Emmy Preview 2017: Who Should Win?

The Emmys shouldn’t matter, but they do.

Emmy wins and losses can’t actually change your opinion of a series. You’re not going to think any less of The Wire for its utter lack of Emmy recognition. But the Emmys are still the closest thing TV has to a historical record of what was considered the best in a particular year, or era. Decades from now, pop culture historians are going to look back and assume Modern Family was one of the greatest comedies ever made, or that Alan Shore on Boston Legal was a more indelible role than Josiah Bartlet or Gregory House, or Al Swearengen.

So when I get annoyed that certain work fails to win (Amy Poehler going oh-for-Parks and Rec) or be nominated (the final season of The Leftovers was the best thing on TV this year, and was shut out of all major categories), or that some shows and people win year after year (Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a comedy god who has deserved every one of her Emmys, but it would be nice if that wealth could be shared a little), it’s not because I’m going to think any more or less about any work as a result, but because the more casual public consensus, both now and in the future, is heavily informed by this stuff.

That’s the guiding philosophy I’ll have in mind with my picks for who should win some of this year’s major category Emmys during Sunday night’s ceremony (telecast on CBS, with Stephen Colbert as host): not only what deserves to win right now, but what will reflect well on both the medium and the Emmys years from now.

As for my predictions for what will win? Well, I’ve historically been awful at that, and pretty much keep doing them to provide gambling advice of what not to pick, and/or as entertainment for people who like to laugh at bad prognostication.

Outstanding Comedy Series

Atlanta (FX)
Black-ish (ABC)
Master of None (Netflix)
Modern Family (ABC)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Veep (HBO)

Should win: All due respect to several other shows that had really strong seasons (Master of None in particular), but it’s Atlanta, and it’s not really close. Donald Glover’s inventive, dreamy, completely unpredictable half-hour had an all-time debut season, establishing a clear voice even as the tone and style and substance of each episode could feel wildly different from the ones before and after. A special show.

Will win: It comes down to math, most likely. A few years ago, the Academy relaxed the voting procedure so that anyone could vote in their respective categories, rather than people who volunteered to be on blue-ribbon panels. As a result, there’s no longer any guarantee that viewers are watching the submitted episodes (though I’ve listed them in the acting categories below), and voting blocs become more important — and since HBO has the biggest one in the whole Academy, Game of Thrones and Veep have dominated since the rules changed. It’s possible that Atlanta could somehow squeak by — anecdotally, I heard more about that show from people who work in TV (and who don’t watch a ton of TV) than anything else in the last year — but JLD and friends seem pretty obvious favorites.

Outstanding Drama Series

Better Call Saul (AMC)
The Crown (Netflix)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Stranger Things (Netflix)
This Is Us (NBC)
Westworld (HBO)

Should win: Even with no Leftovers, there’s some damn fine TV there. (And there’s also House of Cards.) Stranger Things was a ton of fun, the parts of This Is Us about Randall are wonderful, The Crown was old-fashioned prestige TV done right, and The Handmaid’s Tale was so viscerally effective that I often found myself too angry to keep watching. My favorite of the bunch, though, is Better Call Saul, which had its best season yet and continues to effectively play Frasier to Breaking Bad‘s Cheers, as the spinoff of an all-time classic where some fans are starting to suggest could be outstripping the original.

Will win: This could go one of several ways. The simplest is the HBO factor mentioned above re: Veep, and if Westworld just slides in and wins a ton of trophies in a year when Game of Thrones wasn’t eligible, everyone else in the business may as well not even bother at this point. Another is that the many Academy members who work or worked in network TV all get behind This Is Us as a way to cheer a rare water cooler hit on a traditional broadcast outlet. More likely, though, is that conditions are right for a streaming network to finally win a series category. The Netflix shows could be at risk of vote-splitting (never mind that even the people still watching House of Cards don’t seem to like it much), though if I had to choose a favorite from among them, it would be The Crown, which was both terrific and more likely to appeal to the Academy’s many older members (who kept nominating Downton Abbey forever). My money’s on The Handmaid’s Tale, which has both quality and zeitgeist on its side, as a vote for it feels political as well as pop cultural.

Outstanding Limited Series

Big Little Lies (HBO)
Fargo (FX)
Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Genius (Nat Geo)
The Night Of (HBO)

Should win: A bunch of uneven but at times great miniseries are there surrounding Big Little Lies, which was, with one or two minor exceptions (the talking head interviews in particular), pretty spectacular throughout.

Will win: If there’s a lock of the night beyond Louis-Dreyfus winning again, it’s Big Little Lies taking this one home. It’s got it all: the HBO factor, huge movie stars doing great work, and Emmy-worshipped writer in David E. Kelley, and more. Book it.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Anthony Anderson, Black-ish (Submitted episode: “Lemons”) (ABC)
Aziz Ansari, Master of None (Submitted episode: “The Dinner Party”) (Netflix)
Zach Galifianakis, Baskets (Submitted episode: “Freaks”) (FX)
Donald Glover, Atlanta (Submitted episode: “The Big Bang”) (FX)
William H. Macy, Shameless (Submitted episode: “You Sold Me the Laundromat, Remember?”) (Showtime)
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent (Submitted episode: “Elizah”) (Amazon)

Should win: And here I will contradict my previous share the wealth remarks and pick Jeffrey Tambor, who continued to be so remarkable even in a slightly underwhelming season of Transparent, and whose work on an acting level outmatches a bunch of the category’s hyphenates like Ansari and Glover. (If we’re going for new blood, I might suggest Galifianakis, who’s doing really precise work as both Baskets twins.)

