Emmy ballots were sent out to Television Academy voters on Monday, and they’re also available for the rest of us to download from the Emmy website. And as I like to do every year at about this time, I’m going to go through the major categories and tell you who I would pick if I had a vote(*).
(*) To become a voter, you have to work directly in the TV industry. It’s an award voted on by your peers.
I often complain about the laziness of Emmy nominations and wins — the result of people working in television who don’t have much time to actually watch television — but this was a hard task even before the days of Peak TV. Now, it’s damn near impossible. As I combed through the ballots, I frequently found myself feeling one of three emotions: 1) Surprise at learning of the existence of a show I’d never heard of, 2) Frustration at seeing the name of a show I hadn’t gotten to yet, or hadn’t watched in much too long (black-ish somehow fell out of my viewing rotation this season), and 3) Angst as my list of potential nominees ballooned to two or three times more than six per category. As more and more quality shows prove themselves worthy of consideration, the process of narrowing each group down to six begins to feel like bailing water out of a sinking ocean liner with nothing but a Dixie cup.
But I’ll give it a try, with the usual rules in mind:
1. I can only consider what’s on the ballot, and where. If someone didn’t submit work I admired, I can’t give them a write-in vote. And if someone submitted in what feels like the wrong category — a lead actor cheating by going in the supporting category, or a comedy I think is really a drama — I still have to consider them in that category.
2. I can’t consider someone whose show I didn’t watch enough of, or at all, this year. As alluded to previously, I think I saw three black-ish episodes this season. So while I’m confident Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and the show itself merit consideration, voting for them would be like the Emmy voters still picking House of Cards because they have last watched it in season one. Ditto Eva Green in Penny Dreadful, or Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black, or Robert De Niro in Wizard of Lies, or a lot of other people whose work fell victim to my Peak TV triage. (For this reason, I’m not bothering at all with lead actor in a miniseries or movie, since I could only come up with a few names from the shows I watched in that category, and two of them were the stars of The Night Of.)
With that out of the way, let’s go:
OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Master of None (Netflix)
Get used to me lamenting how brutal a category is, and this one left me with no room for FX’s Better Things or Baskets (which in their best moments were the equal of some of the other auteur shows on this list), or the funniest Always Sunny season in years, the sparkling debut of the new One Day at a Time, the terrific victory laps for Girls and Review, the continued excellence of Veep and Transparent and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or the sheer joy I felt each week watching Speechless. But the two Amazon shows beautifully mixed comedy and tragedy, Atlanta and Master were delightfully versatile and sharp and stunning from episode to episode, Brockmire made me laugh more than anything else I watched this year, and Brooklyn had its best season ever.
OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
The Americans (FX)
Better Call Saul (AMC)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
The Leftovers (HBO)
Also get used to me raving about the final season of The Leftovers wherever possible. It’s in a class by itself, but I fear the show being shut out in its two previous years make nominations this year unlikely, even with the good timing to get all those rave finale reviews right before nominations opened. The Americans was the last, and toughest, addition to this list — I had also considered The Crown, Stranger Things, Sneaky Pete, Underground, and the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black (the most recent season will be eligible next year) — after the show went through its weakest season, but the great moments were still great enough to get the nod from me. With Game of Thrones ineligible this year, this category was ripe for Americans to win. Instead, I wouldn’t be shocked if some new blood like Handmaid’s or This Is Us swoops in to take the big prize.
