LOS ANGELES --- Television's top stars will gather in person for the first time in two years at Sunday's Emmys, where Netflix is tipped to finally win the small screen's biggest prize for "The Crown."
The critically adored British royals saga will battle for the best drama prize with "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian" and others at a ceremony held outdoors with a limited live audience in downtown Los Angeles due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
Leading streamer Netflix has utterly transformed the TV landscape since creating its first original show in 2012, but surprisingly has never won a top series prize at television's equivalent of the Oscars -- best drama, best comedy, or best limited series.
"'The Crown' does feel like it finally has come to the moment where it's going to have its moment," Variety awards editor Clayton Davis told AFP. "It's going to be the first big series win for Netflix."
"The writing is on the wall. This is Netflix's year," wrote IndieWire's TV awards editor Libby Hill.
As well as "The Crown" -- which in its fourth season depicts the ill-fated marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana -- the streaming giant is banking on the wildly popular "The Queen's Gambit."
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a gifted but troubled chess prodigy, that show sent chessboard sales skyrocketing worldwide, and is the favorite to win top honors in the fiercely competitive limited series section -- for shows ending after one season.
Add in nominations from Regency romp "Bridgerton" to nature documentary "David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet" -- plus 34 Emmys won in technical categories announced ahead of Sunday's gala -- and Netflix could be eyeing an all-time record haul.
"What we're seeing is Netflix finally breaking through," Deadline columnist Pete Hammond told AFP.
"They've always done well with the nominations, but never the final tally."
If anyone can ruin Netflix's party, it will likely be Disney+, the new kid on the TV streaming block in just its second year, bringing beloved big-screen characters from "Star Wars" and Marvel films to the Emmys party.
Baby Yoda and a digitally de-aged Luke Skywalker helped "The Mandalorian" jointly top the overall nominations count alongside rival drama "The Crown."
An outside bet for best drama is "Pose" -- Billy Porter's LGBTQ-focused show exploring New York's 1980s underground ballroom culture has mounted a dazzling Emmys campaign for its final season.
In limited series competition, quirky sitcom-inspired Marvel superhero show "WandaVision" on Disney+ has exceeded all critical expectations.
The category also features Kate Winslet's small-town detective drama "Mare of Easttown," and British break-out series "I May Destroy You," which examines the aftermath of a rape -- both from traditional Emmys juggernaut HBO.
'Fun, ritzy party'
Last year's ceremony -- held before coronavirus vaccines were available -- was an entirely virtual affair, with comedian Jimmy Kimmel standing in a deserted downtown Los Angeles auditorium as winners beamed in via video.
This time, comedian Cedric the Entertainer takes on hosting duties, with a strict guest list of 500-odd nominees gathering under strict pandemic precautions including proof of inoculation.
"Making that level of celebrities ill is not on our agenda," Emmys producer Ian Stewart told Variety, nonetheless promising a "fun, ritzy party" for those who clear security.
With the Delta variant still raging and international travel complicated, some overseas contenders including the cast of "The Crown" are expected to dial in from a London satellite hub.
The strategy echoes the approach adopted last year by the cast of "Schitt's Creek," who swept every comedy acting prize at the start of the Emmys ceremony as they beamed in from their base in Toronto.
This year, Apple TV+ phenomenon "Ted Lasso" is the comedy frontrunner, and Jason Sudeikis is a favorite for best actor for his work as an out-of-his-depth American football coach handed control of an English soccer team.
"I think the show will end up with another 'Schitt's Creek' kind of situation, where it wins everything in the first 45 minutes of the show," said Hammond.
Many A-list stars are expected to appear Sunday, but others such as "Friends: The Reunion" nominee Jennifer Aniston have decided to stay away for health reasons.
The slimmed-down audience capacity means some of those in contention will not even have invitations.
"It's going to look different," said Davis. "Hopefully, I just cross my fingers this is the last 'hybrid' show that we see.
"I'm really just hoping it's the last one. Because I'm done with them. And I think the rest of America are."