Will win: Jeffrey Tambor seems a safe-ish bet here: he’s won this category the two previous years, he’s beloved, and, as with Handmaid’s Tale, a vote for Transparent also feels like a political one.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

Pamela Adlon, Better Things (Submitted episode: “Future Fever”) (FX)
Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie (Submitted episode: “The Pot”) (Netflix)
Allison Janney, Mom (Submitted episode: “Tush Push and Some Radishes”) (CBS)
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Submitted episode: “Kimmy Goes to College!”) (Netflix)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (Submitted episode: “Groundbreaking”) (HBO)
Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish (Submitted episode: “Being Bow-racial”) (ABC)
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie (Submitted episode: “The Burglary”) (Netflix)

Should win: Whereas the male comedy hyphenates weren’t quite up to Tambor’s level as pure actors, I’m going with Pamela Adlon here. Yes, Better Things is great because of the writing and directing and its command of the family and the world they live in, but all of it works because of how grounded and honest and still very funny Adlon is playing a thinly disguised version of herself.

Will win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus almost certainly has it in the bag, and the only reason I’d worry even slightly is that Allison Janney just moved up a weight class after winning two awards for Mom in the supporting categories. But Janney lost last year to Kate McKinnon, so she’s already vulnerable, whereas JLD is JLD.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (Submitted episode: “Memphis”) (NBC)
Anthony Hopkins, Westworld (Submitted episode: “Trompe L’Oeil”) (HBO)
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul (Submitted episode: “Expenses”) (AMC)
Matthew Rhys, The Americans (Submitted episode: “Crossbreed”) (FX)
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan (Submitted episode: “Rattus Rattus”) (Showtime)
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (Submitted episode: “Chapter 53”) (Netflix)
Milo Ventimiglia, This Is Us (Submitted episode: “Moonshadow”) (NBC)

Should win: Much as I would love to see Rhys or Odenkirk finally be recognized for the great work they’ve been doing for years in these roles, I have to jump the queue and hand it to Sterling K. Brown for almost singlehandedly carrying This Is Us throughout its triumphant first season. A performance so powerful it transformed a mediocre show into a tear-jerker whenever he was on camera.

Will win: This should be interesting. The Academy didn’t even bother nominating reigning winner Rami Malek again, and nobody else has won for these roles, so history’s not a guide. Hopkins might have the HBO factor on his side, but it was really a nothing part, and as Spacey can attest, being a former Oscar winner isn’t a guarantee of Emmy gold. My guess is this is one category where the old network diehards are able to band together and push Sterling K. Brown (who won last year for The People v. O.J. Simpson, remember) to victory.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder (Submitted episode: “Wes”) (ABC)
Claire Foy, The Crown (Submitted episode: “Assassins”) (Netflix)
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Submitted episode: “Night”) (Hulu)
Keri Russell, The Americans (Submitted episode: “Dyatkovo”) (FX)
Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld (Submitted episode: “The Bicameral Mind”) (HBO)
Robin Wright, House of Cards (Submitted episode: “Chapter 65”) (Netflix)

Should win: If Carrie Coon had wound up here for The Leftovers, I might have some question about who was most deserving. But she didn’t, so I don’t. It’s Elisabeth Moss, as the easiest “should win” pick of any category this year, for her raw, overpowering work as Offred in Handmaid’s Tale.

Will win: Even if Handmaid’s doesn’t pull off the big drama series win for Hulu, Elisabeth Moss seems a pretty clear favorite here, given the work and the real-life context of it. Wood could win if HBO people vote party line, and Foy is a dark horse, but it feels like Moss’s time to finally get the trophy she was always denied as Peggy Olson.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie

Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO)
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Lying Detective (PBS)
Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies (HBO)
Ewan McGregor, Fargo (FX)
Geoffrey Rush, Genius (Nat Geo)
John Turturro, The Night Of (HBO)

Should win: It’s pretty much a coin flip for me between the two Night Of guys, as their performances kept me riveted even as the storytelling got wobblier and wobblier. As I’m writing this, I’ll pick Riz Ahmed, who had to portray more of a transformation over the course of the season than Turturro, but both wer wonderful.

Will win: I don’t really have a feel for this category, but I’m going to guess Ahmed and Turturro cancel each other out, and Robert De Niro swoops in to take it. Don’t ask me why.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie

Carrie Coon, Fargo (FX)
Felicity Huffman, American Crime (ABC)
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies (HBO)

Should win: I’d love to pretend Coon was somehow nominated here for Leftovers (perhaps using the LADR machine to cross the barrier between categories), but she’s nominated for playing Gloria Burgle, which was a good but not great role. Huffman was better in prior American Crime years, so that leaves the two sets of co-stars. I preferred the acting as well as everything else on Big Little Lies, just because my preferences tend to be more for small work than big when other things are equal. For a good chunk of that season, I’d have picked Witherspoon, but Kidman’s work in the last couple of episodes was extraordinary as Celeste tried very hard to break through her own denial about her abusive marriage.

Will win: This also feels like it comes down to the Big Little Lies co-stars, and Nicole Kidman has the more awards-baity role of the two, though I also wouldn’t be surprised if Witherspoon’s sheer magnetism gets her enough votes to squeak ahead.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast.