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The Biggest Upsets, Shocks, and Surprises in Emmys History

By Jennifer Hassan in Entertainment and Novelty
| December 6, 2020 5:04 am PDT
The Biggest Upsets in Emmys History

Unlike the Oscars and the Golden Globes, the Emmy Awards are just for television. And, also unlike the Oscars and the Golden Globes, the Emmys are not presented on one special night. They are awarded throughout the year at various events.

There are Daytime Emmy Awards, for superlative daytime programming. The Primetime Emmy Awards honor standout shows that are broadcast from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

There are also Sports Emmys, International Emmys, News and Documentary Emmys, and still more genres that have a dedicated Emmy award assigned to them. No wonder this awards show is a favorite at sportsbooks, who offer odds on the winners of the various categories. (Yes, you can bet on the Emmys!)

Here are the most surprising moments across all the Emmys, from the award’s inception in 1949 to the present.

Julia Garner, for Ozark, 2019

Every other actress in the group of nominees for Supporting Actress in this year was from Game of Thrones. The incredibly popular hit series was wrapping up, and it was assumed that the individuals involved with the production would sweep the awards. People counted on it.

Thus, when Julia Garner, who plays Ruth Langmore in the darkly humorous show Ozark, took the award, viewers were stunned. As, reportedly, were the other nominees.

It is worth noting that Garner has won two Primetime Emmys for this role, and has developed something of a cult following.

Jeff Daniels, for The Newsroom, 2013

It was the era of Mad Men. Everyone was watching that series, dreaming about living in a time when one could smoke in the office, make ribald jokes, and wear sleekly futuristic couture.

Thus, when Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper in Mad Men, was passed over in favor of Daniels, even critics were shocked. Jon Hamm wasn’t the only actor that the award could have been expected to go to; Hugh Bonneville would have also been a reasonable choice for his work in Downton Abbey, as would have Kevin Spacey for House of Cards.

Daniels is great at what he does, but to pass over the likes of Spacey and Bonneville and Hamm was surprising, to say the least.

Note: Even Daniels seemed unprepared to win the award, as if he knew he was up against some major talent and, therefore, didn’t need to prepare a speech.

Richard Mulligan (aka Who?), for Empty Nest, 1989

No one was more surprised than, well, everyone watching, when the winner of the Best Actor in a Comedy was announced back in 1989.

The talent in the group of nominees was notable: John Goodman was starring in Roseanne at the time, Michael J. Fox was doing his turn in Family Ties, child actor Fred Savage was wowing audiences in the Wonder Years, and Ted Danson was playing a perennially foolish but utterly riveting bartender on Cheers.

“So,” you wonder. “Who won?”

“None of them,” I say.”

“Wait, none of them? How is that possible?”

“Because,” I reply, “the honor went to Richard Mulligan. You know, the doctor in that spinoff show from the Golden Girls?”

“The who, the what now?” you may rightfully shoot back.

Yes, folks. Golden Girls had a spinoff show called Empty Nest. It was a show entirely without the luster or septuagenarian sex appeal of the parent show. (Or should I say “grandparent show?” Okay, cheap joke.)

Yes, the great John Goodman, who proved his genius in later work such as The Big Lebowski and Trouble with the Curve, was passed over for the Empty Nest guy.

Anyhoo, this was an upset. A significant upset. A very upsetting upset.

Ricky Gervais, for Extras, 2007

This was an interesting upset because Gervais actually deserved the award, and then he won it. So, where is the upset?

The upset is in the shock and surprise of the Americans who just didn’t get the brilliant, understated humor of the show.

To be fair, America is not known for “understated.” Or even just “stated.” No, things should be shouted from the rooftops at great volume. And even then people will tune in to Fox News to have the rooftop shouting interpreted for them.

Yea, verily, sublime comic erudition often flies in under the radar when it lands on U.S. shores. Such is the case with Extras.

Extras is a brilliant tongue-in-cheek look at the life of an irritated British wannabe. It’s genius!

When Milman, Gervais’ character, is seated next to David Bowie, separated only by a thin velvet rope, he rightly expresses astonishment that Bowie’s side of the rope is the VIP section, whilst his own is for the plebes. The distinction makes no sense to Milman, nor does it to any of us, the viewers.

And when Milman is guilted into giving a beggar some cash—and he only has a 20-pound note on him—and he tells the beggar, “this should be good for four or five passes,” how can you not acknowledge the sheer gold of this scripting? Are you nuts?

Anyway, many were rendered speechless while Gervais was making his speech.

Schitt’s Creek, 2020

Imagine a tsunami surging up a creek. That is what all other nominees felt when the moderately amusing show Schitt’s Creek took home an armful of awards, beating out all comers.

The cerebral insight of The Good Place went unrewarded in the Outstanding Comedy Series category. As did the mighty Don Cheadle in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category for his work in Black Monday. (The award there went to Eugene Levy for his work in, as noted above, Schitt’s Creek.)

Moving on. Catherine O’Hara, who was perfectly cast as Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek, took the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Nothing wrong with this except that the effervescent Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) was also up for the award.

And so on. Schitt’s Creek also took awards for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, 2000

This is not a true upset, just a disappointing oversight. The “Hunting” episode of the quality show Succession took the prize. This show is about what happens when a family-controlled dynasty loses its patriarch. Succession is well done, it is tense, and we can all relate.

And the show’s win would be all well and good in any other year.

Except, this time it was up against a truly stunning episode in the form of “Aberfan” of The Crown.

“Aberfan” was drama, history, tragedy, marital relations, and social collision all tied up in one true tale of anguish. In fact, the day that Aberfan lost its children in a slag-heap avalanche still reverberates in the town today. PTSD, thoughts of suicide, and multi-generational anxiety and depression still scar the community.

All of this was pictured beautifully, acted consciously and respectfully, and musically scored with the gravitas it deserved. It should have won the award.

In Closing

No awards show is perfect. Actually, they might be perfect. How can we know, when quality is so subjective? Suffice it to say that no matter who wins an award, any award, there will be mumbling and naysayers and suspicions formed.

The best series last several seasons, and thus have several opportunities to win an Emmy or seven. If not this year, then the next, or the next.

There are exceptions; Angela Lansbury was nominated a multitude of times, and never won for her work on the beloved Murder, She Wrote series. The Wire never won an award, nor did Veronica Mars.

As I say, no awards show is perfect. But what awards shows excel at is reminding us of the shows we haven’t seen, and should really get around to. They remind us that some film actors are trying their hands at television, and vice versa.

We are alerted to entire genres we may have been neglecting (some folks forget to watch drama for years), and our own taste is reinforced when our favorite shows and stars walk away with the prize.

In short, award shows are Hollywood’s take on Hollywood. They are a microcosm of an already very small world, and perhaps shouldn’t be taken very seriously, except as simply one more reason to don the aforementioned sweatpants and fire up the microwave.

I’ve also written about the biggest Golden Globes upsets, if you’ve not yet had your fill of shocks and surprises.

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