I’ll admit it: I found this year’s Emmy nominations more than a little disappointing, despite a few pleasant surprises. The same styles, structures and genres the TV Academy preferred in the days of broadcast dominance, and then during the rise of cable, now lead the way in the age of streaming, despite the unprecedented proliferation of idiosyncratic, artful, wildly inventive TV series. Still, the Emmys are my annual chance to hope against hope that one of my favorites (like Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany last year) will walk home with the prize, even if my betting money’s on someone else. Here are Paste’s predictions for who will, should and could win Emmys in 16 major categories Sunday night:
In a category dominated by newcomers, each with its own Emmy appeal—the streaming sensation (Stranger Things), the pedigreed period piece (The Crown), the timely political fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale), and the broadcast hit (This Is Us)—the Best Drama race is wide open. Here’s what I do know: The underappreciated art of Better Call Saul is almost sure to remain so, even though its assiduous craftsmanship makes it the best of the bunch. Here’s what I don’t: whether the success of NBC’s family drama, at a moment of profound flux for the broadcast networks, is enough to overcome cute kids and queens. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Emmy voters are eager to award the first network nominee in this category since The Good Wife’s second season, producing the first winner from one of the Big Four since 24 in 2006.
This Is Us (NBC)
Should win: Better Call Saul (AMC)
Could win: Stranger Things (Netflix)
This one’s a no-brainer: Veep is a near-lock to three-peat as Best Comedy, and barring an act of God, you can mark it down for a fourth consecutive Emmy in this category after its final season next year. But HBO’s political satire is past its prime, and I can’t help wishing the TV Academy would honor Donald Glover’s innovative, stylish Atlanta or Kenya Barris’ winsome Black-ish: After all, no series with a predominantly black cast has won this category since The Cosby Show. Still, if there is an upset—and let me reiterate, there won’t be—I suspect it’ll be Aziz Ansari’s artful, if frustrating, Master of None.
Should win: Atlanta (FX)
Could win: Master of None (Netflix)
As much as I came to appreciate Feud: Bette and Joan by the time it reached its final stages, its debut this spring was nowhere near as splashy as last year’s champ, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Which means that this category likely comes down to two HBO titles: The Night Of and Big Little Lies, each of which considers, in its own distinct way, modern modes of crime and punishment. I’d usually peg Emmy voters to go for the more forthright “seriousness” of the former, but the latter, spiky and vibrant, caused such a well-deserved stir that it has the slight edge.
Big Little Lies (HBO)
Should win: Big Little Lies (HBO)
Could win: The Night Of (HBO)
With a win under its belt for “The Abominable Bride,” Sherlock can’t be ignored, and I suppose there’s case to be made for HBO’s The Wizard of Lies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which are true, stand-alone TV movies, rather than feature-length installments in an ongoing series. Still, “San Junipero,” perhaps the most fully felt entry in the annals of Black Mirror, is clearly the category’s finest achievement—and Sherlock itself is proof that voters aren’t sticklers when it comes to the line between limited series and TV movies. One only wishes that stars Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw had earned nominations for their sterling performances.
Black Mirror (Netflix)
Should win: Black Mirror (Netflix)
Could win: Sherlock: The Lying Detective (PBS)
In The Americans’ terse, tightly wound fifth season, Matthew Rhys’ Philip Jennings once again comes close to shattering—and Rhys conveys the weight on his shoulders with remarkable precision. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next year (if ever) for Rhys, costar Keri Russell and the series itself to receive their due. Instead, the frontrunner for Best Actor (Drama) is This Is Us MVP Sterling K. Brown, who finds the honest backbone in an emotionally manipulative narrative; his main competitor, Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk, masterfully balances Jimmy McGill’s dark and light sides, in a performance as long overdue as Rhys’. I can’t say I’d be disappointed to see any of them win, but with Rhys such a long shot, I’ll be pulling for Odenkirk.
Will win: Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (NBC)
Should win: Matthew Rhys, The Americans (FX)
Could win: Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Since the TV Academy decided, inexplicably, not to nominate The Leftovers’ Carrie Coon, my rooting interest in this category is The Americans’ Keri Russell, as the formidable Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings. As with Rhys, though, she’s at the rear of the pack—one led by Claire Foy, impeccable and utterly captivating as Queen Elizabeth II, and Elisabeth Moss, as a woman enduring life in a repressive society. Moss’ Peggy Olson, of Mad Men fame, is my favorite TV character of all time, so I can’t complain if she takes home a statuette. But it’s hard not to see a win here—for a performance that doesn’t quite qualify as her career best—as a consolation prize. Foy does much more with the reserved, preternaturally calm monarch, finding waves of real emotion under royalty’s corseted trappings.
Will win: Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Should win: Keri Russell, The Americans (FX)
Could win: Claire Foy, The Crown (Netflix)
As much as I adore Atlanta, Glover’s performance as its protagonist, Earn, is not the number one reason I watched the first season so avidly—co-stars Bryan Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz and Lakeith Stanfield are more charismatic screen presences. Still, with Veep in the driver’s seat for Comedy Series, this is where voters can reward Glover’s artistic vision, and Jeffrey Tambor, always so affecting as Transparent’s Maura Pfefferman, already has two Emmys in his pocket for the role. Which makes me think the real threat to Glover is another creator-star in the midst of a major creative evolution, from comic relief to TV auteur: Master of None’s Aziz Ansari.
Will win: Donald Glover, Atlanta (FX)
Should win: Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent (Amazon)
Could win: Aziz Ansari, Master of None (Netflix)
One reason I’ll be happy to see Veep go—I know, I know, bad TV critic—is because, and I say this because I suspect she may feel the same way, I am bone tired of Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning every year, as brilliant as she is as the craven, self-centered, foul-mouthed Selina Meyer. Boring! She’ll win again, no doubt, so pour one out for Better Things’ Pamela Adlon and Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross, both of whom are incandescently funny, and simply have the bad fortune to come up against an Emmy buzzsaw.
