As any TV critic who moonlights as an Emmy observer will tell you, the Television Academy’s choices can be… frustrating. The tendency to nominate the same series and performances year in, year out; the reluctance to acknowledge certain challenging titles (The Leftovers Season Two comes to mind); the labyrinthine rules: The Emmys are often easy to predict, yet difficult to understand. Still, advocacy works. Last year, perhaps in response to the constant critical drumbeat on behalf of the series, The Americans landed long overdue nominations for lead actors Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, as well as Outstanding Drama Series.
With that in mind, my mock Emmy nominations ballot is a plea for voters’ consideration, a paean to the medium’s finest and an attempt to highlight those still flying under the radar as voting gets underway. It’s full of tough decisions and merciless cuts—including a few that may have you scratching your head. It’s not predictive, but aspirational. And it’s written in the hope that it might get even a single voter to give a deserving series or performer another look.
Voting closes June 26, with the nominations to be announced July 13. Let’s get cracking:
Outstanding Drama Series
The Americans (FX)
Better Call Saul (AMC)
The Crown (Netflix)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
The Leftovers (HBO)
With Downton Abbey finished and last year’s winner, Game of Thrones, ineligible, the Drama Series field is as wide open as at any time in recent memory. (The fact that Homeland, House of Cards and Mr. Robot are coming off less-than-stellar seasons helped me narrow down my own list, though I hemmed and hawed over including Orange Is the New Black Season Four instead of The Handmaid’s Tale.) As a result, the TV Academy has the chance to honor more than one underappreciated series, not least HBO’s audacious, affecting The Leftovers, which is likely to be remembered as one of the decade’s best dramas. Voters, don’t make the same mistake you did with The Wire: Nominate The Leftovers while you can.
Outstanding Comedy Series
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
The Good Place (NBC)
After years in which Drama Series was the most competitive Emmy category, comedies have come roaring back: My shortlist of potential nominees featured 18 (!) series for just seven slots. That means painful cuts, including HBO’s Girls, which retreated from the brilliance of its fifth season, Silicon Valley and Veep, which already has five nominations and two wins in this category. (Let’s spread the spoils around a bit, shall we?) See also: Master of None, the conclusion of which left a sour taste in my mouth; Jill Soloway’s Transparent and I Love Dick, represented in categories down the ballot; the late, great Man Seeking Woman, coming off its strongest season; the superb Catastrophe, which lost its place to another British import, Fleabag; and One Day at a Time, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, which faced stiff competition in the ”’traditional’ sitcom” lane. In short, I could replace my final seven with seven others and be perfectly happy—with one caveat. It’s high time Emmy voters get over their aversion to nominating animated series for Outstanding Comedy (the last was Family Guy in 2009) and highlight the peerless BoJack Horseman. If I see the threadbare Modern Family among the nominees instead, I’m going to pitch a fit.
Outstanding Limited Series
American Crime (ABC)
Big Little Lies (HBO)
Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
The Night Of (HBO)
Shots Fired (FOX)
With the exception of The Young Pope and ABC’s effective dramatization of the gay rights movement, When We Rise, this list more or less wrote itself—in particular two women-centered spring standouts, Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan. It’s possible The Night Of will suffer from being the sole series on this list not to air in 2017, but it’s the stirring, tough-minded “social issues” dramas, American Crime and Shots Fired, that may need the biggest push from Emmy voters—if we want broadcast networks to offer more intelligent, complex fare, the pair is one potential model going forward.
Outstanding TV Movie
Black Mirror (Netflix)
Churchill’s Secret (PBS)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HBO)
Sherlock: The Lying Detective (PBS)
The Wizard of Lies (HBO)
One consequence of the rise of the limited series has been the decline of the made-for-TV movie. Of the five titles here, two (Sherlock: The Lying Detective and Black Mirror) aren’t really movies at all—the former is, essentially, a feature-length episode from the British mystery’s fourth season, and the latter is an anthology series that owes much to the format of The Twilight Zone. Questions of “category fraud” aside, Black Mirror’s bracing science fictions—in particular the affectionate “San Junipero,” one of Paste’s best TV episodes of 2016—put it in pole position on my ballot.
Outstanding Lead Actor (Drama)
Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (NBC)
Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel (A&E)
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Matthew Rhys, The Americans (FX)
Justin Theroux, The Leftovers (HBO)
Aden Young, Rectify (SundanceTV)
I hope Rami Malek’s win last year signals a taste for new blood in the Lead Actor race, because Young, Theroux, Highmore and Brown are leaps and bounds more engaging in their respective series than perennial nominees Liev Schrieber (Ray Donovan) and Kevin Spacey (House of Cards). That said, two-time Better Call Saul nominee Odenkirk and The Americans’ Rhys (nominated for the first time for his role last year) turn in singularly perceptive, multilayered performances: Jimmy McGill and Philip Jennings are two of the most richly imagined male characters currently on television.
