Emmy Experts Typing: Is Jean Smart going to fly past Kaley Cuoco?

Welcome to Emmy Experts Typing, a weekly column in which Gold Derby editors and Experts Joyce Eng and Christopher Rosen discuss the Emmy race — via Slack, of course. This week, as “Hacks” completes its first season, we look at what has turned into a very competitive Best Comedy Actress race.

Christopher Rosen: Hello, Joyce! We’re back again and this time our fingers are ready to type about what might be my sneaky favorite category at the Emmy Awards this year: Best Actress in a Comedy Series, where our longtime favorite Kaley Cuoco is on the cusp of being overtaken in the Gold Derby odds by beloved Emmy legend Jean Smart. For us, of course, that shift has happened already: nothing against Cuoco’s incredible high-wire performance in “The Flight Attendant” but Smart has the momentum, the narrative, and the role that seems all but destined to put her alongside Betty White in the Television Academy record books. We both have Smart winning here, though to provide full disclosure, I was admittedly a late convert to “Hacks.” Somewhere between “Mare of Easttown” and Wawa sandwiches, the HBO Max show began dominating my Twitter feed like it has been on for years. Having finally watched, however, it’s easy to see what the fuss is about. Smart absolutely owns the material like an old pro and her relationship and chemistry with Hannah Einbinder only enhances Smart’s performance. In some ways, this category feels like Best Actress in a Limited Series: the upstart youngster giving a career best turn in a fall 2020 show (Anya Taylor-Joy) being usurped as voting begins in earnest by a decorated veteran (Kate Winslet). But is that our recency bias showing? Will Emmy voters, with the white-hot buzz of “Hacks” (and to an extent, “Mare of Easttown”) slightly dimmed, go back and revisit Cuoco’s revelatory acting on “The Flight Attendant” and remember what a delightfully love-to-hate character she created in Cassie?

joyceeng: Well, I hope everyone is constantly checking out “The Flight Attendant” — I just converted my friend last week, but, sadly, she is not an Emmy voter. I was so ready for Cuoco to cruise to a much-deserved Emmy for her revelatory work with Catherine O’Hara out of the way — and let the record show, I’ve been a Cuoco Nut for this performance way back when, before she was being predicted en masse — but I’m also a “Hacks” devotee (a Hackolyte?) and as I kept watching, I just could not deny what a masterclass turn Smart was delivering. The thing is, they’re both acutely deft at handling the comedy and drama in their respective shows with carefully constructed yet effortless performances of two very different flawed women who you can’t help but get behind. I guess, maybe, it’s just a matter of personal preference. But something about Smart feels right. The “Mare” of it all — and that performance also skewing comedic — certainly doesn’t hurt. Maybe everyone’s getting “Designing Women” nostalgia and remembering how gifted at comedy she is. “Hacks” also isn’t a huge smash like “Mare” is, but all the buzz would likely encourage others, ahem, voters, to watch it. But we all know what happened the last two times Smart was favored to win Emmys. Are we gonna jinx her again? Plus, while Cuoco is the younger half of this duo, she is far from being a newbie since, you know, she’s been on our TVs for almost 20 years, but she has been overlooked awards-wise. So is it her time to, um, make a big bang?

SEE Jean Smart is looking to join Betty White as the only people to complete this Emmy trifecta

Christopher Rosen: There is definitely something telling about the fact that Cuoco knocked it out of the park for years on “The Big Bang Theory” without ever getting the credit for her skill — even in comedy, it seems, there needs to be an added weight or coolness factor when it comes to reaping awards. To be clear, I would love if Cuoco won: I think people have maybe forgotten how sharp she is on “The Flight Attendant,” a comedic performance rooted in deep sadness and trauma. Cassie is an alcoholic mess prone to colossally bad choices, and Cuoco gets big laughs out of her stunned reactions to outlandish situations. But by the time the show reached its final episodes, she also nailed the heavy dramatic stuff, too. Like you said, Smart does as well on “Hacks,” but maybe because it’s more unexpected from Cuoco, that will help her cause. Another crackpot theory I could talk myself into believing: what if Smart kind of splits her own votes? Is it possible some Emmy voters will find her “Mare” work more awards worthy and put her at the top of their ballots in Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie, thus opening up Best Actress in a Comedy for Cuoco? If enough people do that, would that help our fearless flight attendant, um, err, soar? (Yikes.) And while you answer that, is it possible we’re sleeping on the Wickie of it all and Renee Elise Goldsberry swoops in as an underdog and wins?

