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 labyrinthine rules: The Emmys are often easy to predict, yet difficult to understand.
With that in mind, my annual 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 25, with the nominations to be announced July 12. Let’s get started!
Better Things (FX)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
The Good Place (NBC)
High Maintenance (HBO)
One Day at a Time (Netflix)
For the first time in ages, I had more trouble narrowing down the list of comedy contenders than I did the dramas: Bill Hader’s new Barry, ABC’s stalwart black-ish, and The CW’s telenovela-inspired Jane the Virgin are among the very worthy titles I cut to get down to seven. But from stoners and lady wrestlers to single moms, spurned exes, and the actually deceased, there are far too many tremendous options to do much more than throw darts. The “Golden Age of Television” may be over, but the (new) golden age of TV comedies has clearly just begun.
The Americans (FX)
The Crown (Netflix)
The Deuce (HBO)
The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Killing Eve (BBC America)
Queen Sugar (OWN)
The Americans. The Americans, The Americans, The Americans, The Americans. (Halt and Catch Fire’s final season is similarly extraordinary, but it’s flown under the radar so long that even a nomination seems like a stretch.) Vote for The Americans! It’s the TV Academy’s last chance to honor what will surely be remembered as one of the decade’s finest TV series. If they botch this one they way they did with The Leftovers last year, I may never recover.
Alias Grace (Netflix)
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX)
Howards End (Starz)
The Looming Tower (Hulu)
Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
It’s been a strong year for limited series. As I’ve written for the site more than once, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a remarkably radical treatment of queer themes, unspooling in reverse chronological order across multiple genres and painted in Miami pastels. Alias Grace is equally ambitious, in terms of both structure (toggling between two timelines) and perspective (that of an accused murderer); Twin Peaks, meanwhile, is so wildly imagistic, and yet so primal, that the eminences at Sight & Sound and Cahiers du Cinéma decided its excellence made it a film. (It’s a TV series. Always has been.) Even the category’s less groundbreaking entries, Howards End and The Looming Tower, are formidable iterations of familiar stories—an embarrassment of riches, indeed.
Black Mirror, “USS Callister” (Netflix)
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, “The Commuter” (Amazon)
The Tale (HBO)
On the flip side, the ranks of TV movies have slimmed to the point that anthologies like Black Mirror and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams—which submit as single episodes—are keeping the category afloat. (They’re limited series, for the record. Always have been.) Among the true made-for-TV movies on my list, which notably does not include the failed Fahrenheit 451, the one that needs the biggest boost is Lifetime’s excellent disaster movie throwback, Flint. But the best, by a substantial margin, is Jennifer Fox’s The Tale. Let’s hope it wins.
Anthony Anderson, black-ish (ABC)
Ted Danson, The Good Place (NBC)
Nathan Fielder, Nathan For You (Comedy Central)
Donald Glover, Atlanta (FX)
Bill Hader, Barry (HBO)
Ben Sinclair, High Maintenance (HBO)
Whether as the linchpin of a large ensemble—Anderson, Danson, Glover—or a singular figure among a swirl of action—Hader, Sinclair—my choices for Lead Actor (Comedy) are all, unsurprisingly, vital to their series’ success. (See also: Baskets’ Zach Galifianakis, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg, and Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch, three others that came close to making my ballot.) But in terms of an actor’s distinctive screen presence being instrumental to a series’ success, none of the eligible performers is in the same league as Nathan Fielder, who helmed Nathan For You to one of the greatest series finales (“Finding Frances”) I’ve ever seen.
Scoot McNairy, Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Jason Mitchell, The Chi (Showtime)
Lee Pace, Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Matthew Rhys, The Americans (FX)
J.K. Simmons, Counterpart (Starz)
Jeffrey Wright, Westworld (HBO)
I suspect I’m going to get a lot of flak, especially in this category, for “snubbing” Billions, a series I reviewed poorly when it debuted and have not yet learned to love. (After the raves that accompanied the third season, I am resolved to give it another shot.) Or for leaving off defending champion Sterling K. Brown, who remains the very best thing about This Is Us but doesn’t need another Emmy statuette. In the end, though, with respect to the loving workplace marriage crafted by McNairy and Pace, my heart belongs wholly and completely to Matthew Rhys, whose depths of grief and despair as The Americans’ Philip Jennings have earned him this award many times over. It’s time the TV Academy made good.
Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX)
Jared Harris, The Terror (AMC)
Michael B. Jordan, Fahrenheit 451 (HBO)
Matthew Macfadyen, Howards End (Starz)
Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Jimmy Tatro, American Vandal (Netflix)
So, here is where I come across a familiar Emmy dilemma. Criss does career-making work in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, transforming spree killer Andrew Cunanan into a gruesomely magnetic villain/protagonist, and in any other year I’d say you were out of your gourd not to give him the trophy. But MacLachlan does career-defining work as Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper, earning Emmy nominations for the series’ first two seasons in 1990-1991, to which he adds both Coop’s doppelganger and Dougie Jones in last year’s revival. Criss will have more bites at the apple. I say give MacLachlan the award he’s deserved for almost three decades.
Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Alison Brie, GLOW (Netflix)
Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video)
Justina Machado, One Day at a Time (Netflix)
Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin (The CW)
Tracee Ellis Ross, black-ish (ABC)
Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
Even assuming that last year’s unorthodox field of seven will be repeated, even eliminating Pamela Adlon on the logic that the real coup of Better Things’s second season is her sublime writing and direction, my shortlist for this category—as in, “I’d already scratched six additional names”—numbered 12. At some point, not that the TV Academy has had a chance to notice, what with Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning every year, this became the Emmys’ most competitive category; at some point I threw my hands up and said, “Who are seven women who haven’t won who I’d like to see win?” Here they are: If any of these win come September, I’ll be over the moon.
Kerry Bishé, Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Jodie Comer, Killing Eve (BBC America)
Mackenzie Davis, Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Claire Foy, The Crown (Netflix)
Sandra Oh, Killing Eve (BBC America)
Keri Russell, The Americans (FX)
Speaking of tough—the men need to step it up, this is getting humiliating—I give you the Emmys’ former most competitive category. (As in, “I only had to scratch four names this year! And Tatiana Maslany! Because she already won! How great is that?!”) Every woman on this list gives an indispensible, complicated, high-wire-act performance, of the sort one might build a column or a recap around. But since a six-way tie is pretty unlikely, I’m channeling all my good vibes in one direction: Toward The Americans’ most ardent fighter, its lone survivor, its final girl, Keri Russell’s indomitable Jennings, Elizabeth.
Claire-Hope Ashitey, Seven Seconds (Netflix)
Hayley Atwell, Howards End (Starz)
Laura Dern, The Tale (HBO)
Sarah Gadon, Alias Grace (Netflix)
Riley Keough, Paterno (HBO)
Regina King, Seven Seconds (Netflix)
Sarah Gadon has a scene in Alias Grace so unnervingly good she earned a nomination from me the moment I turned off the TV. Riley Keough, rock solid, holds Paterno’s focus on his culpability as much as his celebrity. Hayley Atwell shepherds a new Margaret Schlegel existence, one of which Emma Thompson could be proud. Ashitey and King, as an alcoholic prosecutor and grieving mother, respectively, are both captivating in Seven Seconds. But it’s Laura Dern’s performance in The Tale that floored me most, anchoring a complex story about a woman reckoning with a sexual assault suffered years prior.
