We’ll not beat around the bush: watching TV was not as fun as usual for us this year. It can already be hard to get excited about the quantity-over-quality glut of Peak TV when there’s decades of classic TV to watch instead. But less new TV was released than usual due to the pandemic, so it was harder to just skim the cream off the top, and lots of ongoing shows we love didn’t release a new season, so we couldn’t even turn to our old reliables. Also, GLOW got cancelled in the middle of production on its fourth and final season for either no good reason or in retaliation for cast members criticising the producers for sidelining the show’s characters and actors of colour. Netflix said it was because COVID restrictions made filming a show about professional wrestling too logistically difficult, which was very hard to take seriously considering how many actual professional wrestling shows continued filming throughout lockdown. This has nothing to do with why TV was less fun this year, but it was a bullshit decision and we’ll be mad about it for at least a decade.
But life finds a way and there’s still been some fantastic television over the last TV season (June 2020 – May 2021). Enough that we decided to expand the awards to include two new categories this year. We’ve previously used special achievement awards to honour television that didn’t always fit neatly into drama or comedy categories. On reflection, the majority of that television comprises a general category of TV – the largest category of TV, in truth – contrasted with the narrative fiction of conventional TV drama and comedy. Our new categories will celebrate the best of reality, variety and documentary television, including game shows, professional wrestling and whatever Eric Andre is doing at any given minute. We picked our winners by consensus, so only shows we both watched were eligible to win, but we each picked a runner-up, regardless of whether the other has seen it.
You can find each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post. We recommend checking them out if you’re looking for recommendations.
OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES – I May Destroy You
Ciara: “The straightforward description of I May Destroy You is that it’s a show about a woman dealing with the aftermath of her rape. Arabella is a young black woman in London, working on her second book but mostly avoiding working on her second book and burning through her advance. And yeah, it’s a show about her dealing with her rape. But that’s way underselling it.
I May Destroy You is the best, most nuanced story about rape culture I’ve ever seen on screen. If that makes it sound like a lecture, it’s not: it’s a great show about rape culture precisely because it’s about how rape and sexual assault intersect with the characters’ lives and affects them in different ways. It’s incisive and sprawling and full of feeling, never shying away from hard, uncomfortable emotions when it can plunge deep into them. It’s sprawl is never messy, either: with every episode coming in at the half-hour mark, there isn’t an ounce of fat on the thing. It covers a huge breadth of experience but never loses focus on Arabella at the centre.
Because it is, above all, an excellent character study. It’s about sexual assault – and about social media, and the publishing industry, and being black, and friendship and ethics and trauma and the impact your childhood has on the rest of your life – because those things are all part of Arabella’s experience. Michaela Coel portrays her beautifully. And it is a beautiful show, as well as a painful one. It’s fantastic.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: It’s a Sin – “It’s a Sin is a great, great show. It’s both an excellent roadmap through the history of the AIDS crisis – with a subtlety and verve that, say, the final season of Pose lacked – and a really affecting, very funny, very sad drama. The spectre of what’s coming tinges what should be unbridled joy – at the freedom and love the boys have when they find their own community – with melancholy, but equally, the show never lets us forget that joy and freedom and love, never lets us reduce the gay community to its tragedies. Masterpiece.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: The Queen’s Gambit – “So much of Peak TV tries to stand out with gimmicky premises, casts packed with big name actors or an insistence on its own ‘importance’. The Queen’s Gambit succeeds in standing out by just being really goddamn good, start to finish. It’s fun, it looks great, it has a stacked cast of actual, factual character actors and a star and a half in Anya Taylor-Joy. I hope people keep giving Scott Frank money to make stuff.”
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA – Callum Scott Howell as Colin Morris-Jones in It’s a Sin
Ciara: “Colin – nicknamed Gladys by his friends – is a sweet, quiet boy, who listens more than he speaks, absorbing those around him in a way that never feels voyeuristic. Whereas the other young gay men who’ve come to London boisterously embrace their new freedom, Colin arrives from Wales to work away at his apprenticeship at the tailor’s, and that’s exactly what he does. He’s spotted by an older man who acts as a mentor long before he would ever get the guts to go to a gay bar. It’s not that he’s stuffy or self-loathing or conservative. When he does find his place in London’s gay community, he bubbles with excitement and joy.