Outstanding Lead Actress (Drama)
Carrie Coon, The Leftovers (HBO)
Claire Foy, The Crown (Netflix)
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Keri Russell, The Americans (FX)
Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld (HBO)
Rutina Wesley, Queen Sugar (OWN)
Defending champion Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is ineligible, and with both How to Get Away with Murder and Empire struggling to stay fresh—despite strong performances from leads Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson—women new to the category dominate my list. Wesley’s Nova Bordelon is one of the medium’s most vivacious characters, and frontrunner Claire Foy is utterly captivating as the young Queen Elizabeth II. With due respect to Russell—she better win next year, for The Americans’ final season, unless Emmy voters want a piece of my mind—it’s Coon’s name that should be atop every Emmy voter’s ballot: In “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” “G’Day Melbourne” and “The Book of Nora,” she constructs the most extraordinary performance on television this year, bar none.
Outstanding Lead Actor (Comedy)
Aziz Ansari, Master of None (Netflix)
Andy Daly, Review (Comedy Central)
Ted Danson, The Good Place (NBC)
Rob Delaney, Catastrophe (Amazon)
Donald Glover, Atlanta (FX)
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent (Amazon)
Along with Anthony Anderson (Black-ish) and Hank Azaria (Brockmire), who might well have made my ballot in a less competitive year, this list reflects a certain fatigue with the prickly comic figures (Louis C.K., Don Cheadle, Ricky Gervais, William H. Macy, et al) that have dominated the nominations in recent years. Instead, there’s the romantic (Ansari), the striver (Glover), the tragic hero (Daly), even the unexpected villain (Danson). While Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman deepens with each season—it’s still the finest performance of the six, for my money—Delaney deserves special mention for the vigorous humor he unearths in the fat, trouser-less, alcoholic Rob.
Outstanding Lead Actress (Comedy)
Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Minnie Driver, Speechless (ABC)
Kathryn Hahn, I Love Dick (Amazon)
Issa Rae, Insecure (HBO)
Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish (ABC)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag (Amazon)
Another brutal category, and that’s after deciding to exclude Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, winner of the award four years running. (Please, Emmy voters, I implore you: Mix it up!) Among those on the outside looking in are Kristen Bell (The Good Place), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), Ellie Kemper (Unbreakable Kimy Schmidt), Justina Machado (One Day at a Time) and Catherine O’Hara (Schitt’s Creek), names that would make up a very strong field in their own right. The six women listed here, with elastic expressions and unmatched charms, create powerful, forthright, exceedingly funny characters, and any one would be a worthy winner. But my top spot goes to Rachel Bloom, whose winsome/damaged Rebecca Bunch singlehandedly resuscitates the musical comedy heroine for the 21st century.
Outstanding Lead Actor (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO)
Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies (HBO)
Benito Martinez, American Crime (ABC)
Ewan McGregor, Fargo (FX)
Guy Pearce, When We Rise (ABC)
John Turturro, The Night Of (HBO)
As much as I advocated for The Young Pope, its success (as a comedy!) had more to do with Paolo Sorrentino’s playful eye than Law’s sneering performance, so he joins Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch in the better-luck-next-time group. Ahmed and Turturro are the no-brainers here, with McGregor and De Niro also likely to make runs at the statuette, but it’s the remaining two performances—Pearce’s tenacious gay rights activist, Cleve Jones, and Martinez’s loving, stricken father, Luis Salazar—that might be the most impressive, working within the limitations of broadcast television to craft two unforgettable, profoundly decent men.
Outstanding Lead Actress (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Carrie Coon, Fargo (FX)
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Sanaa Lathan, Shots Fired (FOX)
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies (HBO)
How do you know a category’s a knockout? When four winners of the Oscar for Best Actress are vying for the same trophy, and Oprah Winfrey (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack) and Felicity Huffman (American Crime) are both shut out—for genuinely excellent performances. Still, in The Year of Nicole Kidman, the award is hers to lose. As it should be: Those scenes in her therapist’s office alone are worthy of every TV award under the sun.
