Though it might come as a surprise to the casual television viewer, this weekend saw the bulk of the 2021 Emmy Awards distributed, as the Television Academy orchestrated three separate Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremonies, each dedicated to honoring artistic and technical achievements across several genres, including animation, reality, and documentary categories.
While it’s easy to dismiss the Creative Arts Awards as a mere litmus test for the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony to come, it would be wrong to overlook what they say about themselves, first and foremost.
And above all else, this year’s batch of winners were a testament to how much academy voters love consistency and comfort. For instance, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” never fails to impress voters; the series consistently picks up a handful of Emmys each year. At the 2021 Creative Arts Emmys, the series took home seven trophies, already outpacing its total from last year (six) with seven nominations outstanding in four remaining categories.
VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has steadily grown its presence at the Emmys, and this year was no exception. The weekend ceremonies saw the reality competition series take home prizes for Casting, Directing, Editing, and Host — a prize that RuPaul has now won for six consecutive years — plus an additional Emmy for “RuPaul’s Drag Race Untucked,” which found itself victorious in Outstanding Unstructured Reality Programming. And the wins don’t have to stop there for RuPaul, with the series still competing in Outstanding Competition Program this weekend, where the series is the three-time defending champion.
But the weekend’s events weren’t exclusively predictable. It turns out voters really loved Netflix’s “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square,” which won Emmys for Choreography and TV Movie, the latter of which seems like a direct attack on this piece from last year by IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers.
Then there was the win for Adult Swim’s “Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal” in Outstanding Animated Program, a richly deserved victory in a category that can sometimes seem regressive. (See also: “The Simpsons” beating out “Adventure Time,” “Big Mouth,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and “BoJack Horseman” in 2019.)
With all that in mind, let’s now pull back and look at how we might use the events that unfolded at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards to intuit how the Primetime Emmy Awards could play out.
As these things go, there were two primary winners at the Creative Arts Emmys and they’re directly related: “The Queen’s Gambit” and Netflix. Let’s start with the streamer’s beloved limited series.
“The Queen’s Gambit” was the sweetheart of the winter awards circuit, earning plaudits from the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and Producers Guild, in addition to prizes from editors, cinematographers, art directors, and costumers, to name a few. Heading into the spring, the smart money was on the series to win big at the Emmy Awards, but a lot can happen in a very short window of time. There were a lot of big-name limited series contenders that entered the scene well after the October 23 release of “The Queen’s Gambit,” including Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad,” as helmed by Barry Jenkins, as well as HBO’s much discussed Kate Winslet vehicle “Mare of Easttown.”
Setting aside discussions of quality, we’ve seen a heavy winter contender turned into a limited series also-ran in a matter of months. Two years ago Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora” made a strong showing during the off-season awards, competing primarily against series that wouldn’t be in contention for the upcoming Emmy season, making it the assumed front-runner when the race began. But “Dannemora” was quickly left in the dust, surpassed by Netflix’s “When They See Us” and HBO’s “Chernobyl.”
That said, there was no such slump in store for “The Queen’s Gambit” which took home nine Creative Arts Emmys during the opening weekend, a sharp show of dominance over its limited series competition, with HBO offerings “Mare of Easttown” and “I May Destroy You” each scoring one win and Disney+’s “WandaVision” snagging three. The only win that came in direct competition with “The Queen’s Gambit” was for Outstanding Music Supervision, won by “I May Destroy You.”
So a lotta love for “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Which in turn, means a lot of love for Netflix. But if you dig deeper into the numbers you’ll see that this is a far cry from just a bump from one show. Let’s take last year, for example. In 2020, both Netflix and HBO garnered a very respectable 19 wins at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, a testament to how evenly matched the rivals are, though last year’s Primetime Emmys turned out far more favorable for HBO.
This year, Netflix has already won 30 Creative Arts Emmys, in addition to four juried prizes for Individual Achievement in Animation for artists on its series “Love, Death and Robots.” To put that in perspective, HBO won 30 Emmys last year, Creative and Primetime combined. Netflix has already blown by that, and this year, HBO won nine prizes at the Creative Arts Emmys and HBO Max earned only one.
