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Emmy Predictions: Best Actress in a Comedy Series — The Smart Money’s on Smart

It's Jean Smart's Emmy to lose, but she's not exactly starved for competition.

Hacks Jean Smart HBO Max

Jean Smart in “Hacks”

Courtesy of HBO Max

Last Year’s Winner: Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: It may seem like only yesterday, but it’s been four years now since Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her sixth straight Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, all of which were bestowed for her work on “Veep.” (Louis-Dreyfus has won 11 Emmys total, including one more in this category for “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”) Since then, three different actors have won — Rachel Brosnahan for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge for “Fleabag,” and Catherine O’Hara for “Schitt’s Creek.” With O’Hara ineligible in 2021, there will be a new victor for the fourth consecutive Emmy season.
Fun Fact: Of the 15 TV shows to win multiple times in the Best Actress in a Comedy category, only three crowned more than one performer: Shelly Long and Kirstie Alley both won for “Cheers,” Ruth Gordon and Carol Kane won for “Taxi,” and three of the “Golden Girls” took home the Lead Actress trophy: Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Bea Arthur. (Estelle Getty won for Best Supporting Actress in 1988.)
Notable Ineligible Series: Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek (the series has ended); Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, “Dead to Me” (Season 3 is not eligible); Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Season 4 is not eligible); Issa Rae, “Insecure” (Season 5 is not eligible); Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, “Grace and Frankie” (Season 7 is not eligible); Pamela Adlon, “Better Things” (Season 5 is not eligible)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2021 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys was held from June 17 through June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations were announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards were given out Saturday, September 11 and Sunday, September 12. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

Back in December, most folks who track the Emmys likely could’ve predicted three of the eventual five nominees. Tracee Ellis Ross is a beloved and well-respected performer on one of the few broadcast shows still regularly recognized by the TV Academy; Allison Janney is, too, arguably even more so (what with her seven Emmy wins for three different series); and Kaley Cuoco was earning raves for the buzzy first season of her first post-“Big Bang Theory” starring role. Heck, over the winter — as “The Flight Attendant” snagged major nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Producers Guild Awards, Writers Guild Award, and a win for Susanna Fogel at the Directors Guild Awards — it was easy to believe Cuoco could very well be the 2021 Emmy winner.

She still could, but that’s what makes TV’s Winter Awards Season such a tricky precursor for the Emmys. Unlike with film, where all those guild honors lead right into the Oscars, the TV season allows for five more months of new submissions, which is where shows like “Hacks” can thrive. Dropping in mid-May and quickly building positive word-of-mouth (thanks in no small part to Jean Smart’s outstanding supporting turn in HBO’s spring hit “Mare of Easttown”), the HBO Max original comedy stole the show, earning 15 nominations and lavishing much-deserved attention on its lead.

Now Smart seems near-unbeatable. “The Flight Attendant” earned nine nominations, and Cuoco remains in the running, but the level of excitement has died down in the months since the series stopped airing new episodes, putting her on par with a field filled with deserving winners. There’s a reason Ross and Janney are mainstays in the category, and Aidy Bryant, who was one of the pleasant surprises on nominations’ morning, now has four Emmy nominations. (She’s another dual nominee this year, like Smart, thanks to a nod for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series on “SNL.”) Any one of these actors could take home the trophy and just about everyone watching would know they earned it.

What separates Smart is the combination of factors: the buzz, the double nomination, the love for “Hacks” overall, and, of course, her sharp, moving performance. Any one of those factors might be enough to win in another year, facing different competition, but harnessing all of them here and now should elevate the three-time Emmy winner to the stage once more.

Power Rankings:

  1. Jean Smart, “Hacks
  2. Kaley Cuoco, “The Flight Attendant”
  3. Tracee Ellis Ross, “Black-ish”
  4. Allison Janney, “Mom”
  5. Aidy Bryant, “Shrill”

Will Win: Jean Smart, “Hacks”
Could Win: Kaley Cuoco, “The Flight Attendant”
Should Win: Jean Smart, “Hacks”

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