The 2021 Emmys Show Watchmen Was The Exception, Not The Norm

After a banner year for Watchmen at the 2020 Emmy awards, 2021’s event proves Doctor Manhattan’s success was the exception that proves the rule.

The 2021 Emmy awards proved Watchmen‘s groundbreaking success last year was something of an anomaly, rather than a trigger for change. When HBO announced a Watchmen TV sequel from Damon Lindelof, fans of the original Alan Moore comic (and Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation) were skeptical, but those misgivings got obliterated faster than an Ozymandias clone butler. Watchmen was lauded for its offbeat tone and fascinating continuation of the source material, but also for delivering a thought-provoking racial commentary that even caught the attention of Barack Obama. Shining a light on the 1921 Tulsa massacre and modern white supremacy, Watchmen proved a startlingly prophetic watch in late 2019.

Superhero fare has always struggled at top awards ceremonies. Though the genre has evolved far beyond people in capes punching each other, those handing out gongs still seem to see comic book adaptations as people in capes punching each other. It was refreshing, then, when the 2020 Emmy awards acknowledged Watchmen with nominations in 11 of the major categories. Manhattan and the gang went on to score wins for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Lead Actress (Regina King), Outstanding Supporting Actor (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Outstanding Writing.

Related: Why HBO’s Watchmen is Ending & Won’t Get Season 2

2020’s Emmys felt like the beginning of a new era for one of many award ceremonies shouldering a reputation for being stuffy and out of touch. Watchmen‘s haul represented a win for bold, innovative, unique storytelling, and also for representation. Recent years have seen various awards institutions called out for their lack of diversity, but Watchmen‘s success indicated times were a-changing.


2021’s Emmy awards reverted to type. Among the night’s big winners were The CrownMare of EasttownThe CrownThe Handmaid’s Tale and The Crown, and while all of the above are certainly worthy of their respective accolades, a glance at the full winners’ list reveals a very familiar pattern. Safe, conservative, conventional winners many would consider prime award fodder, the likes of which we’ve seen approach the podium time and time again. Watchmen‘s out-of-the-box win in 2020 looked like a broadening of the Emmys’ narrow palette; instead, it was just a brief foray into our weird and wonderful world of people in capes punching each other.

You might also see #EmmysSoWhite trending on Twitter over the coming days, and that’s hardly surprising given the lack of wins for actors of color. The 2021 nominations broke ground with a record number of nominations for non-white talent, but at the business end, it was all-white on the night in the acting categories. Wins for Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You) and Hamilton exceptions to the usual prestige dramas.

It’s easy to be critical, so what should’ve won instead? Bridgerton‘s Regé-Jean Page might’ve anticipated joy in the Lead Actor category, likewise the Hamilton boys for Lead Actor In A Limited Series, and Michaela Coel stood a good chance against Kate Winslet competing for Lead Actress In A Limited Series. WandaVisionThe Boys and The Mandalorian were up for various gongs, and though no one seriously excepted them to walk away with armfuls of gold, it seems the Emmys were once again social distancing from the comic book and sci-fi genres.

Related: Watchmen: How The HBO Show Condemns Violence

Not to besmirch the night’s eventual winners, but none among those crowned shook up the status quo quite like Watchmen in 2020. It also takes some effort to nominate so many actors of color and have the vast majority lose, and fans will question whether the Emmys are more interested in the superficial appearance of progress than actually making progress. Both in terms of recognizing a broader range of styles and championing diversity, it’s 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Those who watched the Watchmen won’t necessarily be watching the Emmys again.

More: HBO’s Watchmen: Biggest Changes To The Book’s Ending

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