Outstanding Supporting Actor (Drama)
Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Clayne Crawford, Rectify (SundanceTV)
Christopher Eccleston, The Leftovers (HBO)
Frank Langella, The Americans (FX)
John Lithgow, The Crown (Netflix)
Michael McKean, Better Call Saul (AMC)
There’s so much potential for excitement in this category, if only Emmy voters would ditch Ray Donovan’s Jon Voight, House of Cards’ Michael Kelly, and defending champion Ben Mendelsohn( Bloodline): That’s three more slots to add to the two left open by Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage and Kit Harington. Of the six here, there’s not a dud in the bunch, though Lithgow’s Churchill is in the driver’s seat for now.
Outstanding Supporting Actress (Drama)
Amy Brenneman, The Leftovers (HBO)
Aisha Hinds, Underground (WGN America)
Aubrey Plaza, Legion (FX)
Thandie Newton, Westworld (HBO)
Holly Taylor, The Americans (FX)
Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Of last year’s nominees, only two (The Affair’s Maura Tierney and UnREAL’s Constance Zimmer) are eligible, so this is the perfect year for Emmy voters to address the following: The neglect of Rhea Seehorn, whose Kim Wexler is the humane core of Better Call Saul; the emergence of Holly Taylor as one of our most accomplished young actors; the incandescent power of Hinds’ Harriet Tubman; and Plaza’s wild turn on Legion. For me, though, it comes down to Brenneman — at the center of perhaps the most moving TV episode I’ve ever seen — and Thandie Newton, the cunning, controlled highlight of HBO’s flawed Westworld.
Outstanding Supporting Actor (Comedy)
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Bill Hader, Documentary Now! (IFC)
Andrew Rannells, Girls (HBO)
Timothy Simons, Veep (HBO)
Lakeith Stanfield, Atlanta (FX)
Zach Woods, Silicon Valley (HBO)
Alec Baldwin’s recurring role as President Donald J. Trump is a shoe-in for a nomination, but compared to the performances on this list, it’s no more than a none-note impersonation. Woods and Rannells, both uproarious, lend comic punch to their respective series’ narrative switchbacks; Stanfield and Simons offer invaluable support as ensemble players marching to the beat of their own drums. Hader, in particular, puts Baldwin to shame—he’s a convincing new character every episode, including his career-best work in “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”—but in the end, it’s Burgess’ turn. No character is more vital to his or her series’ sense of humor than Titus Andromedon.
Outstanding Supporting Actress (Comedy)
D’Arcy Carden, The Good Place (NBC)
Donna Lynne Champlin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Judith Light, Transparent (Amazon)
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Rita Moreno, One Day at a Time (Netflix)
Yvonne Orji, Insecure (HBO)
Of those omitted from this list, the two that might seem the most obvious, Anna Chlumsky (Veep) and Jane Krakowski (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) are both talented actors working with less juicy material than in prior seasons—it was the others I wrestled with cutting. Because Zazie Beetz’s Van (Atlanta) and Gaby Hoffmann and Amy Landecker’s Pfefferman sisters (Transparent) are every ounce the equal of the six I selected. Still, Light beats out her co-stars by the force of her sublime season-ending performance of Alanis Morrisette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” and Champlin and Orji are, like, Beetz, emerging stars who at times outshine their series’ protagonists. McKinnon remains indispensable, and Moreno is a total delight, but the hardest I’ve laughed at a TV show in recent memory is the absolutely brilliant D’Arcy Carden’s Janet (both Good and Bad), on The Good Place. A nomination for her would be the very best “What the fork?!”-style surprise.
Outstanding Supporting Actor (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Alfred Molina, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Silvio Orlando, The Young Pope (HBO)
Michael Stuhlbarg, Fargo (FX)
Alexander Skarsgård, Big Little Lies (HBO)
David Thewlis, Fargo (FX)
Stanley Tucci, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Stuhlbarg is brilliant and should be nominated for everything. Thewlis chews the scenery as Fargo’s big bad. Molina and Tucci go toe to toe with Sarandon and Lange and don’t come out too much the worse for wear. But, perhaps to your surprise, this race is between Skarsgård’s quietly menacing rapist and domestic abuser and Orlando’s mincing, camp-inflected cardinal: They’re the category’s two poles of performance, and in between them their competitors seem almost bland.
Outstanding Supporting Actress (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Judy Davis, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Laura Dern, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Jackie Hoffman, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Regina King, American Crime (ABC)
Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Fargo (FX)
It’ll be interesting to see, come nominations day, whether American Horror Story stalwarts and Emmy favorites Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates can nab nominations, but the sixth season of Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology left me cold. Instead, I was taken by the grace of King’s social worker; the wit of Davis’ gossip columnist; the gradual evolution toward friendship of Dern’s and Woodley’s feuding mothers. But my very favorite—and probably the biggest stretch for Emmy voters—is Jackie Hoffmann’s “Mamacita,” loyal to Joan Crawford to the bitter end.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.