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
John Early, Search Party (TBS)
William Jackson Harper, The Good Place (NBC)
Bryan Tyree Henry, Atlanta (FX)
Marc Maron, GLOW (Netflix)
Zach Woods, Silicon Valley (HBO)
Were Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the TV series it once was, Burgess would be a no-brainer: He’s way overdue, and he remains the best thing about it. But the series’ long goodbye is bringing him down, just as the solid but unspectacular Silcon Valley has made it harder for me to keep banging the Zach Woods drum. (Maron is Maron.) For me, this one comes down to three immensely expressive performances, one verbal (Harper’s Chidi Anagonye is always twisting himself, and his tongue, in knots); one facial (Henry’s unmasked exasperation might be the comic highlight of Atlanta’s great season); one kinesthetic (the flutter of Early’s hands to his temples is funnier than some actors manage in the course of a series’ entire run). Any would be a brilliant winner, but Harper and Henry might actually have a shot.
Michael Angarano, I’m Dying Up Here (Showtime)
Noah Emmerich, The Americans (FX)
David Harbour, Stranger Things (Netflix)
Toby Huss, Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Delroy Lindo, The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
James Marsden, Westworld (HBO)
Matthew Rhys has the lion’s share of the dialogue, but without Noah Emmerich to shift from disbelief to rage and back again, the scene in the parking garage by which The Americans will be remembered wouldn’t work—either as a tense pause in the action or as the ultimate rift in a longtime friendship. Which means, for all of Lindo’s charm as the The Good Fight’s main man, this one should be Emmerich’s to win.
Miguel Ferrer, Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Ciarán Hinds, The Terror (AMC)
Alex Lawther, Howards End (Starz)
Tahar Rahim, The Looming Tower (Hulu)
Edgar Ramirez, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX)
Hugo Weaving, Patrick Melrose (Showtime)
In the interest of spreading the love, I left out two performances of note: Cody Fern and Finn Witrock, as murder victims—and, crucially, men in full—David Madson and Jeff Trail, in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. If you’ll forgive me that, then please consider Alex Lawther, an exquisitely funny, never ridiculous revelation as Tibby Schlegel, breathing life into a character that not even E.M. Forster could.
D’Arcy Carden, The Good Place (NBC)
Donna Lynne Champlin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Jenifer Lewis, black-ish (ABC)
Rita Moreno, One Day at a Time (Netflix)
Rosie O’Donnell, SMILF (Showtime)
Yvonne Orji, Insecure (HBO)
I’d been keeping it under the radar so far, but you may have noticed that I haven’t nominated the entire cast of The Good Place—excising Kristen Bell, Manny Jacinto and, hardest of all, Jameela Jamil. But what’s a boy to do when for each of them there’s a Ted Danson, a William Jackson Harper, a D’Arcy Carden? Despite the enduring joy I derive from “The Very First Penis I Saw,” or Lydia’s flirtations with Schneider, or Ruby’s breath-of-life one-liners, Carden’s humanoid store of infinite knowledge inhabiting a boundless void is the standout in the best ensemble on TV. That’s worth an Emmy, right?
Dominique Fishback, The Deuce (HBO)
Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Netflix)
Thandie Newton, Westworld (HBO)
Fiona Shaw, Killing Eve (BBC America)
Sarah Steele, The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Anna Torv, Mindhunter (Netflix)
These acting categories for women are starting to hurt. I mean, let’s say I were not just an Emmy voter (I’m not, for the record), but the Emmy voter. Let’s say I got this list of six names and had to pick a winner. Would it be Newton, who’s powered Westworld through several rough patches? Steele, such reliable comic relief at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart? Shaw, of the perfect fur hat? Fishback, of the saddest screening of A Tale of Two Cities I’ve ever seen? Torv, so coolly convincing opposite a bunch of guys in Mindhunter? No, it has to be Vanessa Kirby, whose superb performance as a princess on the verge of a nervous breakdown sustains much of The Crown’s great leap forward. Against co-star Claire Foy, that’s no mean feat.
Penelope Cruz, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX)
Laura Dern, Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Angela Lansbury, Little Women (PBS)
Judith Light, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX)
Anna Paquin, Alias Grace (Netflix)
Tracey Ullmann, Howards End (Starz)
If you expected me to pick anyone but 92-year-old Angela Lansbury as Little Women’s Aunt March, you had another thing coming.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.