Emmy Circuit: ‘Documentary Now!’ & ‘Drunk History’ Take On ‘Saturday Night Live’ In Variety Sketch Series

Documentary Now Cate Blanchette Fred Armisen

Welcome to the 2019 Emmy Circuit series, where we analyze and predict all your favorite TV series and their chances with the Television Academy (at least at this time of publishing).  The series examines the shows and performances about their awards potential, most notably the Emmy Awards.  Emmy nomination voting opens June 10 and closes on June 24.  The official Emmy nominations will be announced on Tuesday, July 16 while the ceremony airs on FOX Sunday, Sept. 22.  All Emmy pieces run with the following schedule: Mondays (Dramas), Tuesdays (Network Spotlight), Wednesdays (Comedies), Thursdays (Network Spotlight), Fridays (Limited Series, Variety Series, Below-the Lines).

Last year the team at “Saturday Night Live” became the first to repeat back-to-back wins for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. To be fair, the category was only formed for the 2015 Emmys. However, “Saturday Night Live” has already won as many Emmys for Sketch Series as they did under the old Variety Series rules. But the show undeniably took a step back this year. Meanwhile, “Documentary Now!,” “Drunk History,” and several newcomers showed up with plans to take its crown. Can “Saturday Night Live” hold off the competition, or will it take home Variety Sketch Series again?

The Frontrunners

Saturday Night Live, SNL, Adam Sandler

“Saturday Night Live” took a dip in quality this year, but the problems have not been too widely reported. The lack of viral and cultural moments coming from the show this year speaks to issues with the strategy of the show. Several cast members either joined or created their own shows over the past few months. Kate McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, and Aidy Bryant could potentially move on from “SNL” at the end of the season. While Bryant will likely be back according to a Deadline report, Thompson and McKinnon have very busy schedules. Other than the use of Matt Damon as Brett Cavanagh, the celebrity impressions have worn out their welcome. In fact, the mostly apolitical Adam Sandler episode was easily one of the three best episodes of the year.

Documentary Now” established itself as the real threat with a brilliant season. Despite losing arguably the best sketch comedian of his generation (Bill Hader), Fred Armisen kept the show alive with a massive influx of talent. Armisen, Seth Meyers, Alex Buono, Rhys Thomas, and John Mulaney made up some of the brain trust of the most cinematic sketch series on TV. Guest stars rotated through the season, with Cate Blanchette, Owen Wilson, Necar Zadegan, and Michael C. Hall pushing into the Guest Actor/Actress races. “Original Cast Album: Co-op” might be the best single episode of the season. Despite losing Hader, “Documentary Now!” should have a legitimate chance at toppling SNL.

Previously At the Emmys…

Drunk HistoryAfter the Outstanding Variety Series was split into Sketch and Talk Series, only three programs had received a nomination every year. A converted web series, “Drunk History,” has become an Emmy nomination mainstay. With only eight episodes this season, the team pulled out the big guns with each episode. Fans got some extremely compelling stories focusing on unsung heroes of color (“Trailblazers”), under-sung LBGT stories (“Love”), and even an episode on the “National Parks” system. But the highlight of the season, “Are You Afraid of the Drunk” (which covers Mary Shelley’s writing of “Frankenstein”), should get the Emmy push. Not only does it stand out for its all-star cast, but the technical achievements within the aesthetic of the series made this a must-watch episode.

At Home With Amy Sedaris” continues to be one of the most eclectic shows on television. Sedaris’ unique brand of comedy perfectly skewers the DIY series that have become so popular in recent years. Sedaris’ new show broke onto the scene last year and instantly put itself in contention. It remains one of the most surprising Emmy shows, especially considering it airs on TruTV. However, Sedaris’ comedy remains influential today. There’s a reason why Sedaris received a nomination last year and she should be one of the shoe-ins.

“Tracey Ullman’s Show” returns to HBO, but a format change may cause some to push back against the series. Utilizing some sketches from “Tracey Ullman Breaks the News,” a new show she created for the 2017 elections in the U.K., some may not feel it lives up to the spirit of the category. Then again, the rest of the material is great, and Tracey Ullman is a living legend. A nomination will tie “Tracey Ullman’s Show” and “Documentary Now” as the fourth most nominated programs in category history (putting it ahead of shows like “Key & Peele” or “Inside Amy Schumer”). Look for HBO to keep the show humming along.

I Love You, America” from Sarah Silverman aired episodes this year before it was canceled. It may not be a priority for Hulu, but it was a nominee last year. Can the series earn it’s spot back? Or will the cancellation open the door for new contenders?

The Newcomers

There are a few shows to keep an eye on. With “Portlandia” gone, it seems likely one of these shows has a chance to break into the race. If you’re looking for a future breakout star, look no further than Terence Nance and “Random Acts of Flyness” from HBO. The future “Space Jam 2” director, Nance received considerable buzz for his performance. The series executes complex ideas at a very high level and feels necessary in 2019.

Another popular series for the internet to gush over has been “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” on Netflix. Robinson’s oddball brand of comedy fits well as a palette cleanser, and with a parade of guest stars, it became a surprisingly big hit. Can it maintain the momentum until the Emmy voting opens?

Meanwhile, “Who is America?” comes into the fray with some momentum. Showtime brought Sacha Baron Cohen back into the fray with the surprise series, and it made waves in the Fall. Cohen continues to gain traction for his various projects across film and tv, and love for “Da Ali G Show” (which earned six Emmy nominations) may help it break into Variety Sketch Series.  Combined with the Golden Globe nomination for Comedy Actor early this year, “Who is America?” may have earned enough momentum to carry itself into the race.

Comedy Central rolled out an interesting contender as well. Focusing on bringing new voices to the stage and creating parody music, “The New Negros” has been a great new addition to their lineup. Featuring great standup performances, and solid comedy music at the end of each episode, “The New Negros” should merit consideration for a nomination. However, it feels like the lack of sketch comedy, and the focus on standup comedy instead, will make a nomination difficult.

Guess They’re Contenders

With a new spot open in the category, voters should take a look to the North and check out “Baroness Von Sketch Show,” a Canadian entry that airs on IFC. Produced by CBC, “Baroness Von Sketch Show” has already won prizes Best Comedy Program or Series from Canadian Screen Awards. It features an all-woman feature cast, and the performers simply excel in their work. In a just world, they would make the cut. And if they can get the show in front of Emmy voters, it could happen.

Another show with past success to consider comes from the CW. “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” earned nominations throughout the early 2000’s. Since then, the return of the show has yet to yield an Emmy nomination. Perhaps a series nomination can come from increased attention on the network. The conclusions of “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” have brought some viewers back.

Technically, “Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents,” Tosh.0” and “This Is Not Happening” all qualify as well, but Comedy Central will likely put its eggs in the “Drunk History” basket. “The Hollywood Puppet Show” does not have the support from Amazon it needs to break into the race. Despite putting their support behind “I Think You Should Leave Now,” Netflix may find some support for “The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale” in comedy circles. Sadly, the show never really caught on despite several attempts from Netflix to change up the release strategy.

Current Variety Sketch Series Predictions

  1. “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)
  2. “Documentary Now!” (IFC)
  3. “Drunk History” (Comedy Central)
  4. “At Home with Amy Sedaris” (TruTV)
  5. “Who Is America?” (Showtime)
  6. “Tracey Ullman’s Show” (HBO)

Will “Saturday Night Live” continue its reign over the Variety Sketch Series category? Can someone pull the upset? Comment below and share your thoughts!