Here’s an admittedly incomplete, scattered list of shows and performances I’d love to hear on Emmy nomination morning, tomorrow at 11:30am Eastern. If it’s not on here, I either haven’t seen it, don’t like it, or like it but think it’s so likely to get a nomination that writing about it now is just superfluous.
Best Drama Series
The Sundance Channel’s slow exploration of spirituality and the corrosive effect of decades in prison on a man’s sense of self doesn’t generate headlines or inspire rabid Twitter dialogues, but it’s among the more contemplative, quietly complex, occasionally hallucinatory shows on TV.
Bob Odenkirk made the leap from supporting player to central protagonist on this shockingly excellent Breaking Bad spinoff. But the show’s true achievement lies in paying homage to the distinctive qualities of its mothership show without resting on that show’s laurels. In addition to fleshing out Saul and Mike Ehrmentraut, Vince Gilligan and his team crafted a new and compelling world that stands apart from the meth trade. This show will probably get nominations on the strength of Breaking Bad alone, but it also deserves them in its own right.
Best Actor in a Drama Series
Matthews Rhys, The Americans
Phillip Jennings breaks the antihero mold perfected by Tony Soprano and Walter White. He commits heinous acts of violence and psychological manipulation like those early 21st-century TV legends, but he commits those acts not out of self-interest, but for an ingrained commitment to a country and a worldview that he sometimes wishes he could leave behind. Rhys plays Phillip’s increasing internal conflict for all of its inherent gloom and pathos.
Aden Young, Rectify
Without the name recognition of a Kevin Spacey or a Clive Owen, Young will be hard-pressed to break into this tough category, even without Bryan Cranston and Matthew McConaughey as heavyweight competition. But his masterful command of Daniel Holden’s twisted internal psyche and confusion about the mundane features of modern life give Rectify its soulful edge.
Best Actress in a Drama Series
Keri Russell, The Americans
While her husband contemplates his ambivalence toward the Soviet cause, Elizabeth Jennings presses in full-throated reverence for the culture that shaped her. Russell earned this award for her extended sequence with Lois Smith in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” alone. A season full of graphic misdeeds and tearful confrontations was icing on the cake.
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
There’s almost no chance the Emmys will ignore one of the flashiest performances in recent TV history, but Henson is worth including on this list just in case people have forgotten how much fun they had watching Cookie Lyon tear up the screen during the surprise Fox megahit. It was genuinely thrilling to watch an Oscar-nominated actress get ten hours of juicy, sympathetic, hilarious, complex material to play, especially in an era when juicy roles for people of color can be hard to come by.
My tweet from Emmy nominations morning last year:
NO ELISABETH MOSS??????????? #Emmys
— Mark Lieberman (@MarkALieberman) July 10, 2014
That goes double for this year, TV Academy. In clumsier hands, the rom-com triumph midway through the series finale could have been cloying or cutesy. In Moss’, it was sterling. Thanks to her, Peggy Olson is one of the iconic screen characters of the last decade.
Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men
Need I say more?
Jussie Smollett, Empire
Of the three Lyon brothers, Smollett’s Jamal was the only one to fully transcend his archetype.
Craig T. Nelson, Parenthood
It’s a miracle that the [SPOILER] death of Zeek Braverman was as affecting as it was, given that the show telegraphed the “twist” for more than a season. As questionable as Nelson’s on-set behavior allegedly was at times, his performance brought humanity and decency to a character who reads on the page as quite the tool.
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Abigail Spencer, Rectify
Daniel Holden’s muddled reunion with the outside world is the central focus, but his sister Amantha gets plenty of potent drama herself, as she copes with the sudden return of her beloved brother and struggles to carve out an identity independent from the family’s strange reputation.
January Jones, Mad Men
You can quibble all you want with Matthew Weiner’s portrayal of Betty Draper’s parenting skills or his unflattering depiction of her weight gain, but Jones rendered Betty’s sad demise in poignant, heartbreaking fashion. Her final scene, a tearful phone call with Don, served as a reminder of the spark the couple once had, as well as a rejoinder to Jones’ dissidents.
Holly Taylor, The Americans
At the tender age of 17, no one would blame Taylor for imbuing Paige Jennings with the stereotypical qualities of an onscreen teenager. But her precocious poise and spiritual inclinations set her apart, and Taylor beautifully captures the pain of puncturing adolescent naivete with cold, disturbing truths.
