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‘The Underground Railroad’ and ‘Hacks’ Aim to Disrupt Emmy Races

The acclaimed duo arrived on the scene this week as full-fledged Emmy disrupters in races previously thought locked up.

Thuso Mbedu in "The Underground Railroad"

Thuso Mbedu in “The Underground Railroad”

Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios


Whether you were aware of it or not, this year’s Emmy Awards passed a sneakily major milestone this week, with just two and a half weeks of eligibility left in the 2020-2021 season. Thursday, May 13 marked the last opportunity for submissions with all entries into this year’s competitions due by 6 p.m. PT. That means that while on paper, pre-gaming will continue through May 31 (and beyond for hanging episodes), in reality all competitors throwing their hat in the ring at the Emmys have already submitted their wares and are locked and loaded with regards to the next four months.

Included among those entrants are two substantial Emmy contenders that made their bow this week. The two series couldn’t be more different if they tried, but both seem primed to make a mark on Emmy races that heretofore seemed all but locked up.

As discussed a little last week, both Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad” and HBO Max’s “Hacks” are late arrivals to the field of competitors but the strength of their content are sure to have current Emmy frontrunners in their respective categories — Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” and Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” respectively — more than a little nervous.

And for good reason. Let’s begin with “The Underground Railroad.”

Before I get too far into this discussion, let me be clear: Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” is transcendent. An adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the limited series weaves a complex tapestry of human emotions as it follows the journey of escaped slaves riding a real life underground railroad in the pursuit of a better, freer life.

And for as many horrors as the series asks the audience to bear witness to, Jenkins has a delicate touch, blending beauty and brutality, forever forged by fire, branding the viewers’ psyche with wounds that will heal, but never disappear.

Comparatively, “The Queen’s Gambit” is nowhere near as complex or audacious, but that’s not a criticism. “The Queen’s Gambit” is brilliant at being “The Queen’s Gambit,” a stylish story about an orphan chess prodigy that lives and dies on the back of its central performance, delivered with aplomb by Anya Taylor-Joy. But when going head-to-head, how does the best version of “The Queen’s Gambit” measure up against the best version of “The Underground Railroad?” Or Amazon Prime Video’s “Small Axe?” Or HBO’s “Mare of Easttown?” or any number of other contenders in an overcrowded limited series slate.

That’s for the TV Academy to determine and I don’t envy them the challenge.

Also gracing streaming screens is Jean Smart’s return to television (since last appearing in “Mare of Easttown” on Sunday night.) Smart stars as a Las Vegas headliner whose stand-up career has lost a little of its luster who then finds herself saddled with an up-and-coming comic in crisis, Ava (Hannah Einbinder).

Smart dazzles as Debra Vance, leaving one to wonder why she wasn’t the biggest star in the world, in both her fictional universe and our own, and she seems primed for her 10th (and perhaps 11th depending on the success of “Mare”) Emmy nomination for her work.

And while the series is so gifted at exploring the ever-lucrative sensibility divide between Baby Boomers and Millennials, it’s just as deft at pulling apart what women have to do and sacrifice to succeed, the little indignities that pile up after years and years, and the resentment that can fester on either side of success.

Of course, comedy series still appears to be Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso’s” to lose. After all, it was the relentless positivity and kindness of “Ted Lasso” that buoyed the spirits of many TV viewers throughout the pandemic and Emmy success is a natural way to express gratitude, not unlike the success that “Schitt’s Creek” saw at the 2020 Emmy Awards.

But if the world keeps turning and life continues to recalibrate the equilibrium in such a way that allows viewers to return to that delicious combination of cynicism and dark humor and, dare I say it, hope, then “Hacks” might be the series to relegate “Ted Lasso” at the Emmys.

Next week: We’ll look at a final batch of high-profile Emmy contender releases, including Netflix’s “Master of None” and HBO’s “In Treatment.”

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