Part 7 of our journey through the Emmy ballot brings us to Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. As always, Fienberg will attempt to rank the contenders from most likely to least likely to be nominated, throwing in a bunch of preferential wild cards along the way. And, as always, I will pretend that I am an actual Academy member who has a ballot and therefore has to narrow his choices down to six people.
Same rules apply: we are working off of the actual Emmy ballot, so we can’t nominate people who didn’t submit themselves (like if I wanted to nominate Tony Hale for “Arrested Development” rather than “Veep”), and we have to consider people in the category they submitted themselves for, even if that means supporting actors submitting as leads (Rob Lowe, every year) or vice versa (Amy Schumer as supporting for a show that’s named after her). I also have to feel like I’ve seen enough of a representative sample to pick someone; I’m too far behind on “Veep,” for instance, to seriously consider reigning Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Dan’s exhaustive analysis is here, and embedded below (click Launch Gallery to see it), and my picks are coming right up.
As I said, I can only work with where people and shows have been submitted. “Enlightened” is not a comedy, for the most part, but it was submitted in the comedy categories this year and last, which means Laura Dern is near the top of my list here. Dern’s performance as Amy Jellicoe is so good, and so committed, that it actually turned me off to the show for much of the first season, because I just didn’t want to spend time around Amy. But that’s the point of the series: that this narcissistic, socially oblivious person who makes you want to hold your breath until she leaves the room is also the one trying to change the world for the better, and no one wants to hear the message because of the messenger. Dern continued to play Amy’s flaws to the hilt in season 2, but in a way that also made it feel completely natural when she dominated a meeting with the executives she was trying to bring down. “Enlightened” is so polarizing and niche-y that even Dern’s movie halo wasn’t enough to get her a nomination last season; she deserves better for the show’s second and final year of eligibility.
“Girls” can be more overtly comic than “Enlightened,” but it also went into some very dark territory this year, and Lena Dunham shone as Hannah battled an OCD flare-up and her usual self-destructive tendencies. As written (by Dunham and others), Hannah is every bit as difficult to like as Amy Jellicoe, Larry David and TV’s other most prickly characters of the moment. Yet Dunham’s performance manages to find an empathetic human core inside all that selfish behavior, and to find unexpected laughs inside serious moments.
Moving into more traditional comedic territory, we’ve got our reigning “How does she not have one of these yet?” candidate in “Parks and Recreation” star Amy Poehler. I’ve made this argument so many times during the run of “Parks” that I feel like I’m shouting into the ocean at this point, but let’s do it once again: Poehler can do anything. If a scene needs a straight woman, she does it expertly. If it needs her to be the craziest person in the room, she does that even better. If it needs her to be the warm, gooey emotional center of the series, she’s brilliant at that as well. And when you get an episode that incorporates all of those things – say, the wedding episode – then “Parks” is just about perfect. Also, at a certain point I think the Emmy voters have to reward Poehler just for spicing up the ceremony each year.
Poehler’s buddy Tina Fey has won several Emmys for her work on “30 Rock,” including an acting win back in 2008. If I’m in a share the wealth kind of mood (which tends to come and go depending on category and performer), I’d be fine with Fey not being nominated in favor of one of the runners-up listed below (Jane Levy’s pretty swell, for instance, though she’s another one where her most notable contributions are dramatic). But the last season of “30 Rock” was just so great, and Fey in particular had so many lovely and/or funny moments – Liz and Jack at the dock, Liz and Tracy at the strip club, Liz meeting her kids at the airport, Liz and Criss’ wedding – that I feel she, and the show, deserve as much recognition as they can get while it’s still possible to do so.
Though “New Girl” was built so much around Zooey Deschanel that her co-stars barely seemed relevant back in the pilot, it feels like all anyone could talk about as the first season wore on was Max Greenfield, and all anyone could discuss in the second was Jake Johnson. And both of those guys are terrific and deserving of every bit of praise. But the show doesn’t work without Deschanel, and the Nick/Jess arc in the second half of this season needed her contributions (getting overheated watching Nick at the hardware store, impersonating Elvis at his dad’s funeral) as it did his. Jess has become a more multi-faceted character as the show has gone on – she can, for instance, function as the sane one in stories about any of the male roommates, which wasn’t the case early in season 1 – and Deschanel works well in pretty much any context the writers place her in at this point.
Sutton Foster is one of only two chances for “Bunheads” to be nominated at all. None of the other performers were submitted, nor any of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s scripts, directing, etc. Just Foster and the hairstylists who worked on the mid-season finale with the disastrous “Nutcracker.” Do I give Foster any bonus points for my desire to see “Bunheads” – which is still technically in limbo at ABC Family, but seems unlikely to return – recognized in some way? Maybe a few. But even if it were a smash hit guaranteed to run for six seasons and a movie, I’d still want to see Foster nominated for such a fun, versatile performance. She sings! She dances! She banters! She struggles with household appliances! She cries, and in turn offers a shoulder for Bayley Buntain the Blonde Bunhead to cry on! Excellent work all season long, even if it winds up being the only season.
Also considered: Courteney Cox, Portia de Rossi, Edie Falco, Jane Levy, Martha Plimpton, Mindy Kaling
What does everybody else think? Who would your top 6 be in this category?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org