So much of Colin’s life is fading into the background, but Callum Scott Howell makes sure he never fades into the background for the audience. He plays Colin with such vulnerability that it aches to look at him. Like he doesn’t have the guardedness or cynicism to survive in this world.
And he doesn’t survive, of course. Not because he’s not guarded or cynical – that’s no protection – but because there’s a plague, and nobody gives a shit because it only affects boys like him. Colin’s last days, from his neurological symptoms to the state effectively imprisoning him, are harrowing. So much of that is thanks for Howell’s performance. It says something about what an extraordinary screen presence he is that he’s winning lead actor while appearing in three out of the show’s five episodes, and deservedly so.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Joel Edgerton as Arnold Ridgeway in The Underground Railroad – “Joel Edgerton plays a slave catcher in The Underground Railroad: what initially seems like a fairly simple character type is peeled back, layer after layer, with each passing episode. His strange backstory – an abolitionist father, espousing religious feeling his son never had – is folded effortlessly into Edgerton’s performance, making Ridgeway, if still a monster, then more than that, too.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Billy Porter as Pray Tell in Pose – “Pose deserved better than its truncated and disjointed final season, but that didn’t stop its cast from going out in a blaze of glory, none more so than Billy Porter. Pray’s standalone episode was one of the show’s finest hours and his ecstatic, transcendent performance of ‘This Day’ is just about the best thing I’ve seen Porter do. Even as Pray got abruptly shunted back and forth between living and dying like five times, Porter never stopped bringing all his passion and pathos. What a role. What an actor.”
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA – Michaela Coel as Arabella Essiedu in I May Destroy You
Dean: “Michaela Coel’s performance as Arabella isn’t just the backbone of I May Destroy You, it’s the whole damn skeleton. The show is so formally and thematically ambitious, but it never strays into abstraction or didacticism because everything in the show is ultimately grounded in Arabella’s emotional arc. And it’s not a simple arc: the show consistently refuses to follow the path of least resistance in favour of the road less travelled. Her experience after rape doesn’t have clean narrative lines and it doesn’t hew to the conventions of the survivor story genre at all. She is, at various stages, shellshocked, delusional, obsessive, narcissistic, thoughtless, idiotic and cruel. She’s also fun, and funny, and fucked up. No work of art can ever portray all that a person is, but I May Destroy You reaches for depth, complexity and range. Arabella is an extremely daunting and complicated role that would challenge any actor.
And Coel just fucking nails it, she kills it, she’s so good it blows my mind. She’s called on to play pretty much the entire range of human feeling and she does it and it’s electric. She’s completely authentic as a millennial party girl and social media star, refreshingly so compared to far too many screen portrayals of both millennials and social media. (Even good stuff like Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope or Ingrid Goes West.) She has to make so many sharp emotional turns, but she never loses track of the character’s core. I am in awe of her.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit – “So much of The Queen’s Gambit rests on Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance, and she knocks it out of the park. I particularly like how Beth’s addictions, social discomfort and post-traumatic stress never feel collapsed into one another, as if they all emanate cleanly from a single cause. Taylor-Joy never takes that easy way out: she plays Beth as endlessly psychologically complex.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Victoria Pedretti as Dani Clayton in The Haunting of Bly Manor – “Bly Manor is framed as a fireside tale: a ghost story, yes, but also a fairy tale, a gothic romance and a family tragedy. It’s a lot of tones to manage, especially when you’re the bleeding-heart Yank in a cast of dry Brits. The risk of caricature is ever-present. But in Pedretti’s hands, Dani’s impossible empathy feels like both a blessing and a burden, the font of love in her life and the vulnerability that ultimately destroys her.”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA – Bill Camp as William Shaibel in The Queen’s Gambit
Dean: “Apart from flashbacks, Mr. Shaibel only appears in two episodes, but Camp makes him the heart of The Queen’s Gambit. He’s a pretty standard archetype, a gruff janitor who becomes mentor and father figure to our orphan genius. We learn basically nothing about his life except he’s a janitor and a very good chess player. His dialogue is largely functional in many scenes, as he’s simply explaining chess to Beth. So it is largely down to Camp’s performance that the show can sell his mentorship as one of the most important and significant relationships in Beth’s life, perhaps her only experience of unconditional love.