Samira Wiley, Orange is the New Black
I easily could have picked Uzo Aduba, Lorraine Toussaint, Barbara Rosenblat or Danielle Brooks for this slot. But I couldn’t resist shining a spotlight on Poussey, who quietly morphed into the show’s stealth heart over the course of the tumultuous second season. Wiley’s performance is bracing for its casual breeziness and gut-punching emotion alike.
Best Comedy Series
This might be the nomination I’m pulling for the most, even though I know it likely won’t happen.
Showrunner Dan Harmon pulled his perpetual little show that could out of its late fifth-season skid and made the jump to Yahoo with surprising grace.
Quite simply, this is the show I most enjoyed watching last season.
Parks and Recreation
Final seasons are hard. One of TV’s best comedies ever had one of the best final seasons ever. A solid finale capped off an extraordinary farewell run that rivaled the show’s most impressive streaks.
Higher stakes and sharper gags elevated the second season of Mike Judge’s tech-startup satire over the solid first one.
The Duplass brothers, serving as showrunners for the first time, made a compelling show about “white people problems” in an age when there are plenty of those.
Calling this show a comedy grossly generalizes its wide spectrum of moods and emotions. Calling it brilliant is just accurate.
Best Actor in a Comedy Series
Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
Richard Hendricks gawks, stutters and stumbles through even his most triumphant moments. Middleditch’s characterization never condescends to his character’s shortcomings.
Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation
I never thought I’d type the phrase “Straight men have it rough” and mean it, but that’s how I feel about Scott’s magnificent, mostly straight turn as Ben Wyatt. His performance is rarely showy enough to attract superficial awards attention, but it’s far more than competent. If any men can stand up next to the tornado that is Leslie Knope, it’s Ben, and Scott deserves recognition for finding variation in his character’s subtler moments.
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
This performance is impressive for reasons far beyond the fact that Tambor breathes life into the role of a trans woman going through a transition. In fact, praising Tambor for stepping outside his comfort zone is the wrong approach. Tambor deserves praise for bringing depth and nuance to a compellingly written character without seeming like a cliche or a mockery.
Best Actress in a Comedy Series
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Broad City
Again, it won’t happen. But Abbi and Ilana, and their respective characters, belong in a dictionary next to the phrase “dynamic duo.”
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The first season of this NBC-turned-Netflix comedy had its rocky moments, but none of them were the fault of Kemper, around whom Tina Fey and Robert Carlock conceived this sunny vehicle for her radiant charms.
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
Amy Poehler, also known as a genius, has never won an Emmy. Rectify, please.
Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin
The other nomination I’m pulling for most adamantly should go to this endless well of charisma, comedic timing and on-cue tears.
Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat
On first glance, Jessica Huang seems to be as cliched a represenation of Asian American parenthood as any. But Wu’s performance and smart writing transformed her into something else: a funny, passionate, exciting maternal figure in a sitcom otherwise dominated by men.
Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Burgess’ performance is so big and unique that Fey and Carlock wrote the character specifically for him. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing this part.
Jaime Camil, Jane the Virgin
Rogelio de la Vega is an indelible creation that grew funnier and more poignant, not less, as he got more screentime.
T.J. Miller, Silicon Valley
Zach Woods, Martin Starr and Kumail Nunjiani all deserve a place in this discussion, but Miller’s turn as the shamelessly self-absorbed — except when he isn’t — Erlich Bachmann is the star-making one in this ensemble.
Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation
Ron Effing Swanson needs an effing Emmy. (He probably doesn’t think so, but I do.)
Steve Zissis, Togetherness
Mark Duplass is in fine form on this show, but Zissis is a revelation. His big eyes reveal Alex Pappas’ genuine charm and perpetual anxiety.
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Gaby Hoffman, Transparent
I can’t imagine why no one’s talking about last year’s Hoffman-aissance, but the onetime Sleepless in Seattle moppet made quite an impression on Amazon’s spectacular family dramedy. (Judith Light was no slouch either, but her performance as a quintessential Jewish mother was quite a bit harder to miss.)
Gillian Jacobs, Community
Her Judd Apatow comedy Love on Hulu promises to be a higher-profile platform for her gifts. But if Britta is the AT&T of people, Jacobs is…much better.
Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet, Togetherness
Even though Peet’s performance is noisier, Lynskey’s matches it in capturing the subtleties of a family situation that isn’t matching up to expectations.