Beyond what we’ve already seen, Netflix is also already in great position to have a big night on September 19. It has the overwhelming frontrunner in Limited Series with “The Queen’s Gambit” and the show has the opportunity, however unlikely, to win six more Emmys next weekend. It also has the presumptive Drama frontrunner in “The Crown.” While “The Crown” only won three trophies this past weekend — for casting, cinematography, and guest actress Claire Foy — the total and type were of a piece with previous years. In the categories where “The Crown” fell short, several were won by “The Queen’s Gambit,” which it won’t be competing against moving forward and most of the others were not in categories in which the loss seemed particularly egregious. Losing visual effects to Paramount +’s “Star Trek: Discovery” or sound mixing to Disney+’s “The Mandalorian” aren’t exactly shocking and nothing seems to suggest that “The Crown” is no longer on top, particularly given how many of their nominations are in competition at the Primetime Emmy Awards — 11, to be exact.
Compare that to the show’s chief competition for Outstanding Drama Series, “The Mandalorian.” The “Star Wars” universe series pulled down seven Creative Arts Emmys over the weekend, an identical number to the amount the show won last year. More than that, five of those seven awards came in categories where the series also won last year, repeating for Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Stunt Coordination, Cinematography, and Music Composition. Where “The Mandalorian” broke new ground was in Prosthetics and Stunt Performer, the latter of which is a new category, introduced this year.
“The Mandalorian’s” seven Emmy wins currently outstrips any other Drama Series nominee and as of now, still has five nominations in play for the Primetime Emmy Awards. But it’s showing this weekend gives no real indication that the series has gained any ground, at the Creative Arts Emmys or beyond.
Taking that all into consideration, it’s safe to say that Netflix is going to have a good weekend. Maybe not the best weekend of all time — in 1974 CBS won 44 Emmys total and in 2015 HBO pulled 43, numbers that are possible, but not probable, for Netflix to match this year — but a very good weekend all the same.
And then there’s Comedy.
Don’t be surprised that it’s taken this long to address Comedy. The Creative Arts Emmys aren’t exactly where comedy series come to shine. Honestly, the Emmy Awards in general aren’t exactly a place where comedy series are given the opportunity to shine.
How do I know? Because of the 92 awards distributed by the Television Academy at the Creative Arts ceremony, only four of them went to series nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Did other comedy series win Creative Arts Emmys? Sure. Netflix’s “Country Comfort” and ABC’s “The Connors” won Cinematography and Picture Editing, respectively, but their categories were exclusively for multi-camera comedies.
In the Guest Acting categories, NBC’s unkillable variety series “Saturday Night Live” took both prizes, with equally brilliant comedians Maya Rudolph and Dave Chappelle awarded. But this happens a lot. In the last six years, five Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series trophies have gone to actors from “SNL.” In six of the last 12 years, prizes for Guest Actor in a Comedy Series have gone to “SNL” hobbyists.
The current state of Emmy comedy is this: Dramas are now competing in half-hour categories — some also still compete in hour-long categories (“The Mandalorian”) — edging out eligible comedies and Guest and Supporting categories that are getting clogged with variety sketch actors, in addition to two categories ear-marked for multi-camera comedies alone and, well, this is how you end up with so very little comedy representation at television’s most coveted awards.
So trust me when I say that there’s very little to be gleaned about the comedy races after the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Unsurprisingly, Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” won the most categories, taking home trophies in Casting, Sound mixing, and Single-Camera Picture Editing. Of the other Comedy Series contenders, only HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” went home a winner, fêted for its Original Main Title Theme Music.
I guess that means “Ted Lasso” is still the frontrunner.
There could be, however, a lurking threat to the “Ted Lasso” coming out party, as scheduled for the Primetime Emmy Awards. With “SNL” having such a significant showing at the Creative Arts Awards, is it possible that it could translate to wins next Sunday in the Supporting Actor races?
“SNL” has three people competing for Supporting Actress in a Comedy and two competing for Supporting Actor. The latter category is otherwise chock full of “Ted Lasso” talent and the former has its own pair of “Ted Lasso” competitors, as well as nominees from HBO Max series “Hacks” and “The Flight Attendant.”
Might vote-splitting be a factor with Supporting Actor? Could voters coalesce around a single “SNL” supporting actress, snubbing nominees from the freshman shows? Is this all pointless fear-mongering based more on what we don’t know, rather than what we know? Who can say?
Just six days stand between the industry and the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony. May the results be just as unpredictable as the events of the last two years.