What’s fascinating about his portrayal is how Camp doesn’t follow the traditional script for a gruff mentor with a heart of gold. The show initially frames him, through a young Beth’s eyes, as potentially creepy, and then as withholding and aloof, until his love for Beth is undeniable. But he never really opens up. He doesn’t gradually reveal a warmer disposition. He stays reserved, quiet and stone-faced. We only see the change within him in the watering of his eyes, the slight cracking of his voice, the finest details of the performance. It’s masterful work, especially in how it contrasts with Beth’s similarly taciturn but awful adoptive father, Alston.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Paapa Essiedu as Kwame in I May Destroy You – “Like Hamlet and Ophelia, Kwame’s story mirrors Arabella’s in ways that are all the more interesting for how they diverge. Kwame, too, is a victim of rape. But as a young gay black man who met his assaulter on Grindr, the police don’t give a shit. They both bury themselves in the internet as a way of escaping themselves, but for Arabella it’s Twitter clout-chasing, and for Kwame it’s hook-up apps. It takes a lot for Essiedu to be a worthy foil to Michaela Coel, but he pulls it off easily.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: John Cusack as Kevin Christie in Utopia – “It’s been a minute since John Cusack did something great on screen, but he’s wonderful as tech mogul and cult leader Kevin Christie in Gillian Flynn’s US adaptation of British conspiracy thriller Utopia. He plays Christie as a true believer in a genocidal ideology without ever sacrificing emotional complexity. He’s a monster, but also a loving father who sincerely wants to build a better world for his children. He takes human life without hesitation, but you can tell that, despite his moral certainty, murder weighs on his soul.”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA – Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley in The Queen’s Gambit
Ciara: “Before The Queen’s Gambit, I only knew Marielle Heller as a film director (she directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? among other things), not an actress. She is so good in The Queen’s Gambit that I one-hundred-percent convinced myself that this must be a different Marielle Heller.
Heller plays with audience expectations of Alma, who looks like a typical middle-class fifties housewife. When she and her husband adopt Beth, you feel dread coil in your belly, and when Alma supports Beth playing in chess tournaments, it feels certain that she’s going to go full domineering stage-mom and steal all of Beth’s winnings. But it’s not a bait and switch, it’s something more careful and gradual than that. Heller plays Alma both delighted for Beth and jealous of her, not in wild swings but as different parts of the same thing.
Heller said Alma and Beth were “like feral animals who have both been in isolation and then suddenly are forced to live with the other person and are like sniffing each other out for so long before they decide to really trust each other,” and you can see how that informed her performance. You feel that she’s hiding something, holding something back, because she is: she’s holding back her personality, her creativity, her brains and her sexuality. She gives Beth what she never got – a chance to find out the person she could be. And Beth gives her the same gift back.
She also does a just wonderful job of drunk acting, and Alma is drunk a lot.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Jessie Buckley as Oraetta Mayflower in Fargo – “The fourth season of Fargo sucked, but Jessie Buckley was a delight in it. She plays a nurse who deliberately kills her patients, and her combination of aggressively sunny disposition and stone-cold psychopathy was wonderful to behold. I would have been very happy if the whole show was about her.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Hadley Robinson as Charlotte and Lily in Utopia – “Hadley Robinson gives far and away the best performance in Utopia, first as Charlotte, a teenager who contracts a deadly plague, and then as her twin, Lily, who poses as Charlotte in public after her death. Both roles are great, but Robinson steals the entire series as Lily, who develops an inconvenient taste for fame as Charlotte becomes the face of the pandemic. It’s thrilling to watch a young actor take a small role like this and make a mountain out of it. Bravo.”
OUTSTANDING WRITING IN A DRAMA – Russell T Davies for It’s a Sin: “Episode 3”
Dean: “The marvel of It’s a Sin is that it’s a didactic, sledgehammer-unsubtle story About the AIDS Crisis in Britain – a gay fantasia on national themes, if you will – but it never feels like a lecture, even when someone is giving an epic speech about how homophobia drove the spread of HIV. The key is that it never treats its characters like they’re just puppets in a diorama, there to experience the crisis because that’s what the story is about. Everyone has their own story, a life that matters on its own terms before the virus disrupts or destroys it. It’s that respect for the characters and their humanity that makes its third episode so utterly devastating.
