From Jenna Ortega to Martin Short, These Emmy Dark Horses Might Surprise

You can’t blame Emmy voters from being a little distracted this year. Between picket lines, stalled projects and bans on campaigning, voting will come to an end on Monday at a time when it’s anything but business as usual in Hollywood.

That might make it harder for members of the Television Academy to focus on the job of considering all 207 nominated programs or all 114 nominated performances. But is it too much to hope that instead of making them lazier about the job, it’ll spur them out of usual routines? That maybe it’ll make them consider programs and people that conventional wisdom says don’t have much of a chance?

Granted, Emmy voters are creatures of habit, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out over the years. So while I’m going to use this column to throw out the names of some dark horses who have a change to shake things up on Emmy night in January 2024, my official predictions aren’t likely to go with any of these longshots. But you know, a weird Emmy year deserves some weird Emmy winners.


Dark horse: “Jury Duty”
Favorites: “Ted Lasso,” “The Bear,” “Abbot Elementary”

The road to an upset: If pundits and Emmy-watchers are correct, there’s a clear top three in this category: two-time winner “Ted Lasso,” hot newcomer “The Bear” and second-year sensation “Abbott Elementary.” I have a feeling it’s between the first two of those shows – but I also had a feeling that “Jury Duty,” a scripted series with the feel of a reality/prank show, wouldn’t be nominated in this category. The experimental Amazon Freevee series was one of the biggest surprises of Emmy nominations – so if the shock of the nomination got a lot of additional voters to watch it in the weeks before final voting began, and if they fell for it the way Round 1 voters had done, who knows?


Dark horse: Jenna Ortega, “Wednesday”

Favorites: Quinta Brunson, “Abbott Elementary”; Christina Applegate, “Dead to Me”

The road to an upset: Quinta Brunson won for writing “Abbott Elementary” last year, but she lost in the acting category to the inescapable Jean Smart from “Hacks.” It feels as if this is Brunson’s year – but in a category filled with people who’ve been here before (past nominees Brunson and Natasha Lyonne and past winners Christina Applegate and Rachel Brosnahan), there is one fresh, fun newcomer in “Wednesday” star Jenna Ortega. There’s not much precedent for that kind of win unless you go back to America Ferrera winning for “Ugly Betty” in 2007, but voters did it more recently in the drama category with Zendaya in 2020.


Dark horse: Martin Short, “Only Murders in the Building”
Favorites: Jeremy Allen White, “The Bear”; Jason Sudeikis, “Ted Lasso”; Bill Hader, “Barry”

The road to an upset: This is another category with a clear top three, and maybe a clear top dog (or top bear) in Jeremy Allen White. But Martin Short is an intriguing dark horse. For starters, he’s been killing it during an acclaimed third season that has dropped new episodes throughout the voting period. In addition, his castmate Steve Martin was one of the biggest snubs in this year’s nominations, so a vote for Martin S. could serve as something of a salute to S. Martin.


Dark horse: Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Favorites: Sarah Snook, “Succession”; Bella Ramsey, “The Last of Us”

The road to an upset: Sure, this is Sarah Snook’s Emmy to lose. And no, Shiv Roy is not about to lose something that’s within her grasp. But there have been times when Emmy voters have surprised us with their love for “The Handmaid’s Tale” – for instance 2019, when the final six episodes of Season 2 were eligible as individual episodes and picked up 11 noms even though the season itself wasn’t eligible because it had been awarded the previous year. And now voters have one final chance to salute 15-time nominee and two-time winner Elisabeth Moss, who has also been directing episodes in recent seasons. The Emmys aren’t usually that sentimental, but they did it for Moss’ old “Mad Men” boss, Jon Hamm, during his final season on that show.


Dark horse: Jeff Bridges, “The Old Man”
Favorites: Kieran Culkin, “Succession”; Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”; Pedro Pascal, “The Last of Us”

The road to an upset: There are seven nominees in the category, including three from “Succession.” If they grab most of the votes but split them more or less evenly, and Bob Odenkirk keeps his losing streak intact, what’s to say that the love Hollywood feels for Jeff Bridges won’t give him a shot? There’s a whole lot of affection for The Dude out there.


Dark horse: Daniel Radcliffe, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”
Favorites: Steven Yeun, “Beef”; Evan Peters, “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”

The road to an upset: Voters just want to have fun? This category almost goes to something big and dark: Michael Keaton in “Dopesick,” Mark Ruffalo in “I Know This Much Is True,” Jharrel Jerome in “When They See Us,” Darren Criss in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” … But in a big, dark year, there could be some people out there who want to give it up for pulling off the utterly ridiculous of having him play Weird Al Yankovic and spend half the movie shirtless.


Dark horse: “A Black Lady Sketch Show”
Favorites: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “Saturday Night Live”

The road to an upset: Is there any road to this upset? Not really. “Last Week Tonight” has won seven consecutive Emmys in the variety-talk category and is the favorite now that it’s been shifted to this one instead. And “Saturday Night Live” has won six times in a row in this category. But what if Television Academy members are tired of always voting for “Last Week Tonight” and “SNL?” What if the change in category spurs them to think about something different? “A Black Lady Sketch Show” did score an upset victory over “SNL” in the variety directing category last year, so it’s not like it always loses to that show. Almost always, though.

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