OUTSTANDING LIMITED SERIES
American Crime (ABC)
Big Little Lies (HBO)
Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
The Night Of (HBO)
When We Rise (ABC)
Recently, this has seemed the more exciting category than drama, especially once FX and HBO realized they could submit their anthology miniseries here. This year, it’s a bit less thrilling, but still with a lot of interesting shows. American Crime and Fargo both disappointed a bit in their third seasons (the last one for Crime), but at their best were superb. Ditto The Night Of, whose later episodes could never live up to that stunning opening hour, but still had Riz Ahmed and John Turturro.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Hank Azaria, Brockimire
Ted Danson, The Good Place
Rob Delaney, Catastrophe
Donald Glover, Atlanta
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
Remember, it’s not “funniest lead actor in a comedy,” which is why Tambor is the two-time reigning winner in the category for a largely dramatic performance, and an easy pick for a spot. Similarly, Glover was rarely the one generating laughs on Atlanta, but his calm presence grounded the show in a way that made its many formal experiments possible. Ansari and Delaney both got to show more serious sides in their latest seasons, while still killing it with their punchlines, and old pros Azaria and Danson found new ways to stretch their respective comic gifts.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Pamela Adlon, Better Things
Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Minnie Driver, Speechless
Lena Dunham, Girls
Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag
All but Driver (who marvelously walks the tightrope between broad comic hijinks and warm humanity) are also creator or co-creator of their respective series, but they’re not getting bonus points for their other jobs. These are all terrific performances that go back and forth between comedy and drama. Are they helped by getting to write the exact kind of material they know they can deliver well? To a degree, but it’s not a solo job — Dunham’s best dramatic moment in the final Girls season (Hannah and Adam at the diner) was written by Judd Apatow — and they still have to be able to play it as well as they all did.
Also, you may have noticed the absence of five-time Veep winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus. JLD is the best, and she will completely deserve her inevitable nomination and nearly as inevitable win. But she also has five trophies from this show alone, plus two more from Seinfeld and Old Christine. I believe in valuing excellence, but at a certain point, I turn into an awards socialist, especially since she doesn’t need my hypothetical help. Apologies also to Ellie Kemper, Kathryn Hahn, Issa Rae, Michaela Watkins, Constance Wu, and Justina Machado, among others.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Justin Theroux, The Leftovers
Aden Young, Rectify
Four of the male leads are from my drama series picks (and Rhys and Keri Russell’s performances are the main reason I picked The Americans again despite my frustration with some of the storytelling this year), while the other two are from imperfect shows I watched largely for their performances. This Is Us has its many flaws, but it gives me Sterling K. Brown acting up a storm every week, and sometimes, that’s enough. Tough omissions included Billy Bob Thornton from Goliath, Rami Malek from Mr. Robot, the two Halt leading men, the miscategorized Ian McShane from American Gods, Aldis Hodge from Underground, Dylan Minnette from 13 Reasons Why, and Titus Welliver from Bosch.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Carrie Coon, The Leftovers
Mackenzie Davis, Halt and Catch Fire
Claire Foy, The Crown
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
Keri Russell, The Americans
Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld
If you were to ask me the one potential nomination that would make happiest, I would tell you it was… well, I’d tell you it was Mark Linn-Baker for his Leftovers guest spot, which would be delightful on many levels. (UPDATE: Turns out, Linn-Baker did not submit himself, which makes my dream even more impossible.) But in the major categories, it’s his Leftovers scene partner Carrie Coon, who for three seasons gave what was far and away the best dramatic performance in all of television, and particularly in this last year of the show, with overpowering levels of vulnerability and anger and pain and reserve. If she can somehow sneak into the nominees list this year… dayenu, even if she winds up losing to Moss for her own jaw-dropping work on Handmaid’s. Of the rest, the trickiest inclusion — over the likes of Kerry Bishé, Katherine Langford, and Ruth Negga, among others — was Wood, not because I was underwhelmed by so many other parts of Westworld, but because it’s a glorified supporting role submitted in the wrong category. But I have to stick to my own rules, and Wood was every bit the magic trick that Westworld needed her to be.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
Carrie Coon, Fargo
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan
Oprah Winfrey, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies
I couldn’t come up with enough men to fill out the lead actor category for this genre, but this was a great year for women in miniseries, be they anthology or otherwise. The last few Fargos have finally started taking advantage of Coon’s gifts (and in the real world, she probably has a better shot at a nomination here than for Leftovers), movie stars Kidman and Witherspoon did some of their best work in years opposite one another, Winfrey was overwhelmingly great in an otherwise-iffy film, and Lange continued to make the most of this third act Ryan Murphy has given her career, this time opposite equally strong work from Sarandon.