Everyone is busy with life at the start of the episode. Ritchie is auditioning again and again, Roscoe is hooking for fast cash and Jill is a featured chorus member in a musical about the French Revolution. (A pitch-perfect pastiche of Les Misérables.) Colin has lost his dream job as a tailor, but he’s enjoying his new one at a copy shop: it’s simple, straightforward and he’s no longer working for a sexual predator. His eyes are wide with delight when his new boss trusts him to open the shop in the morning. Then, suddenly, he’s having a seizure on the floor of the back room. Suddenly, he’s alone in a ward very much like the one his mentor died in two episodes ago. It’s the specificities – of his illness, of his mistreatment by doctors and police, of his desperate pleas for his mother – that make his decline so harrowing.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Michaela Coel for I May Destroy You: “The Alliance” – “‘The Alliance’ is effectively a standalone episode, with a little bit of wraparound to frame it. It takes place in the main characters’ schooldays, but focuses on a minor character: a working-class white girl who accuses a black boy at school of raping her. The structure of the episode means that only the audience knows the whole, messy, uncomfortable truth, and it cultivates an incredible empathy for all parties. Just a fantastic episode of television.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Michaela Coel for I May Destroy You: “Ego Death” – “‘Ego Death’ boldly wagers the show’s finale on surreal metatextual shit and pulls it off one thousand percent. Arabella tries out three endings for her story – revenge, tragedy, romance – in a Groundhog Day loop of a night staking out the bar where she was spiked. Each scenario is so elegantly scripted and the emotional arc so finely composed I genuinely applauded it alone in my room as I was watching. Now that’s fucking television.”
OUTSTANDING DIRECTING IN A DRAMA – Scott Frank for The Queen’s Gambit: “Forks”
Ciara: “There’s a split-screen montage in ‘Fork’ of Beth and Benny’s progress at a chess competition where ‘Classical Gas’ plays. It’s perfect. Five stars.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Peter Hoar for It’s a Sin: “Episode 1” – “There’s a moment at the end of the first episode of It’s a Sin where the three boys each are separately asked about their plans for the future: where they see themselves in five years, ten years, and beyond. It cuts between each of them as they answer, facing the camera. And you just know, deep in your bones, that they won’t get to live that long. It gave me chills.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Genndy Tartakovsky for Primal: “Plague of Madness” – “Every episode of Primal – a gory, violent cartoon about a caveman and tyrannosaurus trying to survive in a fantastical prehistory – is another jewel in Genndy Tartakovsky’s crown, but ‘Plague of Madness’ is special. It’s a zombie movie played completely straight, and it manages to be both genuinely scary and shockingly moving even though all the characters are non-verbal and all but one is a dinosaur. The action is thrilling and the animation is exquisite. A masterpiece.”
REALITY, VARIETY AND DOCUMENTARY
OUTSTANDING REALITY, VARIETY OR DOCUMENTARY SERIES – Taskmaster
Dean: “The UK went into lockdown during the filming of Taskmaster’s tenth season – its first since leaving Dave for Channel 4 – and was still in lockdown during the filming of its eleventh. They’d have been fully forgiven a dip in quality in the circumstances, but instead, they produced two top-tier seasons with fun tasks, strong casts and a grown man trying to fill an egg with helium.
The tenth featured some of the most instantly iconic contestants in the show’s history, from Johnny Vegas, a hurricane of bumbling pathos in a paddy cap, to Katherine Parkinson, who’s gradually revealed as one of the most insane people in the world. (Tasked with ‘putting the shoes on the spider’, she never even considers leaving the room she’s in to find the spider, but seriously contemplates the possibility that she herself is the spider before ultimately concluding a table in the room is the spider if she puts the shoes on it.) It also featured some of the worst prize tasks in the show’s history, to the extent it became one of its best running jokes. Daisy May Cooper and Richard Herring had the most gripping rivalry of the show so far, and Mawaan Rizwan – and I can’t stress this enough – tried to fill an egg with helium.
The eleventh was comfortably stolen by the official one and only legitimate best Taskmaster contestant of all time, Mike Wozniak, a man so funny he did something even funnier than shitting himself when given a solo task to make himself fart. The rest of the cast were great too, but the fart task might legitimately be the funniest task the show has ever done, and it wasn’t even a real task. Still the best show on television.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: The Den – “The Den coming back on a Sunday evening in 2020 should not have worked. It should have been a disaster. Instead, it was the best show on television. Its willingness to make everything that went wrong the butt of the joke – and in the era of zoom interviews, so much went wrong – gave it an anarchic quality that feels fresh even as it seems exactly like what it was like when we were kids. The Francis Brennan Day episode where they all dress up like Francis Brennan? Art.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Q: Into the Storm – “The highest praise I can give Cullen Hoback’s brilliant documentary series is that it was one of my favourite shows this year even though I’d already learned everything that happened in it from other sources by the time I watched it. Q: Into the Storm largely eschews the familiar ground of why people believe crazy shit to investigate the real shadowy figures who tried to harness QAnon for their own ends. The definitive account of how someone posted a terror movement into existence and how corrupt shitheads helped it grow.”
