‘Game of Thrones’ vs. ‘Americans,’ ‘Fargo’ vs. ‘O.J.’: Who should win Emmys?

Over the weekend, the Television Academy handed out the Creative Arts Emmys – i.e., the awards not quite glamorous to be squeezed into this coming Sunday’s 68th Primetime Emmy Awards telecast on ABC. Lots of interesting things happened, including Game of Thrones picking up 9 awards (the Creative Arts includes most of the technical categories), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sharing an award of choreography but losing both song categories for which it was eligible (to Diane Warren’s song from The Hunting Ground and the Jessica Jones theme music), and more.

But the one that got my attention the most – and convinced me to finally change the way I do my annual Emmy preview column – was Character Actress Margo Martindale’s repeat win for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama for her work on The Americans. I love both The Americans and Character Actress Margo Martindale, but she was in one scene all season, and it was a fairly brief and innocuous one where Gabriel and Claudia put their heads together about how bad things were with Philip and Elizabeth. Compared to some of the other performances in that category – and particularly Laurie Metcalf’s jaw-dropping work in the third episode of Horace and Pete – she barely had business being nominated, let alone winning. But she is a beloved former winner, and recent changes to the Emmy rules opened up the final round of voting to the entire membership, rather than a select “blue-ribbon panel” group for each category, which seems to have eliminated the idea that voters will actually watch the submitted episodes(*) and turned the whole thing into a cross between a popularity contest, a vote across party lines (HBO has the biggest voting bloc, which gives Veep and Game of Thrones an edge against most of their competition), and the same blind, “Oh, I’ve heard of him/her/it” thought process that goes into the nominations themselves.

(*) Once upon a time, the final round of voting was conducted in person, with the blue-ribbon panel for each category meeting in the same place to watch the submitted episodes, thus guaranteeing that the vote was an informed one. But the process was so time-consuming that the majority of people who could do it were retired or otherwise out of work, and the results were skewed accordingly. The Academy eventually switched to at-home viewing for the submitted episodes, but because the voting panels were still relatively small and self-selecting, the honors system seemed to work: if you were bothering to sign up to vote, it was because you cared enough to take the time and watch (just not all at once like in the old system). Now, because anyone can vote, you’re back to the nominations problem, which is that people who work in TV have very little time to actually watch TV.

I’ve never been good at predicting who and what will win Emmys, but at least I could rely to a degree on knowing what was in the submission episodes: that anyone associated with “Ozymandias” was a pretty safe bet to win, or that if Jim Parsons submitted a Big Bang Theory where Sheldon got drunk, the other nominees shouldn’t bother preparing a speech. Now, we may be back to fumbling in the dark, and while I could just pick the HBO show in many categories and throw darts for the rest, I’m going to stick to the part I’ve always felt more confidence in: who should win the big Emmys this year.


Better Call Saul

Downton Abbey

Game of Thrones


House of Cards

Mr. Robot

The Americans

Saul was quietly excellent this year, the first season of Mr. Robot (the one eligible for all the awards) is marvelous, and Game of Thrones had some incredible highs this year, particularly the King’s Landing sequence in the finale. But The Americans had its best season to date, finding new ways to ratchet up the tension and level of despair afflicting the Jennings family, and since it should have been in this category all along, I can’t not root for this particular season when it’s surprisingly eligible.



Master of None

Modern Family

Silicon Valley


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt


One of several categories where nearly any winner (other than Modern Family) would feel deserving and make me happy, though it ultimately comes down to Veep (which had its funniest season so far) vs. black-ish (doing some incredible work, particularly given the constraints of broadcast network TV) vs. Transparent (which is only vaguely a comedy, but is still spectacular). As I’ve stared at this paragraph, my preference has kept ricocheting between the three, but right now I’m going to say Transparent, which arguably has the least business being here, but is eligible and had the most audacious and well-executed season of the three.


American Crime



The Night Manager

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Again, nearly any win (other than the sluggish Night Manager) would please me, but the top ones are the two FX shows. People v. O.J. seems poised to win everything for which it’s eligible, and I won’t object in the slightest, but Fargo season 2 has stuck with me a bit more, and is the one I’m more eager to rewatch whenever 10 free hours magically presents itself to me. That Noah Hawley made one great season of a Fargo series was absurd enough; that he did a second that was bigger, more fun, and in many ways more powerful, than that first, is enough to give it a slight edge for me over O.J.


Kyle Chandler, Bloodline

Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

Rami Malek, Mr. Robot

Matthew Rhys, The Americans

Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan

Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

Another two-horse race, from my point of view, between Malek, mesmerizing in the way he carried so much of the load for Mr. Robot last summer, and Rhys, who somehow found new depths of despair and anger as life kept getting worse for Philip Jennings. If I were predicting the actual winner, I’d probably take Malek, but Matthew Rhys is just too great – and has been ignored for too long – for me to choose anyone else as the most deserving winner.


Claire Danes, Homeland

Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder

Taraji P. Henson, Empire

Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black

Keri Russell, The Americans

Robin Wright, House of Cards

Keri Russell, easy. As with Rhys, it’s ridiculous that it took her this long to get nominated, and her work was better than ever. I would guess that Davis or someone else higher-profile has a better shot, but the scene in Russell’s submission where Elizabeth reads Paige the riot act about Pastor Tim is as good as it gets.