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Louie Anderson, Baskets
Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Tony Hale, Veep
Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta
John Rothman, One Mississippi
Timothy Simons, Veep
Most of these are familiar and worthy names without much need of explanation (and apologies to, among others, Tituss Burgess, Terry Crews, Adam Driver, Micah Fowler, Lamorne Morris, Matt Walsh, and Zach Woods), so let me say a few words about John Rothman, whom you probably recognize from one of his 126 roles from a career that’s spanned nearly 40 years. He’s always reliable, always memorable, always good, yet One Missisippi is somehow his first series regular role, and it’s a work of art in how real and specific and moving it is. Great as reigning winner Anderson is on Baskets, Rothman’s his equal, occupying very similar emotional territory.
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Olivia Colman, Fleabag
Judith Light, Transparent
Jemima Kirke, Girls
Andrea Martin, Great News
Rita Moreno, One Day at a Time
Amanda Peet, Brockmire
Lots of great work here that didn’t leave room for Anna Chlumsky, or any of the women of Transparent and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, among others. But if you were to ask me for the win that would make me most happy after perhaps Coon and Linn-Baker, it would be living legend Rita Moreno for her enormous, infectious, pitch-perfect work on the One Day at a Time remake, which makes the whole rest of that show work. From a pure awards socialism standpoint, an EGOT winner has no need of further trophies, but this was a new role for her, and she was fabulous.
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Mahershala Ali, Luke Cage
Clayne Crawford, Rectify
Christopher Eccleston, The Leftovers
Ron Cephas Jones, This Is Us
John Lithgow, The Crown
Michael McKean, Better Call Saul
Ron Cephas Jones is another aging character actor having a moment, and was also excellent on Mr. Robot and The Get Down and Luke Cage of late. Cage suffered mightily when Oscar winner Ali’s Cottonmouth left the scene. Over time, Crawford and the Rectify writers improbably turned Ted Jr. into one of the show’s most complex and sympathetic characters. Eccleston shined as usual in his annual spotlight, then made me sob with his farewell scene opposite Coon. McKean has lived up to the greater dramatic burden Saul put on Chuck this year, particularly in the courtroom battle episode, and Lithgow did what seemed impossible: he was an American who didn’t get many complaints for playing Winston Churchill.
(Also considered, among many others: Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks from Saul, Scott Glenn from Leftovers, David Harbour from Stranger Things, Peter Gerety from Sneaky Pete, Costa Ronin from The Americans, and Jeffrey Wright from Westworld.)
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Amy Brenneman, The Leftovers
Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things
Aisha Hinds, Underground
Aubrey Plaza, Legion
Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul
Samira Wiley, Orange Is the New Black
Still another where I kept mixing and matching names of worthy contenders because I wanted to find a way to honor everybody. Apologies to Danielle Brooks, Emily Browning, J. Smith-Cameron (who wound up on the ballot twice by mistake), Ann Dowd, Lindsey Duncan, Vera Farmiga, Susan Kelechi Watson, Thandie Newton, Winona Ryder, Abigail Spencer, Holly Taylor, and more. As for these six, Brenneman owned every frame of arguably the most powerful Leftovers of the year, Stranger Things wouldn’t have worked without Brown making you believe in Eleven, Hinds did an amazing job delivering an episode-length Harriet Tubman monologue, Plaza played what felt like a dozen different roles (each more terrifying than the one before), Seehorn continues to bring so much needed humanity to Saul, and if I could only make room for one actress from that great fourth Orange season, it had to be Wiley, who was spectacular even before Poussey’s story came to its terrible end.
What does everybody else think? Are there actors or shows you are particularly pulling for? I didn’t go into other categories like writing or directing, but what are some submitted episodes you’d love to see nominated?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com