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The 2 races to watch at this year’s Emmys — and what they say about TV right now

Handmaid’s Tale takes on Game of Thrones in Drama Series, while Atlanta and Mrs. Maisel face off in Comedy Series.

Emmy Awards
It’s Game of Thrones (left) vs. Handmaid’s Tale (right) and Mrs. Maisel (second from left) vs. Atlanta (second from right) for the night’s top prizes.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At last year’s Emmy Awards, there was a fair degree of uncertainty around the night’s three biggest categories. Outstanding Drama Series looked like a fight between Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale (the latter won). Outstanding Comedy Series looked like a fight between returning champion Veep and either Atlanta or Black-ish. (Veep prevailed.) And Outstanding Limited Series was a battle between Big Little Lies, Feud, and The Night Of. (Big Little Lies won.)

Meanwhile, many of the other categories anointed new winners, handing out first trophies to folks like Donald Glover (for directing and acting on Atlanta) and Elisabeth Moss (for acting and producing on The Handmaid’s Tale). It wasn’t as exciting a night as it might have been — early on, it became clear that Handmaid’s and Big Little Lies were just going to keep winning — but it was a lot more exciting than the typically staid Emmys usually are.

Alas, it’s 2018 now, so welcome back to the typically staid Emmys. Could a few surprises theoretically happen? Sure. Is there a world where Keri Russell finally wins an Emmy for her work on The Americans? There would be if TV critics got to vote! But for the most part, we’re headed for a long night of repeat winners, with the occasional upset.

In the drama categories especially, last year’s unpredictability was due, in part, to the absence of Game of Thrones (which aired no episodes during the 2016-’17 eligibility period). Now that it’s back, every single drama category feels like a race between Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, with the exception of the lead acting categories (where Game of Thrones wasn’t nominated).

Still, the 2018 Emmys might bring a few unexpected wins here and there. And if they do, they’ll likely be linked to the Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Comedy Series winners. So let’s take a look how the way voters fill out their ballots in those two marquee categories might be reflected elsewhere.

Outstanding Drama Series: A two-way battle between the last two winners, with a couple of intriguing upset possibilities

Michael C. Hall, Jodi Balfour, Claire Foy, and Matt Smith playing JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Phillip in The Crown
Could The Crown win the Drama Series race?

Look, I never write off anybody at the Emmys, but of the seven nominees here, I don’t think Westworld, This Is Us, or Stranger Things are going to take the trophy. (I briefly believed This Is Us could be a sort of broad consensus choice, but I think its tumble in total nominations, from 11 in 2017 to eight in 2018, suggests the Academy isn’t as in love with it as it once seemed to be.)

So the race would seem to be between the last two winners: Game of Thrones (which won in 2015 and 2016 but wasn’t eligible in 2017) and The Handmaid’s Tale (which won in 2017). This situation, so far as I can tell, has never happened in Emmy history, so there’s no real precedent for it. In general, the Emmys tend to favor recency (in that it’s very difficult to, say, fall out of an Emmy category, then find your way back in newly nominated names), but HBO also has a humongous voting bloc within the TV Academy.

What’s more, both shows won some major trophies at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys. I might give The Handmaid’s Tale (which won editing, guest actress, and production design) the edge in terms of categories won that might indicate a win in Outstanding Drama Series, but Game of Thrones won the most Creative Arts Emmys of any drama, pulling in seven.

Yet if you look for hints in the Creative Arts awards, there’s an intriguing upset proposition waiting in the wings: Netflix’s The Crown, which won the prizes for Cinematography and Casting, two awards often correlated with the top trophy. (The show also won for costumes, bringing its total to three.) I’m a little loath to predict its victory, due to how anglophilic stuff often does well with a very specific subset of the Academy, only to lose steam when it comes to the big prize — Downton Abbey anybody? — but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it won.

Finally, there’s The Americans, which isn’t going to win, but I like to keep the dream alive. FX’s beleaguered drama’s best argument for winning is: “Well, the last beloved but under-rewarded drama that managed a few Emmy nominations in its final season was Friday Night Lights in 2011, and that won Actor and Writing!” And, yeah, I think The Americans has a shot in the acting and writing categories, for sure. But it only has four nominations total, where The Crown has 13, The Handmaid’s Tale has 20, and Game of Thrones has 22. It just doesn’t have broad-enough support within the Academy. Oh well. Maybe it’ll win Writing!

Will win: The Handmaid’s Tale
Could win: Game of Thrones, The Crown
Should win: The Americans

Outstanding Comedy Series: With Veep ineligible, it’s anybody’s game. (But really, it’s Atlanta and Mrs. Maisel’s game.)

But what if Barry wins?

I have long spent my Emmy-predicting life noting that HBO has a huge bloc of voters within the Academy, so it’s hard to go wrong predicting HBO programs. And if that maxim holds true, then Barry, the network’s hitman comedy with more obvious jokes than a lot of shows, will win. But I don’t think it’s going to hold true.

The reason is that the Outstanding Comedy Series race very quickly boiled down to two contenders: Atlanta and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The former is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the year, lauded for the way it captures the African-American experience as TV rarely has before, and its creator (Glover) is one of the most heralded people in entertainment right now. The latter is a very, very funny show (in a way Atlanta isn’t, not really) about comedians in the 1950s. But while that description makes it sound like an Emmy shoo-in, it’s important to note that it was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who was long ignored by the Academy for her exemplary work on Gilmore Girls.

Looking at the Creative Arts Emmys doesn’t particularly help, because both shows won high-profile technical prizes — Guest Actor and Cinematography for Atlanta; Editing and Casting for Mrs. Maisel. (Atlanta also won for sound editing and Maisel for music supervision, but neither category has a ton of correlation with the top prize.) And both shows have several acting nominations, including in both supporting categories, alongside their nominated leads (Glover in lead actor; Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan in lead actress).

Who’s going to win? I have no idea. But if either show starts running the table early in the night — winning both the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, say, or winning both Writing and Directing — you might quietly pencil its name into the big category in your Emmy pool. (Do people do Emmy pools?)

To the other five nominees — Black-ish, Curb Your Enthusiasm, GLOW, Silicon Valley, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — better luck next year (literally, in many cases). I could maybe make an argument for GLOW coming out triumphant, but it really feels like that show’s time will come. Just not yet.

Will win: Atlanta
Could win: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Barry
Should win: Atlanta

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