Anthony Anderson, black-ish

Aziz Ansari, Master of None

Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth

William H. Macy, Shameless

Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley

Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

As pure performance, it’s hard to top what Tambor does as Maura on Transparent. But I tend to be an awards show socialist, and since Tambor finally got his trophy, I’d like to see Anthony Anderson – who not only carries a big comic load on black-ish, but had to do some very tricky and powerful dramatic work (the Obama monologue in the episode about police violence, in particular) this year.


Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

Laurie Metcalf, Getting On

Trace Ellis Ross,black-ish

Amy Schumer,Inside Amy Schumer

Lily Tomlin,Grace and Frankie

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is almost certainly going to win another Emmy, and I’ll have no real complaints when she does. She is unbelievable, and the Veep writers know just how to showcase her in a way that works for both the series and for awards voters. But, again, I like to spread the wealth, and Ellie Kemper found a marvelous balance of her usual warm silliness and some more complicated emotional material over the second half of Kimmy Schmidt season 2. (Nor would I mind seeing Metcalf or Ross at the podium, for that matter. Tough year.)


Bryan Cranston, All the Way

Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

Idris Elba, Luther

Cuba Gooding Jr., The People v. O.J. Simpson

Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager

Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson

All due respect to the other nominees, it’s Courtney B. Vance and it’s not particularly close. He and Sarah Paulson had the toughest jobs in The People v. O.J. in bringing humanity to two of the most vilified and/or caricatured figures from the trial, and Vance made me want to root for Johnnie Cochran, even though I believe with all my heart that O.J. was guilty.


Kirsten Dunst, Fargo

Felicity Huffman, American Crime

Audra McDonald, Lady day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson

Lili Taylor, American Crime

Kerry Washington, Confirmation

See above for why I’m pulling for Sarah Paulson, who I think is the lock of the night to win, but this is at least a category where a few other nominees (Dunst and Taylor in particular) give me pause and make me wish there didn’t have to be just one winner.


Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul

Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones

Kit Harington, Game of Thrones

Michael Kelly, House of Cards

Ben Mendlsohn, Bloodline

Jon Voight, Ray Donovan

I felt slightly more passionately about Jonathan Banks a year ago, when he had Mike’s tearful confession at the end of “Five-O,” but he was still incredible this year as Mike got mixed up with the Salamanca family and began really following the path that leads to Breaking Bad. And since he’s still owed at least one Emmy for his work there, why not?


Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones

Lena Headey, Game of Thrones

Dame Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey

Maura Tierney, The Affair

Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones

Constance Zimmer, UnREAL

Zimmer’s nomination was one of the ones that made me happiest when it was announced, and not even the lousy second season of UnREAL can tarnish my appreciation of her performance. But it feels like it has to be Lena Headey‘s year, doesn’t it? Just the look on Cersei’s face in the Iron Throne room near the end of the GoT finale is probably enough for me to pick her.


Anna Chlumsky, Veep

Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent

Allison Janney, Mom

Judith Light, Transparent

Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live

Niecy Nash, Getting On

Another category where it’s both impossible to go wrong and almost impossible to make a choice, because most of the nominees are doing such different kinds of work from one another. I’m tempted to go with McKinnon for all she does as the MVP of the current SNL cast, but then I feel like I’m being influenced too much by affection for her work in Ghostbusters. So instead, I’ll go with Niecy Nash, who was so great and buttoned-down as the heart of the underrated Getting On.


Louie Anderson, Baskets

Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ty Burrell, Modern Family

Tony Hale, Veep

Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele

Matt Walsh, Veep

Much as it pains me to pick against Braugher, Key, the Veep guys, and Burgess (Burrell at least already has an Emmy), there’s no way I can choose anyone but Louie Anderson for giving the year’s most unexpectedly brilliant performance. Playing Chip Baskets’ mom should come across as the broadest of jokes, but Anderson plays Mrs. Baskets completely straight, sometimes wringing laughter out of his dry delivery, but focusing mainly on turning her into a real and (sometimes) sympathetic person who grounds the rest of that bizarre but engaging show.


Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson

Hugh Laurie, The Night Manager

Jesse Plemons, Fargo

David Schwimmer, The People v. O.J. Simpson

John Travolta, The People v. O.J. Simpson

Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo

Brown had nearly as difficult a task as Vance and Paulson (Christopher Darden was also mocked, but not made into as much of a cartoon as the other two), and he broke my heart a time or three. If he manages to survive both vote-splitting and the greater fame of his co-stars to win, that would be swell. But Bokeem Woodbine‘s work as Mike Milligan was so much fun, while also providing a surprising amount of depth to a character who could have easily gotten by with the hair, the clothes, and the fast patter, that he’s my pick here.


Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Hotel

Olivia Colman, The Night Manager

Regina King, American Crime

Melissa Leo, All the Way

Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Hotel

Jean Smart, Fargo

Though I didn’t love Night Manager overall, there were a couple of marvelous performances in it, one by Hugh Laurie, and the other by Olivia Colman as the very dogged, very pregnant British intelligence agent organizing the operation against him. Since Broadchurch, Colman has become one of those actors where the moment I see her in a project, I feel confident she’ll do something impressive. She did not let me down here.

What does everybody else think? Is there one win on Sunday that would make you the happiest?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com