If I Had An Emmy Ballot 2014: Outstanding Drama Series

The Television Academy of Arts & Sciences released this year’s Emmy ballots on Monday. This means we now know who submitted themselves for consideration and who didn’t, which actors mistakenly consider themselves leads when they aren’t (The Rob Lowe Award), which actors exploit loopholes to submit themselves as supporting actors on shows named after them (The Amy Schumer Award), and which shows have submitted themselves in categories where they arguably don’t belong. (Dan and I discussed this problem at length on this week’s Firewall & Iceberg Show.)

And now that the ballots are out, it’s time for our annual two-pronged experiment, in which Dan tries to predict the likeliest nominees in each major category, while I pretend that I’m an actually TV Academy member and pick the six nominees that would make me the happiest. (You can find links to all of last year’s entries at the bottom of the final piece in the series.) We are, as always, playing by the Emmy rules, which means we can’t argue for someone who didn’t submit themselves (say, Alan Cumming for “The Good Wife”), can’t move someone from lead to supporting or vice versa, and can’t declare that “True Detective” is a miniseries(*) and therefore clear more room in the drama categories.

(*) FWIW, we talked briefly about doing movies & minis predictions this year, given how much interesting material there is over there – including weird things like the final season of “Tremé” (which didn’t have enough episodes to qualify as a drama) – but there just wasn’t the time. Suffice it to say, we’d both be pulling for a lot of “Fargo” nominations.”

Usually, we start with the various supporting actor categories, but we decided to switch things up this year and start with the big guns, so you’ll get Outstanding Drama Series today, Outstanding Comedy Series tomorrow, and then the many acting categories over the next week-plus.

Dan’s exhaustive analysis of the category is here (and embedded below), and my picks are coming right up.

As you know, we’re living in a new TV golden age, or a golden glut, or whatever you want to call it. Just lots and lots of amazing original scripted television right now, particularly on the drama side. But because some contenders for this category took the year off (“Rectify” season 2 won’t debut til later this month), while other potential contenders like “Fargo,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Shameless” were submitted in other categories, it was a bit easier to separate the cream of the crop from all of the excellent shows that are airing in such great abundance. While some categories took forever to pare down to a manageable number, I got 9 finalists almost immediately, and 5 locks shortly after that, with the other 4 fighting for a single spot.

By the end of September, it seemed as if the final season of “Breaking Bad” was going to crush everything in its Emmy path, making every other drama nominee simply happy to be there. That may still be the case – and it’s still the show I would vote for in nearly every category for which it’s eligible – but two things happened: 1)Time passed, and 2)”True Detective” happened. Because “Breaking Bad” did so well a year ago, including finally breaking through to win this category, it may be that the voters decide to move onto something newer and shinier. Then again, voters are supposed to watch the submitted episodes of nominated shows, and “Ozymandias” alone may sweep away all thought of any other series. Either way, “Breaking Bad” will be nominated here, and will absolutely deserve it.

As for “True Detective,” we can argue whether it belongs here – especially when the similarly-structured “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” are classified as miniseries – until we’re blue in the face. But, again, this is where the Academy allowed it to be submitted, and it’s absolutely one of the six best contenders. There’s been some backlash due to the ending, and also due to everyone’s more recent love for the similar “Fargo” (another close-ended crime story which features a dangerous character who’s been to Alaska and likes to philosophize), but whether you were satisfied with the resolution of the Yellow King, Carcosa, et al or not, the lead performances, the gorgeous direction and the nimble structure (particularly through the first five episodes, before Old Rust walks out of the interview) alone are more than enough to comfortably put it on my list.

“The Americans” took an enormous leap forward at the start of its second season, and closed that season in even stronger fashion. Here’s a case of a great high-concept idea (KGB spies posing as a married American couple in the ’80s, then falling in love for real) executed perfectly, so that the show functions equally well as an espionage thriller and an examination of the ups, downs and compromises of marriage. Suspenseful, poignant, powerful and stunning, featuring home run performances by Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell and company, it deserves a very serious look from Emmy voters.

Three or four weeks into this abbreviated half-season of “Mad Men,” I might have felt like bumping it out of the Emmy spot it’s had since birth in favor of one of the shows that just missed the cut. There had been some strong early episodes like “A Day’s Work,” but also some weaker ones. The show is designed to pick up steam as each season moves along, and the stupid bifurcated structure that AMC forced on Matt Weiner seemed to be making that impossible. But then we got the season’s concluding two chapters in “The Strategy” and “Waterloo” – two of the richest, most emotional, best episodes this all-time classic has produced – and I knew it had to be on my fake ballot. If you’re tired of the show’s annual swath of nominations, take it up with Don and Peggy after they’re finished dancing.

I don’t expect “Hannibal” to get any more love at Emmy time this year than it did last year. Then again, I’m not entirely sure how “Hannibal” even exists as a television show, let alone one that airs on broadcast television. How has someone managed to find a new, riveting approach to the very tired serial killer genre in general and the even more tired character of Hannibal Lecter in particular, and how has this incredibly graphic, disturbing, artsy drama been allowed to air on NBC, even Fridays at 10? Miraculously, Bryan Fuller has figured out an approach, and NBC has allowed him to execute his vision, whether it involves Mads Mikkelsen underplaying in hypnotic fashion as Hannibal the Cannibal, the role reversal between Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham, or the macabre, disgusting fates that Hannibal and the show’s other killers plan for their victims. There are other shows on this list (or that didn’t quite make it) that I’d much rather watch again, but few have made as strong an initial impression as each “Hannibal” episode of season 2.

Okay, so that’s five. The other four that seemed clearly ahead of the pack were, alphabetically, “Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Good Wife” and “Masters of Sex,” and I ultimately decided on the latter by a process of elimination. “Good Wife” was out because I found the second half of this season much bumpier than the incredible first half. “Boardwalk” was out because when I ranked my favorite shows of 2013, much closer to when both shows aired and my feelings for them were fresher, I ranked “Masters” a couple of spots higher. “Masters” also finished ahead of last season of “Thrones,” and I enjoyed that season every so slightly more than the current one. And as for the specific merits of “Masters,” start with Michael Sheen’s fierce, controlled performance and the loose and open one by Lizzy Caplan that perfectly matched him. Then move on to the way that a show set in the late ’50s never felt like a copy of “Mad Men” and managed to generate enormous emotional stakes without the usual life-and-death tropes that buoy so many of the other great dramas of this period, add in textured performances by and character arcs for Allison Janney, Beau Bridges and the rest of the excellent ensemble, then look to the way the show generated humor about sex without ever being sniggering or self-congratulatory about its bluntness, and you have a wonderful show that slots in more than comfortably aside the five other shows on this list.

Also considered: As mentioned above, “Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Good Wife.”

What does everybody else think? What would be your ideal field for this category?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com