking at the big categories, it was a fairly usual nominations list overall, continuing a lot of trends we’ve seen in recent years (strong limited series, Those Same Guys in variety talk, etc.). As usual I have my little list of surprises and dashed hopes, but what jumped out at you?

MARGARET LYONS What’s leaping out at me is that these nominations do reflect the year in television — which is to say a few bright spots but also a tremendous amount of inertia, “prestige” masquerading as actual excellence, and for me an overall sense of resignation more than elation. Again, there are wonderful shows and performances in here for sure! But when I was going through the list of eligible shows and performers, just the tonnage of shows that amounted to “well, they tried” seemed so much greater than the shows that sparked any kind of “oh, I hope they win!” vibe in me. I’m going to be daring and say: Not television’s best year. If you think “The Handmaid’s Tale” is among TV’s best shows right now, I don’t know what to tell you.

PONIEWOZIK One issue with “Handmaid’s” is that drama got weaker as limited series got stronger. I still think “The Crown” is TV’s poster child for competence over greatness — it’s solid and impeccably acted but it’s never going to stun you. Yet maybe it actually was last year’s best drama! I hoped but didn’t expect to see “P-Valley” recognized for a wild, audacious first season; I think “Pose” as a whole is an achievement but its last season was not its strongest. On the other hand, glad to see it get attention for acting, which is often what helped carry the show over on sheer passion.

And yet there were somehow eight drama nominees! I know there are a lot of drama series, but it’s odd to see that many shows listed and, for instance, only five in the creatively dominating limited-series category. That left room for the perfectly fun, swaggery “The Queen’s Gambit,” yet none for “Small Axe,” a genuine achievement — even if it was really five movies. Also: No Ethan Hawke for “The Good Lord Bird”? He did, like, 75 percent of all the acting on TV last year in that role.

LYONS No Ethan Hawke, no “It’s a Sin.” No “Small Axe” or “Fargo” in the major categories. On the reality side, no “Couples Therapy”? No “Alone”? I had a bunch of long-shot hopes, and at the top of that list was Michael Greyeyes for “Rutherford Falls.” Maybe next year!

I’m also bummed that “For All Mankind” was shut out everywhere, as was “Harley Quinn.” “Mythic Quest” was shut out of the major categories. At least the actual best television-qua-television of the year snagged a nomination: “Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special” is up for hosted nonfiction series or special.

PONIEWOZIK Also, and at risk of alienating our Broadway base: “Hamilton”? I love “Hamilton” like any red-blooded American theatergoer. But it seems an odd fit for the TV-movie category, even if it was shot very well for what turned out to be a TV premiere. It’s a filmed theatrical performance! It’s taking a lot of space in already-tight acting categories (which criminally shut out “The Underground Railroad”). Give Renée Elise Goldsberry a nomination instead for “Girls5Eva,” where she actually did television acting.

But in the Ted Lasso spirit of keeping it positive: Happy for “PEN15,” delighted that Jane Adams got her first nomination and let’s give the nonfiction series award to “City So Real,” possibly the best series of 2020, period.

LYONS I join you in celebration. Please join me in astonishment that “Girls5Eva” did not get a single nomination for its songs. “New York Lonely Boy” seemed destined for an Emmy to me, and I listen to “4 Stars” recreationally. I’m shocked.

PONIEWOZIK New York lonely boys don’t watch TV, they listen to podcasts.

Overall, these nominations are no better or worse than usual. But they don’t, maybe can’t, really capture what was special and weird about TV during the pandemic year. TV became a kind of virtual classroom, public square and movie multiplex. (So I guess there “Hamilton” makes sense.) Celebrating TV as a regular old TV season is the Emmys’ job, but that’s the least of what TV was last year. Here’s to a more boring year ahead, and more boring gripes a year from now!

LYONS Did television really do that this year? In the most catastrophic, confusing year of upheaval, TV viewers were largely “treated” to business as usual. And I get it, I do, and I know lots of viewers craved normalcy and comfort, and shows have long lead times, and plague art takes a long time to coalesce around a theme. But I’m looking forward to more adventurous, expansive, riskier and more probing shows this time next year. Congrats to Quibi on its eight nominations, though.

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