The Best and Worst of the 2021 Emmys

The 73rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards have come and gone, a mostly expected night of winners that saw the show moving back to a live format after last year’s virtual “Pandemmys.” The CBS presentation clocked in at almost three and a half hours, and there were a few things that could have helped with that lag (as discussed below). One of the most major changes this year though was that the Emmys were available to live stream via Paramount+ — just another indication of how much streaming has taken over the awards landscape.

Below, some thoughts on the good, bad, and what could have been better from the 2021 Emmys, with some insightful additions from our Paste TV intern Leila Jordan. You can read the full winners list here.

Live and In-Person: A Mixed Bag

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The setup for the Emmy awards is usually pretty similar to the Oscars: Auditorium seating all facing a theater stage, where winners have to awkwardly get up and climb over their peers to make their way to the front. CBS mixed things up a bit and sat the Emmy attendees more like the Golden Globes, at round tables in a U-shape around a catwalk stage. It certainly gave the show a more relaxed and “party”-like atmosphere, for better or worse, but it was definitely easier for winners to get up, move around, and mingle.

However, as Seth Rogen noted in what seemed like a genuinely concerned opener, the “tent” was more of a closed, unventilated space. That makes sense for audio quality (which wavered anyway), but less sense in the middle of a pandemic. Yes, attendees had to be vaccinated and provide proof of a negative test, and everyone else was masked. But it was still a questionable statement to make in These Times.

One of the most inspired changes to the seating arrangement, though, was the inclusion of a London satellite gathering. There were so many British nominees and winners, I sincerely got confused and thought this was the BAFTAs for a moment. Putting most of them in one place in London rather than having them featured on computer screens with bad WiFi connections and audio was a smart move.


Streaming—and the British—Dominated

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Of the three major category awards, streaming won them all. Netflix got its Best Drama Win (The Crown) and Best Limited Series (The Queen’s Gambit), while Apple TV+’s juggernaut Ted Lasso dominated Comedy. Any major wins that didn’t go to these series went to HBO’s Mare of Easttown, available to stream then and now on HBO Max. If not for SNL, network TV wouldn’t have even gotten a look, and cable didn’t fare much better.

In my Emmy predictions article, I noted that Emmy voters really love movie stars and the British, and boy was that on display this year. British actors won eight major awards, but writers also saw some significant wins. One of the most exciting was Michaela Cole, creator and star of I May Destroy You. Not only did she give a short and perfect acceptance speech, but as Leila notes, “she deserves her own category. While I May Destroy You definitely deserved more, her win is amazing and the pure shock she was in afterwards was beautiful. She’s one of the best talents working today and I hope this is only the beginning.”


Expected Wins

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So here’s the thing: There were no “bad” winners, although some could have been better. Everyone expected Mare, The Crown, and Ted Lasso to dominate, and they did. Hacks got a few key wins, most especially for Jean Smart, but it was hardly an upset. The Queen’s Gambit winning Best Limited over Mare was interesting and deserved (both were excellent), but not exactly a shock.

Despite the Emmys bringing in some new blood with a host of genre nominees this year (WandaVision, The Mandalorian, Bridgerton, The Boys), none were rewarded with statues. So while it was easy to nod and say “good for them!” for almost all of the winners, it made for an exceptionally boring ceremony. There were no stakes, no surprises, no big moments.


Dump the Skits, Let the Presenters Shine

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As Leila puts it, “Despite a lot of misses, there were some hits. Cedric the Entertainer was one of the best hosts in a while and helped move things along well.” But dear Emmys God please stop the skits! “The Emmy Support Group sketch worked pretty well, even if it went a little long. Award show comedy rarely works and this year was no exception. Some truly bad examples include a year too late Pence fly joke, Bowen Yang’s steps bit that went on in some uncomfortable silence, and a Ken Jeong bit that went nowhere.”

One way to trim down the clock for the show is not cutting the winners’ speeches off (more on that in a moment), but by getting rid of horrible, tired skits. They aren’t funny, they aren’t cute, and they just take up precious time. The presenters this year were particularly excellent and really stole the show. “The Schitt’s Creek cast did the impossible in getting genuine laughs from a scripted bit that temporarily fooled people! All the comedy came from people with just genuine charisma.” Aidy Bryant’s “spooky” delivery, the short introduction for Governor’s Award winner Debbie Allen, and a visit from Olympic and Paralympic athletes were all excellent. Some of the presenters were a little weaker, but no one bombed. And that was a lot more fun than the forced laughter at bad sketches.


Allow the Winners to Speak

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Something that really stood out this year were the number of winners (and some presenters) who mentioned loved ones who had passed. “Many nominees took the time to mention who’d they lost and who they’re grateful for. Hannah Waddingham, Olivia Coleman, and Jean Smart all had some wonderful speeches that walked the thin tightrope of a good award speech and did so in a beautiful way. Julianne Nicholson also had a great speech to a well deserved win and finished eloquently even though she was almost played off.” And as Leila further noted above, Michaela Coel had one of the best speeches (short and profound!) of the night.

But what was disturbing was how quickly the winners were played off—especially women and especially veterans of the business who have earned that time in spades (yes I’m talking about Jean Smart and Debbie Allen). Read the room! They weren’t fumbling, they were speaking. And yet, Stephen Colbert (who has won many times before) and Scott Frank demanded more time and got it, but just went on and on and on. Interestingly, the orchestra backed down every time; the Oscars would never.

While there were some misfires with the speech lengths, most were perfectly on point. I would prefer the winners (especially for legacy awards) to be given time to actually have their moment. And how do we get that time and keep the ceremony on track? Cut the skits.

One more note: The Emmys got the In Memoriam pretty right. The acoustic take was beautiful, and the audience was mercifully silent throughout (I can’t stand it when some people get big applause and others get tepid recognition; be silent). Unfortunately, despite many inclusions and context for the shows they were best associated with, too many of those featured were hard to read because it was put in the background with a light font.


Promised Representation Arriving as Lip Service

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I have to give a shoutout to Variety for this headline, which really sums it up: “#EmmysSoWhite: No Actors of Color Won Despite Record Nominee Lineup.” Michaela Coel’s win was for writing, RuPaul won as a host, and Debbie Allen received a legacy award—all of that is great. But while there was a lot of talk about representation during the ceremony, not enough was actually seen. And as Leila points out, “There were also numerous flubs that made the disparity even worse, such as using John Oliver’s black hair segment (arguably one of his worst in recent years) when there were two black women nominated in the same category.” Not to mention some of the cringey language used by Queen’s Gambit men describing Anya Taylor-Joy (who was never allowed to speak), “being celebrated for ‘bringing the sexy back to chess’ before applauding her character for standing against the patriarchy. Some people need to look in the mirror.”





Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV

Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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