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Emmy Awards preview: First-time nominees 'Squid Game' and 'Abbott Elementary' eye big wins

Netflix's dystopian drama and ABC's hit mockumentary are just two of the newcomers up for top prizes at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday.
Photo Illustration: Squid Game, Abbott Elementary, and host Kenan Thompson
MSNBC / Getty Images/Netflix

The roster of shows vying for top honors at this year’s Emmy Awards includes plenty of familiar names, including previous champions like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Succession” and “Ted Lasso.”

But a crop of newcomers and first-time contenders — “Abbott Elementary,” “Only Murders in the Building,” “Severance,” “Squid Game” — could edge out those incumbents, thanks in part to a wave of cultural buzz and glowing reviews.

Here’s a look at the big races and other key storylines heading into the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, which airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT) on NBC and the streaming service Peacock. (NBC, Peacock and NBC News are all owned by NBCUniversal.)

‘Squid Game’ eyes historic victory in drama series race

Netflix’s “Squid Game” is a certifiable international phenomenon. The series, a dystopian drama about South Korean adults who compete in deadly children’s games to escape crippling debt, premiered last September to rave reviews, internet hysteria and massive global viewership.

“Squid Game” now has a chance to become the first non-English language program to score the best drama series Emmy — a win that would underscore the increasingly diverse face of entertainment in the era of continent-spanning streaming platforms.

The show earned a total of 14 nods this year, including best drama series actor for Lee Jung-jae as well as recognition for directing and writing.

But the show still faces competition from two other first-time nominees: Apple TV+’s corporate satire “Severance” and Showtime’s off-kilter “Yellowjackets.” The other contenders in the drama series race are “Better Call Saul,” “Euphoria,” “Ozark,” “Stranger Things” and “Succession.”

Freshman hit ‘Abbott Elementary’ looks to dethrone ‘Ted Lasso’

ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” was one of the breakout favorites of the 2021-22 season. The rookie sitcom, a mockumentary about an underfunded public school in Philadelphia and the hardworking educators there, kicked off in December and soon attracted a loyal following.

“Abbott Elementary,” created by Quinta Brunson (who is also nominated for her lead role), picked up a best comedy series nod this year and might have enough momentum to vanquish “Ted Lasso,” the feel-good soccer show starring Jason Sudeikis.

Emmy prognosticators believe “Abbott” has a solid chance of taking home gold because it won a key award for casting at the television academy's Creative Arts ceremony at the beginning of the month. The winner of that prize has gone on to nab top comedy series honors at the Emmys for the last seven years.

The triumph of “Abbott” could give a boost to ABC, one of the “Big Three” broadcast networks that used to rule the Emmy nominations but has lately been displaced by streaming platforms. (No other series that airs on traditional broadcast TV was nominated in the top two categories.)

The other nominees in the comedy series race are “Barry,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Hacks,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Only Murders in the Building” and “What We Do in the Shadows.”

In the wake of ‘the slap,’ Kenan promises conflict-free ceremony

The Emmys will be one of the first major televised awards shows since Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards. Hollywood wants to move past that incident, of course, but it’s possible at least one presenter will joke about the wildest night in Oscars history.

“Saturday Night Live” veteran Kenan Thompson, who will make his debut as emcee of the Emmys, said he expects the ceremony will be free of tense confrontations.

“It kind of just threw the entire world off guard, basically, and that won’t happen again,” Thompson told The Associated Press, referring to the Oscars incident. “Even if I am roasting [someone], it shouldn’t come across as any sort of malice.”

Thompson said he hopes the ceremony will be a relatively relaxed affair, with nominees and presenters focused on small-screen storytelling achievement instead of behind-the-scenes drama.

“This should be a night of appreciating artistry and creativity and removing the stress of it all out. I get it — it sucks to lose, and everybody’s picking outfits and trying to do the red carpet thing,” Thompson told the AP. “But at the same time, it’s an awesome thing to be in the room on Emmys night, and I don’t want that to get lost in the stress,” he added.

The ratings game

In recent years, Nielsen ratings for televised awards shows have plunged as more people ditch linear television for streaming and black-tie Hollywood fetes lose some of their luster in the age of Instagram and TikTok. In general, viewership for the Oscars, the Tonys and the Grammys has trended downward.

But last year’s Emmy Awards drew an estimated 7.4 million people — a surprisingly solid number that represented an improvement over the roughly 6.1 million people who tuned in the year before, when the ambitions of the show were curtailed by Covid.

The television academy’s recognition of wildly popular series like “Squid Game” and critical darlings like “Succession” could bring in a respectable audience — and maybe even some 20- and 30-somethings who have largely abandoned non-sports live broadcast events.

Plus, there's always the chance that folks will watch just to see if there are any Oscars-style live TV fireworks.