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Gillian Anderson was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series for her role as Margaret Thatcher in Netflix's The Crown.

Des Willie/Netflix via AP

There was always going to be more controversy than usual about this year’s Emmy Award nominations. The pandemic halted or delayed production on series that would be almost guaranteed a nomination in a normal year – Succession, Stranger Things and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel being just three.

Their absence left the field more open, especially in the drama categories. And the upshot is a kind of chaotic list that is disordered, some might say deranged, in terms of acknowledging truly outstanding television. The consequence of this disordered list reveals something about the Emmys, though. The awards don’t reflect excellence in television; they illuminate a gulf between what’s good, what’s popular and what really matters in the medium as a force of artistic originality and groundbreaking inventiveness.

Streaming services lead Emmy nominations as The Crown and The Mandalorian tie with 24 each

The 21 best TV series to stream so far in 2021

Looking at the long list and the shows that rise to the top with dozens of nominations, you realize this: Television is actually better than the Emmy list suggests. The list is not your guide to greatness.

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The Crown, The Mandalorian and Ted Lasso dominate. One out of three ain’t bad when it comes to the Emmys. The Crown received 24 nominations, which is ridiculous. It’s nominated in every possible category imaginable, like a spaniel looking for approval. The series looks nice, to be sure, but it is pedestrian television. The Mandalorian is a childish trivia sci-fi drama set in the Star Wars universe, one that nobody can remember from week to week. But you can bet it employs a lot of people, which must account for all these nominations.

Ted Lasso received 20 nominations, which is great because it is universally adored and worthy. But the Ted Lasso circumstance illustrates what’s going on here. It has many nominations because it has a unique cultural relevance. An Apple TV+ series about an American working at an English soccer club would have been a mere curiosity were it not for the way its feel-good quality was so perfectly timed for relief during the pandemic.

Yet for all its magic resonance, did it matter as much, in terms of merit, as the accomplishments in The Queen’s Gambit, The Underground Railroad and The Good Lord Bird? Obviously, no.

Moses Ingram, left, and Anya Taylor-Joy in a scene from The Queen's Gambit. Taylor-Joy was nominated for outstanding leading actress in a limited series or movie and Ingram was nominated for supporting actress in a limited series or movie.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX/Netflix via AP

The Queen’s Gambit was breathtaking; a daring, inventive and original drama. The Underground Railroad is an intense, powerful work, a threnody and a critique of American culture and racial injustice. It is a formidably acute story of one central character, the young woman Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her attempts to escape slavery. The Good Lord Bird, focusing on John Brown’s attack on American slavery, and featuring an astonishing performance by Ethan Hawke, managed to be moving, disturbing and humorous, a unique triumph.

Yes, The Queen’s Gambit has some Emmy nominations, but not enough, and The Underground Railroad has seven nominations but didn’t receive a single acting nomination, a mind-boggling oversight. Ethan Hawke was ignored in the acting categories and the miniseries has one nomination. That’s for main title design. Talent and invention are a matter of no interest to the Emmy voters.

The Emmy Awards matter far more than the now-disgraced Golden Globes. The Television Academy has 22,400 members while the Hollywood Foreign Press association has a handful. At least the Emmy voters acknowledged the existence of Michaela Coel’s scathing, powerful HBO/BBC series I May Destroy You, giving nine Emmy nominations to the series about a sexual assault survivor. At the same time, the much-mocked Emily in Paris, a meaningless piece of froth and loved by the Golden Globes voters, also picked up an Emmy nomination.

From left: Weruche Opia, Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu in a scene from I May Destroy You. Essiedu was nominated for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or movie.

HBO via AP

It’s more complicated than a list of surprises and snubs. In the prestige categories, Emmy voters simply don’t gravitate toward masterpieces or pioneering shows. They just like The Crown a lot. There is simply a large gap between the shows that accumulate multiple nominations, and those works that are acute, sophisticated television.

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If you must know, by outlet, the combination of HBO and its streaming service HBO Max, topped the list, with 130 nominations. Next was Netflix with 129, followed by Disney+ (71) and NBC (46).

This year’s ceremony, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, will be held on Sept. 19 in Los Angeles and will feature a limited number of nominees and guests. Neither the nominations list nor the list of winners on the night will actually tell you how much magnificent TV has been made in the past year.

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