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Emmy Awards 2021: What to watch for at this year's ceremony

These four storylines could define the show, including a potentially historic win for “Pose” star Mj Rodriguez and a coveted prize for Netflix.
Illustration of Michael K. Williams, MJ Rodriguez in \"Pose,\" Bowen Yang in \"Saturday Night Live,\" and Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in \"The Crown.\"
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; FX; Netflix

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the organization that puts on the Primetime Emmy Awards, hopes this year’s ceremony offers some solace — or at least some fodder for memes — during challenging times.

“I definitely want the stars to come out and have fun,” the show’s host, Cedric the Entertainer, told The New York Times. “There is a desire for that — people just want to experience a night out, done as safely as possible.”

Here’s a look at some of the key storylines at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, which kick off Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT) on CBS.

Mj Rodriguez, Bowen Yang eye historic wins

“Pose” star Mj Rodriguez, 30, and “Saturday Night Live” breakout comedian Bowen Yang, 30, each have a chance to cement their name in Emmys history.

Rodriguez, who is nominated in the lead drama actress category for her portrayal of fierce house mother Blanca Rodriguez on FX’s drag ballroom drama “Pose,” could become the first transgender performer to earn an acting Emmy.

No matter what happens Sunday night, Rodriguez’s nomination in a lead acting race was a watershed moment for trans representation at the television industry’s marquee event.

The television academy’s voters previously nominated only two trans performers for acting awards: Laverne Cox of the Netflix dramedy “Orange Is the New Black” (who scooped up four nods for her supporting work on the show) and Rain Valdez of the web series “Razor Tongue.”

Yang, who is one of eight nominees in the supporting comedy actor category, could become the first “SNL” featured player to land an Emmy statuette. (In the show’s parlance, featured players are newcomers who might be promoted to the stable of repertory cast members.)

The first Chinese American performer to join the “SNL” ensemble, Yang was responsible for some of the most memorable characters of the NBC sketch show’s Covid-era 46th season, including the iceberg that sank the Titanic and an impersonation of Fran Lebowitz.

Yang also made an impression on viewers when, amid a wave of anti-Asian violence across the U.S. earlier this year, he appeared on “Weekend Update” and called on people to “fuel up” and “do more.”

“I’m just a comedian. I don’t have the answers,” Yang said in the segment. “But I’m not just looking for them online. I’m looking around me.”

Michael K. Williams remembered

Every year, the Emmys feature a touching “In Memoriam” segment honoring the television industry luminaries who died in the previous year. But this year’s ceremony could include a more extended tribute to Michael K. Williams, who died Sept. 6 at 54.

That’s partly because Williams was one of the signature faces of the “prestige TV” era, earning critical raves and popular adoration for his turns on “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire” and other lauded series.

The academy has not announced plans for a special homage to the actor. But it is possible that he will be eulogized during the show. “The Sopranos” star Edie Falco, for example, paid her respects to co-star James Gandolfini with a moving speech at the 2013 ceremony.

Williams might also be recognized with a posthumous victory for his supporting performance on the HBO supernatural drama “Lovecraft Country.”

He appeared on the series as Montrose Freeman, a secretive man who goes missing, forcing his son Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Atticus’ friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) to search for him across 1950s Jim Crow America.

The series, produced in part by J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, drew largely positive reviews when it premiered in August 2020. But it was canceled after one 10-episode season, puzzling fans who were captivated by its provocative mix of fantastical thrills and real-life racist terrors.

In his category, Williams is up against Giancarlo Esposito (“The Mandalorian”), O-T Fagbenle (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), John Lithgow (“Perry Mason”), Tobias Menzies (“The Crown”), Max Minghella (“Handmaid’s”), Chris Sullivan (“This Is Us”) and Bradley Whitford (“Handmaid’s”).

Williams was previously nominated for three acting Emmys for his supporting performances in the HBO movie “Bessie” (starring Queen Latifah as blues singer Bessie Smith), the HBO limited series “The Night Of” and the Netflix limited series “When They See Us.”

Netflix aims for a marquee prize

In the last decade, Netflix has established itself as one of the leading destinations for original scripted shows. But the streaming behemoth has yet to notch a win in either of the top two Emmy categories: best drama series and best comedy series.

The platform’s best chance to end its losing streak comes in the drama category this year, where the lavish royal family saga “The Crown” — fresh off a headline-grabbing fourth season that introduced Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) — is widely seen as the front-runner.

Netflix has another contender in the drama race that could score a surprise victory: the steamy literary adaptation “Bridgerton,” which premiered in December. (“Emily in Paris” and “Cobra Kai,” Netflix’s comedy series nominees, do not have much awards season momentum.)

In the fiercely competitive streaming market, big Emmy wins help platforms burnish their brands and potentially even nab new subscribers. The triumph of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 2017 helped pump up Hulu’s bona fides as a provider of original shows, for example.

Netflix’s previous hopes to claim drama series gold with popular shows like “House of Cards,” “Stranger Things” and “Ozark” were dashed by the dominance of repeat winners “Breaking Bad” (two wins) and “Game of Thrones” (four wins).

In addition to “Bridgerton” and “The Crown,” six other series are vying for the drama series trophy this year: Amazon’s “The Boys,” “Handmaid’s,” HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” FX’s “Pose” and NBC’s “This Is Us.”

Emmys in the time of delta

In the last 18 months, Hollywood’s key awards shows — the Oscars, the Golden Globes and last year’s Emmys — were forced to scale back their ceremonies and adapt to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unfortunately, this year’s Emmys — coming amid the spread of the delta variant across the U.S. — will not exactly represent a return to normalcy either.

The television academy has said the number of guests at the show will be limited, and even “not all nominees will be able to attend this year’s awards,” according to an Aug. 10 news release. (The academy did not respond to questions about the show’s format or Covid-19 safety rules.)

The ceremony is scheduled to take place indoors and outdoors on the Event Deck at L.A. Live, close to the Emmys’ usual home base at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

“The health and safety of our nominees is of paramount importance,” the academy said. “Thank you for your understanding as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 delta variant.”

The sight of A-list stars might bring a welcome sense of normalcy to pandemic-weary viewers, though. The lineup of performers scheduled to appear during the broadcast includes Stephen Colbert, Mindy Kaling, Dan Levy, Seth Rogen and Kerry Washington.