OUTSTANDING REALITY, VARIETY OR DOCUMENTARY SPECIAL – Bo Burnham: Inside
Ciara: “Bo Burnham spent lockdown making Inside, filmed without a crew or an audience. It is a stand-up special, a sketch compilation, a documentary, and a psychological horror film, but also none of those things. It’s probably the best thing he’s ever done, and we are big fans around here.
Much of the discourse around Inside has focused on its big themes: it’s a portrait of deteriorating mental health, an incisive critique of the internet and how it affects us, capitalist commodification of more and more of our lives. It is inescapably about the pandemic by virtue of its existence. Those are all important aspects of Inside – ‘That Funny Feeling’ captures being mentally ill In These Times with devastating precision – but it’s easy to get so hung up on that stuff that it obscures how incredibly funny it is. All that serious stuff is funny, too. Even when he talks at length about wanting to kill himself.
There’s a part where he reacts to a video of himself reacting to himself reacting to himself ad infinitum. He does a dead-on impression of a totally normal YouTube thank you video with a knife in his hand the whole time, and it’s hilarious. There’s a song about sexting that contains the line, ‘You send back a snowman / Crisis averted.’ In a song about apologising for being problematic, he apologises in the second verse for what he said in the first verse. It’s dense with gags, and all of them land.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Friends: The Reunion – “Look, was the Friends reunion perfect? No. It was too long and parts of it were pointless and annoying. But there was little on TV that I enjoyed as much this year. It was fun and funny and sweet and nostalgic and warm, and I almost got a little choked up. And any piece of television where Malala Yousafzai is sincerely described as being ‘such a Joey’ deserves recognition.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: James Acaster: Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 – “James Acaster is so good at stand-up, he pulled off a two-hour special in his first decade as a comic. James Acaster is so good at stand-up, he opens this show with loads of cursing to scare away old people and Christians. (‘Gotta ditch these Crizzos ASAP.’) James Acaster is so good at stand-up, he did genuinely funny Brexit material in 2019 that held up when this was released a year later. James Acaster is so good at stand-up.”
OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES – Ted Lasso
Dean: “Ted Lasso is a show about a very nice man trying to manage a football team. The first wrinkle is that he’s an American football coach and it’s an English Premier League team, and he’s been hired by the new owner to destroy the team, and everyone hates him. The second wrinkle is that his marriage is failing. In a time of emerging backlash to both post-BoJack tragicomedy and post-Parks and Rec heart-on-your-sleeve sincerity, I’ll admit I approached Ted Lasso – a hypersincere show about a depressed Ned Flanders – partly out of morbid curiosity. But guess what, it fucking rules. It’s an unironic inspirational comedy about a kind man whose kindness gradually inspires others to be kind, who believes in other people with every fiber of his being and makes them want to believe in themselves too. It’s also one of the most consistently funny and joke-dense sitcoms since Letterkenny debuted back in the halcyon days of February 2016.
Even though Ted is definitely the main character, there’s a wonderful generosity to how the show spreads the spotlight, mirroring the interest Ted himself shows in the people around him. It never suffers from the very common sitcom ailment of needing to dump some of its cast in a tossed-off subplot. Everything weaves through and around the central premise of Ted’s new job so well that it organically keeps the characters in each other’s orbits, and everyone gets their moments in the sun. I’m looking forward to watching the second season once it’s over and people shut up about it.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: We Are Lady Parts – “We Are Lady Parts is a show about trying to recruit a high-strung microbiology PhD student to join your all-Muslim, all-girl punk band that has songs like ‘Ain’t No-One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me’ and ‘Voldemort Under My Headscarf’. But what I like about it is that it’s not trying to make a big point about Muslim women or treat the idea of Muslim punks as a gimmick or a joke – Islam is the ambient buzz of their cultural context, and they all relate to it differently. Plus, like I said, ‘Ain’t No-One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me’. Hilarious.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Search Party – “When everything else good in life went on hiatus, Search Party came back with two great seasons. Its third season took the gang to the courtroom with Michaela Watkins and Louie Anderson, while the fourth isolated Dory in a horror story and gave everyone else the second chance they claimed they wanted. The third was its funniest yet, the fourth its scariest, and I can’t wait to see how the fifth shifts genre yet again.”
