This year’s Emmy nominations are clear: The age of the antihero is over

A man in period attire sits in a chair in front of a group of other men at a table.
Rege-Jean Page as Duke Simon Bassett in “Bridgerton.”
(Liam Daniel / Netflix)

When the Emmy nominations were announced Tuesday, Black performers dominated the category for lead actor in a drama series for the first time.

Once defined by white actors playing compelling but deeply flawed antiheroes — think Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men” or James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” — the field this year included four Black actors playing an array of roles that defy easy generalization.

This year’s field includes two previous winners: Billy Porter, who stars as an HIV-positive ballroom emcee in the FX series “Pose,” and Sterling K. Brown, who plays a Black man adopted by a white family in the NBC tearjerker “This Is Us.” They were joined by Regé-Jean Page, who starred as a dashing aristocrat in Netflix’s dishy romance “Bridgerton” and became its breakout star, and Jonathan Majors, who played a sci-fi-loving Korean War veteran in HBO’s horror series “Lovecraft Country.”


Also nominated this year are Josh O’Connor for his turn as Prince Charles in Netflix’s “The Crown” and Matthew Rhys for his work in the HBO noir “Perry Mason.”

“The Crown” and “The Mandalorian” dominate the 2021 Emmy nominations. Here are the honorees in the major categories.

July 13, 2021

The historic showing by Black actors in one of the most heavily contested categories at the Emmys is partially a reflection of the number and range of shows this year exploring the Black experience, from Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” which followed a young Black Londoner as she recovered from a sexual assault to Barry Jenkins’ “Underground Railroad,” a magical realist drama about slavery.

Across the board, it was a strong year for Black performers in dramatic roles. Coel and “Genius: Aretha Franklin” star Cynthia Erivo were both nominated in the intensely competitive race for lead actress in a limited series or movie, while Uzo Aduba (“In Treatment”), Jurnee Smollett (“Lovecraft Country”) and Mj Rodriguez (“Pose”), the first trans performer nominated in the category, each scored a nomination for lead actress in a drama series. (There were also some noteworthy snubs of Black actors, including John Boyega for his performance as a London police officer in the anthology series “Small Axe” and Thuso Mbedu for her depiction of a young enslaved woman in “The Underground Railroad.”)

Each of the Black performers nominated for lead actor in a drama series this year stars in a wildly different kind of story featuring characters from all walks of life: “Pose” is a celebration of the forgotten queer history of ‘90s New York City. “Lovecraft Country” uses genre tropes to explore the horrors of racism in midcentury America. “Bridgerton” is an inclusively cast bodice-ripper set in Regency London. “This Is Us” is a crowd-pleasing family saga full of wrenching plot twists.

It’s an encouraging sign of progress in a category that, as recently as 2015, included only white performers. That’s the year Hamm finally took home an Emmy for his performance as the hard-drinking advertising executive in “Mad Men,” prevailing in a field that included Jeff Daniels as a speechifying news anchor in “The Newsroom” and Kevin Spacey as a backstabbing politician in “House Of Cards.”

Columnist and awards expert Glenn Whipp breaks down the top surprises and snubs of Tuesday’s Emmy nominations.

July 13, 2021

That year’s whiteness was no exception: In the decade and a half preceding it, only one Black actor, Andre Braugher, was nominated in the category, for his role in the short-lived medical drama “Gideon’s Crossing.” Otherwise, the field was dominated for years by men playing corrupt cops, jaded counterterrorism agents and ruthless mobsters, along with the occasional beloved football coach or idealistic politician — characters whose whiteness instantly lent their stories “importance” and often gave them license to behave badly without losing audience sympathy.


Until recently, Black characters were rarely allowed to be as messy or as prickly as a Don Draper or a Gregory House. (“Luther” star Idris Elba was the rare exception — and though he was nominated multiple times for actor in a limited series, he never won.) Thanks to the efforts of influential storytellers like Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae, television has grown more inclusive and more interested in narratives other than that of the white guy behaving badly.

One shouldn’t necessarily expect a repeat at next year’s Emmys, though. “Lovecraft Country” was recently canceled by HBO after one season. “Pose,” a trailblazing show for representation of transgender people as well as people of color, just ended its three-season run on FX. “This Is Us” will conclude next year. And while “Bridgerton” will be back on Netflix in the near future, Page will not return — much to the dismay of his many fans.

The question going forward may be whether this record-setting year will be the new standard — or an aberration in the much longer trend.