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The most surprising Emmy winners and nominations of all time

Movie and TV lovers often find award shows predictable, with the same people and shows winning time and time again. When there’s a hit show (hello, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones), it’s usually a shoo-in for the win in its respective genre categories. The same goes for acting awards, like when Julia Louis-Dreyfus swept the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category six times in a row for her brilliant turn as Selina Meyer in Veep. The feisty VP earned her the record for the most Emmy acting wins for the same role (and tying with Cloris Leachman for the most acting Primetime Emmy wins — Loius-Dreyfus has eight, including one for The New Adventures of Old Christine).

But every once in a while, an award show throws viewers for a loop. Along with plenty of surprising Oscar nominations and wins during the Academy Awards, the Emmys have also been known to shock viewers with some small-screen nominations and wins that seemingly come out of left field. Here, we take a look at a few that have stood out over the years.

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Most surprising Emmy wins

Julia Garner as Ruth in Ozark.

Julia Garner (Ozark) — 2019

In 2019, Game of Thrones dominated awards season thanks to its loyal legion of fans who became obsessed with the HBO series. Not surprisingly, GoT took home the Outstanding Drama Series award, among many others. But one category for which the show fell short was Outstanding Supporting Actress. Four women who had pivotal roles in the fantasy series were nominated, so it was a complete surprise when Julia Garner’s name was read aloud as the winner for her role as the sharp-tongued Ruth in Netflix’s Ozark. Garner, of course, fully deserved her win for such a compelling performance (she’s a fan-favorite character from the series). But it threw everyone for a loop when she beat out all four actors from Game of Thrones, which was considered to be the best show on television, and not to mention Killing Eve’s fabulous Fiona Shaw as well.

Louie Anderson playing the mother in FX series Baskets.

Louie Anderson (Baskets) — 2016

Louis Anderson won his third Emmy award ever for his role as the mother of Zach Galifianakis’ character in the FX series Baskets. Anderson managed to sneak the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series win past fan and critic favorites like Ty Burrell from Modern Family, Tony Hale from Veep, and Tituss Burgess from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Baskets, which was about a man named Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) and his quest to become a professional clown, received generally positive reviews. The series lasted four seasons but never garnered the same attention nor staying power as the other shows nominated in the category, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Andre Braugher) and Key & Peele (Keegan-Michael Key). While Burrell and Hale won Emmys in previous years for their same roles, it was still a huge surprise when Anderson’s name was called in 2016. Burgess was nominated three more times in the following years but never won.

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom, sitting behind the desk.

Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) — 2013

When an actor begins their acceptance speech with the words, “Well, crap!” you know even they are surprised they won. This is exactly what happened with Jeff Daniels when he beat out the likes of Bryan Cranston, Damian Lewis, and Jon Hamm from such iconic shows as Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Mad Men, respectively, to take home the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series award in 2013 for his role in The Newsroom. The Aaron Sorkin-created HBO political drama only lasted three seasons and was initially met with mixed reviews, with critics calling it “too preachy, self-satisfied, and cynical.” Thus, despite Daniels’ expectedly stellar performance in the role of the difficult and stubborn Will McAvoy, the win was still a surprise.

Craig T. Nelson as Coach in the '90s series.

Craig T. Nelson (Coach) — 1992

Coach was a good show, but not necessarily a great show, which is why when Craig T. Nelson took home the Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy for his role as the title character, fans were shocked. Not only did he win for a series that wasn’t as popular as the others that were nominated, but he won over Ted Danson (Cheers), John Goodman (Roseanne), Kelsey Grammer (Wings), and Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld), all shows that went on to make a significant impact on the television landscape. Interestingly, Nelson, who went on to star in such high-profile series like Parenthood and, most recently, Young Sheldon, has not been nominated since.

Richard Mulligan from the '80s series Empty Nest.

Richard Mulligan (Empty Nest) — 1989

While the Golden Girls was a national treasure, its spinoff, Empty Nest, about a widowed doctor whose two adult daughters come back to live with him, didn’t quite earn the same level of recognition. It did air for seven seasons and had a healthy number of consistent viewers season after season. But it is not one of the most memorable series of the late ’80s/early ’90s. That’s why it is surprising not only that Mulligan was nominated but that he beat out A-listers like Ted Danson (Cheers), John Goodman (Roseanne), Fred Savage (The Wonder Years), and Michael J. Fox (Family Ties) to take home the win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. For the record, Danson won the award the following year, but Mulligan was nominated too, and again in 1991 for the role.

The cast of The Practice posing together.

The Practice — 1999

The Practice has largely become a forgotten show from the ’90s. Meanwhile, series like The Sopranos, ER, Law & Order, and NYPD Blue are more a part of pop culture history. Yet executive producer David E. Kelly and company won the Emmy for Best Drama Series in 1999, beating out all of those iconic shows. The same year, Kelly also took home the Best Comedy Series award for Ally McBeal. The Practice, a legal drama about the partners and associates working in a Boston law firm, aired for eight seasons and actually has 15 Primetime Emmy wins under its belt. It spawned its equally successful spinoff Boston Legal, which aired for five seasons and earned several Emmy nods for lead actors James Spader and William Shatner.

Zendaya in a scene from Euphoria.

Zendaya (Euphoria) — 2020

Not only was it shocking that Zendaya was nominated in a major category against TV heavyweights like Laura Linney (Ozark), Olivia Colman (The Crown), and Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show), but to top it all off, she also became the youngest-ever winner in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category. Zendaya delivered a riveting and heart-wrenching performance in Euphoria that fully earned her the win. Nonetheless, the nomination was a surprise for viewers who were so used to seeing the same names over and over again in the major award category.

Most surprising Emmy nominations

Emily taking a selfie from the balcony in Paris in the series Emily in Paris.

Emily in Paris — 2021

If there was going to be an Emmy nomination that fell into the female power realm for comedy, there were so many other options this year than Netflix’s Emily in Paris (Tina Fey’s Girls5eva comes to mind). The show, however, made the cut in the Outstanding Comedy Series category up against some stiff competition in shows such as Cobra Kai, Black-ish, and Ted Lasso. And though it did receive some recognition, Emily was widely panned by critics and sparked pushback from those who felt it depicted a stereotypical view of Paris and the French. It also raised eyebrows earlier this year with nods from the Golden Globes for Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy and Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series — Musical or Comedy for star Lily Collins. The show is a long shot to win, but it doesn’t make the nomination any less surprising.

A scene from Cobra Kai on Netflix.

Cobra Kai — 2021

It’s one thing for a series like Cobra Kai to capture the hearts of nostalgic adults who remember the original Karate Kid movies fondly and love the throwback references and renewed storyline. But it’s rare that series like these, with corny storylines and acting, would be considered Emmy-worthy. However, the popularity and beloved nature of the franchise and characters led to this martial arts comedy-drama, which was originally a YouTube Premium series, receiving a nomination in the Outstanding Comedy Series category. That said, a win is unlikely since Cobra Kai is stepping into the ring with series like The Kominsky Method and the favorite to win, Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso.

Christine Persaud
Christine has decades of experience in trade and consumer journalism. While she started her career writing exclusively about…
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