joyceeng: There is an element of “Wow, I did not know she had that in her” about Cuoco, which is sort of a backhanded compliment. And there are definitely people who conflate her with Penny. One final small note on “Big Bang”: It may not have been as “cool” as some other shows, but what she and the cast did week in and week out is nothing to sneeze at — not everyone is cut out for sitcom acting. As for Smart, there is nothing stopping people from voting for her to win in both categories if they like her that much. We are in the Smartaissance after all. But I think her “Hacks” turn is accepted as the “better” one and she’ll probably have internal “Mare” competition with Julianne Nicholson as well. But, yes, I, too, would be thrilled with either Smart or Cuoco winning — or Goldsberry. I am currently in the middle of a “Girls5eva” rewatch and the high I got from watching her absolutely hilarious turn the first time has not subsided. If voters are prioritizing comedy, Goldsberry’s got it in spades. My only concern is Peacock’s profile or lack thereof, but they are certainly going all out on the campaign. But is it enough for REG to serve a “cease and desist, bitch” to Smart and Cuoco? And speaking of cease and desist, Jane Levy was already on the fringes of a nomination, but do you think “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’s” cancellation will help or hurt her?

SEE Emmy Experts slugfest: Are the series races as locked upas they seem? Is the Smart money on Jean?

Christopher Rosen: I still have Levy among my predicted nominees, along with Smart, Cuoco, Goldsberry, Allison Janney, and Tracee Ellis Ross. But the cancellation is worrisome, and I wonder if she’ll get boxed out in the end. This is a pretty deep category: I could make the argument for Maya Erskine from “Pen15” (though I still wonder if that show is “too weird” to break through), Lena Waithe for “Master of None” (though, as we discussed this week, is that even a comedy performance?), Hailee Steinfeld for “Dickinson” (I’d love to see this show crack the Emmys, but I’m not sure if Steinfeld will be recognized), or even Lily Collins (I know, I know). But if Levy is left off the list and the other five women are relative locks, might I suggest Cristin Milioti for “Made for Love”? That’s yet another HBO Max show that tows the line between comedy and drama, and it is yet another tour de force from Milioti. She was so good in “Palm Springs” (I’m still upset that movie wasn’t a serious Oscar contender) that I could easily see Emmy voters kind of pushing her onto the list in recognition for her career ascent during the last year. What about you? Who do you have rounding out this category?

joyceeng: I have perennial nominee Ross, Levy and Waithe, the last of whom I slotted in before I watched the third season of “Master of None.” I haven’t made changes to my bottom half yet because, like you, I can make a case for multiple people. I love Milioti, who’s deserved some recognition since being the best part of “How I Met Your Mother’s” misbegotten final season. But her performances on “Fargo” and “Black Mirror” have yielded nothing from voters thus far and I’m not sure if “Made for Love” will be the one to break the duck, no matter how good she is. That show reminds me of “Run” last year in that there were pre-premiere expectations for them, but for whatever reason, both just didn’t land. No, that’s not a “Flight Attendant” pun. But that is a perfect segue to say that HBO Max already has “The Flight Attendant” and “Hacks,” so “Made for Love” wouldn’t even be a No. 2 priority for them. Janney could make a comeback, but they seem to be over “Mom,” not that they were ever that into it beyond Janney. “PEN15” did get a writing nomination its first season, so we know it’s on the writers’ radar and Helen Mirren’s. And who’s to deny multiple nominations for Helen Mirren’s favorite show?

Emmy odds for Best Comedy Actress
Jean Smart is ahead

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