Will win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (HBO)
Should win: Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish (ABC)
Could win: If Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t win, I’ll eat my hat.
Unless Emmy voters get real thirsty to bring Robert De Niro to the stage—this is the veteran actor and Oscar winner’s first Emmy nod—this is where they’ll likely reward The Night Of. Despite its tics (those feet!), I’m a fan of John Turturro’s John Stone, but it’s Riz Ahmed, as the figure at the center of a murder trial, who shines the brightest—as a man buffeted, and then remade, by the injustices of our justice system, his Naz was one of standout characters of last year.
Will win: Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO)
Should win: Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO)
Could win: Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies (HBO)
Forgive my French, but this is a motherfucking category. There’s not a weak performance in the entire field, from Carrie Coon’s kind-hearted detective and Felicity Huffman’s turn as a woman coming to grips with the moral compromises made in the name of the family business to Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Hollywood icons Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But this has to come down to Witherspoon—friendly, open, often abrasively funny—and Kidman—guarded, cool, abraded by her abusive marriage—the two poles between which Big Little Lies finds its finely calibrated drama. Those therapy scenes, though: It’s Kidman by the most minute of margins, adding a big, gold cherry to her ice cream sundae of a year.
Will win: Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Should win: Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Could win: Literally anyone. This category RULES.
With five Emmys to his name already, including three in the late 1990s for the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, John Lithgow is enough of a TV Academy favorite that he’d have the edge here even if his Winston Churchill—gruff, jowly, world-weary, wise— weren’t such an ideal foil for Foy’s Elizabeth. I can’t really see anyone else coming close, though Jonathan Banks once again turns in a devilishly brilliant, near-silent performance in Better Call Saul, and a big night for This Is Us could boost tear-jerking fan favorite Ron Cephas Jones.
Will win: John Lithgow, The Crown (Netflix)
Should win: Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Could win: Ron Cephas Jones, This is Us (NBC)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased as punch for Millie Bobby Brown—she’s the highlight of Stranger Things, and I suspect she’ll give a charming acceptance speech. But this is a dispiritingly weak category when you consider all the terrific performances that didn’t get nominated: Amy Brenneman (The Leftovers), Aisha Hinds (Underground), Aubrey Plaza (Legion), Holly Taylor (The Americans), and Rhea Seehorn (Better Call Saul) offered range and depth that the one-note characters represented here sorely lacked. With one exception: Thandie Newton’s stunning, impossibly controlled performance as the A.I. madam of HBO’s Westworld, the one reason I kept with it despite my huge qualms.
Will win: Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things (Netflix)
Should win: Thandie Newton, Westworld (HBO)
Could win: Chrissy Metz, This Is Us (NBC)
It’s a bummer to think that Alec Baldwin will win for his (only faintly amusing, much less bruising) impression of Donald Trump when Tituss Burgess continues to play the bridesmaid in this category: The latter’s performance is a far more effective form of resistance to the president’s callous narcissism, a portrait of black, femme, queer resilience tied with a banana yellow, Beyoncé-inspired, endlessly quotable bow. And while I don’t really think he has a shot against Baldwin, defending champ Louie Anderson deserves a mention here for his loving, surprisingly delicate performance as Christine Baskets. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Will win: Alec Baldwin, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Should win: Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Could win: Louie Anderson, Baskets (FX)
I’m so happy to see Kathryn Hahn nominated at all that I’m not even mad she has no chance of winning, despite her performance as Transparent’s Rabbi Raquel being the strongest (if not necessarily the funniest) in the field. Her only competition on the former front is co-star Judith Light, who in another year would probably win for her knockout rendition of “One Hand in My Pocket” alone. But one SNL win deserves another, and it’s hard to fault voters for going with the endlessly versatile Kate McKinnon, whose own, post-election musical number as Hillary Clinton (“Hallelujah”) was one of TV’s most memorable moments of 2016.
Will win: Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Should win: Kathryn Hahn, Transparent (Amazon)
Could win: Judith Light, Transparent (Amazon)
I just can’t seem to generate much excitement for this category—Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci are fine in Feud, and David Thewlis chews Noah Hawley’s scenery like a seasoned pro in Fargo, but none have much heft, you know? They’re almost ghostly, the performances, mere echoes of the well-drawn women in their midst. It’s the actual horror, the real danger, of Skarsgård’s sickening, sometimes seductive abuser that rises to the top of the pile: His menace haunts Big Little Lies until the climactic sequence, and for conveying that with such commitment, Skarsgård deserves to win.
Will win: Alexander Skarsgård, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Should win: Alexander Skarsgård, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Could win: Alfred Molina, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
It’s funny how the Emmys work: I’d have given one of my extremities to see Laura Dern win a prize for Enlightened, and now she’s the frontrunner for a limited series I really dug—and I find myself rooting for someone else. Neither her Renata Klein nor Woodley’s Jane Chapman are as sharply drawn as their leading counterparts; neither is even half as interesting (wounded, wizened, caring, fatigued) as Hoffmann’s Mamacita, looking after the mercurial Joan Crawford with enigmatic zeal. With respect to the legendary Judy Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer (The Wizard of Lies) and former winner Regina King (American Crime), Hoffmann is the one out of the six whose performance I’ll remember most vividly. Sorry, Laura.
Will win: Laura Dern, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Should win: Jackie Hoffmann, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Could win: Regina King, American Crime (ABC)
The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards air Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on CBS.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.