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY – Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso in Ted Lasso
Ciara: “In the first episode of Ted Lasso, Jason Sudeikis does a spit take. Ted takes a drink of water, not realising it was fizzy water, and he spits all over the place. Spit takes aren’t a lost art, necessarily, but they’re one of those classic comedy bits that is always funny if you do it right. Sudeikis kills it. It was in that moment that all my hesitancy melted away, and I started to fall in love with the show.
Sudeikis is brilliant as Ted, and his performance is the show’s beating heart. It’s a tricky part: playing a thoroughly, thoroughly nice man. Never so nice that it tips over into just being irritating, never so nice that it feels like a cover for some kind of fucked-up hidden life, never so nice that he’s boring. But always nice. The kind of guy who brings the boss biscuits that he bakes himself. The kind of guy who treats the kitman likes he’s an important part of the team. The kind of guy who wants everyone on the team to have a good time out there more than he wants to win.
But Ted isn’t just nice. In Sudeikis’s hands, there’s a sadness deep in him. His sunniness is genuine, but it is also, in part, a kind of avoidance mechanism. In the episodes dealing with the breakdown of Ted’s marriage, Sudeikis really brings those layers out. It’s kind of insane that a character created for NBC Sports ads could have this much pathos, but there you go.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: David Mitchell as Stephen Nichols in Back – “Season two of Back was a let-down, but on the other hand, there’s a bit where Stephen is trying to convince everyone he can live comfortably in a caravan and because it only has a hob he has to boil all his food. Somebody takes the lid off a pot and he complains about how much boiling time they’ve lost him with that. David Mitchell has played exasperated a lot, yet I never tire of it.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: John DiMaggio as King Zøg in Disenchantment – “Once upon a time, animated TV programs were cast primarily with career voice actors, not actors already famous for other shit. John DiMaggio is outrageously funny in the latest season of Disenchantment, in which his character develops serious PTSD and also a verbal tic of echoing honks that is funnier as a noise than the entire careers of some comedians and only gets funnier as his condition deteriorates. An incredible fusion of silliness and darkness.”
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY – Rose Matafeo as Jessie in Starstruck
Dean: “No former Taskmaster contestant had a better year than Rose Matafeo.1 She’s dynamite as the romantic lead in the latest – and greatest – attempt at a millennial TV rom-com. Starstruck is essentially Notting Hill in the age of social media, her celebrity love interest’s entire life story just a google away, and so Rose Matafeo is Hugh Grant: affable, charming, awkward in an entirely endearing way, disarmingly vulnerable. But if she’s channeling original flavour Hugh Grant, she’s also channeling his later suave lothario persona. Jessie is horny and proud of it: one of the season’s best setpieces sees her dance and sing through the streets because she just had sex and it felt so good.
‘Awkward but endearing’ too often defaults to ‘boilerplate adorkable’ for female leads in modern rom-coms, but Matafeo stitches together something different by reaching back through the genre’s history. Jessie isn’t awkward in a shy or bumbling way, she’s just kind of a genuine weirdo who gets hung up on stupid things or digs herself into conversational holes through overconfident bluster. She’s dry and witty like Meg Ryan, prickly and headstrong like Katharine Hepburn, high-strung and self-conscious like Anne Hathaway. It is, if not exactly an original take, then certainly a fresh and funny one: Jessie is spiky and anxious and a bit irony-poisoned in a way that feels both very millennial and very particular to her character. “
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy Li in Mythic Quest – “Poppy’s role – both in the company and in the show – changed drastically in season two, going from a chronically undervalued cog in the corporate machine to co-creative director. Often when there’s that kind of major character change in a sitcom, even a great one, they feel so out of character that they’re effectively entirely new. But Charlotte Nicdao handles the transition with ease, even though Poppy doesn’t: she becomes so different, but it never feels like she’s not Poppy anymore, it feels like Poppy has changed.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Alia Shawkat as Dory Sief in Search Party – “Alia Shawkat was already killing it as Dory, but in the latest seasons, she’s made a credible case for the TV antihero hall of fame. The gradual reveal of her sociopathy over the third season chilled me to the bone, and her confrontation with that sociopathy in the fourth shook me to my core. She went from the centre of the whole show to sharing most of the fourth season with a single scene partner and never missed a beat. She’s the real deal.”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY – F. Murray Abraham as C.W. Longbottom in Mythic Quest
Ciara: “F. Murray Abraham was a much-reduced presence in season two of Mythic Quest – mostly, I’m sure, because we’re in a pandemic and he’s an old man – but he still loomed over the season as a whole. His appearances shined all the brighter in their rarity, whether that’s C.W. video-calling into the office in a manner so gung-ho it felt like his consciousness had been transferred to the screen, or at the end of an episode all about C.W. as a young man, Abraham appearing right at the end, a newly tragic figure.
But that would still make this basically an award for being F. Murray Abraham if it wasn’t for an entire episode where he takes the lead. In ‘Peter’, an old friend / co-worker / enemy / love rival of C.W.’s is dying, and his daughter sets up a meeting between the two for them to make up. C.W. has zero interest in making up. Abraham is alight in this episode, circling William Hurt like a hawk, cruel and vengeful in ways that both are hilarious and do nothing to conceal the self-loathing that drives him. And when they do, inevitably, reconcile, Abraham makes it feel earned. His softness doesn’t feel like a writing cop-out, it’s the letting down of his armour to expose the vulnerable flesh underneath. It’s truly very touching.
Also, he goes to take a shit in the guy’s desk. Amazing stuff.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso – “Roy’s a pretty classic sitcom archetype: a grump with a heart of gold who we root for getting the girl over the slick douchebag she’s with. He is also, to a degree, a parody of Roy Keane. But Goldstein breathes such life into the archetype that you remember why it became a classic. Roy Keane becomes a jumping off point in the distance, not an impression to aim towards. I particularly love how Goldstein captures Roy’s frustration with his own emotional inarticulateness.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Aidan O’Hare as Detective Frederick Regan in Dead Still – “Aidan O’Hare manages quite a balancing act as Regan, a fiercely proud Corkman working for Ireland’s colonial police force in Victorian Dublin. He keeps Regan’s sense of righteousness credible even as the show says ACAB, but way, way more impressively, he is consistently the funniest person on screen despite playing the most morally serious character. I will think of him saying a recently bereaved family would ‘put ire on your hole’ for a long time yet.”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY – Juno Temple as Keeley Jones in Ted Lasso
Dean: “Juno Temple is so funny in Ted Lasso that it’s kind of insane it isn’t just the latest in a series of stellar sitcom roles. Keeley is a very familiar archetype of the British mediasphere, a WAG, the wife or girlfriend of a footballer. Comic takes on WAGs are old hat in British comedy, but I never worried Keeley would fall into either tired misogynistic tropes or tired ‘feminist reclamation of disparaged female archetype’ tropes. Keeley isn’t stupid or smart, she’s stupid and smart. She has a fiery temper, but she’s also nearly as nice as Ted in a way that never feels at odds with her sharp tongue and filthy sense of humour. She’s materialistic, but not shallow, overconfident, but not arrogant, a romantic and a horndog both.
The most important element of Ted Lasso’s comedy is the constant back-and-forth between characters, and it’s a testament to Temple that Keeley is half of some of the show’s funniest pairings. I totally buy that Keeley made Rebecca laugh so hard her heart grew three sizes, and she and Brett Goldstein have incredible chemistry as love interests, always funny and romantic, never sacrificing one for the other. I’m not sure how the entertainment industry fucked up so bad it took her this long to break out, but I’m so glad she finally did.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Sarah Kampeela Impey as Saira in We Are Lady Parts – “There are two chief reasons Impey is my runner up: the way she chops slabs of meat at her butcher job, bloody murder in her eyes, and that when she sings ‘9 to 5’ she sounds like Poly Styrene.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Meredith Hagner as Portia Davenport in Search Party – “It goes without saying that Meredith Hagner continues to be the funniest member of the cast. She was that even when Portia was the shallowest character in the gang. But in season four, Portia gets cast – not as herself, but as Dory – in a trashy TV movie about the events of the previous seasons, and Hagner navigates the dark psychological places the process takes Portia just as deftly as the comedy.”
OUTSTANDING WRITING IN A COMEDY – Trey Parker for South Park: “The Pandemic Special”
Ciara: “The critical consensus seems to agree that South Park’s Vaccination Special is better than its Pandemic Special, but sucks to be them, because ‘The Pandemic Special’ is not only better than the Vaccination Special, it’s one of the best episodes of television of the year. It is, certainly, the one that made me laugh the most.
It’s a pandemic special, but unlike the legion of zoom episodes 2020 foisted upon us, that doesn’t change how the show looks and feels and works, just what the episode is about. The kids are about to be brought back to in-person school, which Cartman is dead set against because with online school he could sit on his ass and eat and watch Netflix or whatever. Stan is a bundle of pandemic anxiety. There are some familiar gags – the toilet paper thing, etc. – but mostly the episode goes in dozens of wild directions. The cops replace the teachers in school and shoot Token. (‘It was COVID-related,’ the cop says when asked how the fuck his death was due to COVID.) Randy and Mickey Mouse fuck a bat in China. Randy puts his sperm in the weed he’s selling because he thinks it’ll give people immunity. It turns out that Garrison (the show’s Trump analogue) is deliberately letting people die because he ran on a promise to kill all the Mexicans, and this is the closest he’s got.
In truth, it’s a special about 2020 as a whole, pulling in the summer’s protests against police violence, and the insane negligence of the Trump administration to weave a mad tapestry of this strange time.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Humphrey Ker for Mythic Quest: “Peter” – “’Peter’ is for the most part a three-hander, playing out almost like a stage play. It works both as a satisfying resolution to the episode that precedes it – bring back the two-parter, you cowards! – and easily stands in its own right. It’s a cracker script, with lots of verbal sparring, outrageous revenge plans, and a sweet, moving ending to boot.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Sabrina Jalees for Search Party: “A Dangerous Union” – “On the one hand, it may be simplistic to say the best comedy writing is always the funniest comedy writing. On the other hand, the centrepiece of this episode is two and a half minutes of Portia singing an acoustic version of ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ by Boyz II Men on a loop while a groom no-shows his celebrity wedding. It also has a really affecting exploration of abuse and codependency, and a tense kidnapping, but mostly the Boyz II Men thing.”
OUTSTANDING DIRECTING IN A COMEDY – Rob McElhenney for Mythic Quest: “Backstory!”
Dean: “When I first realised Mythic Quest was doing another mid-season flashback episode, my heart dropped. The first – which won this award last year – was lightning in a bottle, never to be repeated. I was sure going back to this well could only provide diminishing returns. Well, that shows what I know, because ‘Backstory!’ slaps. C.W. had been a consistent comic relief character to this point, and one of the best things about his origin story is he’s already a silly, grandiose, delusional weirdo as a young man, completely convinced of his own literary genius despite all evidence to the contrary. But he’s naively sweet, not yet embittered by years of failure, cheap sex and substance abuse. It’s great both as a precursor to C.W.’s established characterisation and its own distinct, great performance from Josh Brener (so consistently underused as Big Head on Silicon Valley).
Though it never quite rises to the heights of ‘A Dark Quiet Death’, it does a similarly excellent job of telling a story that parallels the core relationship between Ian and Poppy and deepens the season’s themes. If season one was ultimately about the possibility of creating art under capitalism, season two stepped back to examine the possibility of being a person under capitalism, how the envy and selfishness and egotism that capitalism breeds inside us can poison our relationships, whether platonic, romantic or creative. C.W. chooses fame and success over his integrity, but more devastatingly, he chooses them over his friends. Beautiful as a standalone story, beautiful as an episode of a very good sitcom.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Trey Parker for South Park: “South ParQ Vaccination Special” – “I know I just talked shit about the Vaccination Special in this very post, but hey, it had some really nice animation in the surreal final section. Big thumbs up from me.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Victor Nelli, Jr. for Superstore: “California, Part 2” – “This episode had the daunting task of breaking up the show’s central will-they-won’t-they couple in convincing fashion due to America Ferrera’s departure. The whole episode is excellent, but the simple, elegant and very emotional direction of the break-up scene may well be the finest moment in a very fine show that only began to get its due when it was already all but over. I’ll miss it dearly.”
1. James Acaster may have released a better stand-up special, but he also thoroughly debased himself as a mouse / footman in Amazon’s shockingly bad Camila Cabello Cinderella movie. He and Romesh Ranganathan looked so uncomfortable and out of place, and not even in a funny way. It was just kind of sad.