Every publication has its obligatory Emmy nomination rundown piece, and yet many overlooked a key dead-heat race between three of TV’s pitiable characters in the category of Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. Instant people’s hero Barb of Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale casualty Ofglen, and regular Americans whipping girl Martha had a showdown in the Olympics of Suffering, and it went down in a race that’s already over, one that didn’t even make the telecast even though, year after year, it and its related categories have given the awards some of its most unpredictable races.
Every year, the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast fleetingly acknowledges the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony that took place several days earlier. They flash a quick snippet of footage showing that night’s presenters (always a nerd-friendly duo, one of whom tends to be markedly babely) smiling good-naturedly alongside an un-telegenic group of outstanding technical professionals, and the evening moves along. The presenters expel a little hot air about the unsung vitality of behind-the-scenes blah blah blah, but they might as well take the stage, say “this exists,” and then return to their seats.
On a night with room for such a perfunctory bone-throwing to the techie set, the four guest acting categories — Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series, Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series, Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series, Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series — do not even rate a mention.
Far be it from me to suggest that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences elongate an already endless evening. It’s just a shame that the guest acting races get practically zero attention from the public or the program’s own supervising body, because these races often contain a denser concentration of fascinating performances. Working within tighter parameters can yield a more varied slate of characters that pose intriguing new challenges to the popular notions of what makes acting good, and they can corral more timely fan-favorite talent than the major categories, mired as they are in their regular repeat nominations. (Enjoy that fifth consecutive House of Cards nod, Kevin Spacey.) All this, from categories that don’t even make it onto the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards page of Wikipedia.
The very concept of awards for guest acting celebrates short-form character work, a school of performance known to and appreciated chiefly by the thespian branch of the voting body. The Academy officially established in 2015 that an actor must appear in less than 50% of a given season’s episodes in order to be considered a “guest,” a necessary course-correction to the infection of category fraud spreading from the Oscars. (Regular Orange Is the New Black player Uzo Aduba snatched the prize a few years ago, wisely recognizing she’d stand a better chance of victory than in the crowded Supporting race.) Many of the recognized performances are one-episode wonders, reinforcing a specific definition of guest acting: the ability to establish a character, challenge that characterization, and convey a completed trajectory in no more than an hour. Laurie Metcalf’s one-take tour de force from last year’s Horace and Pete is the dream, realized: she asserts a persona, subverts it, and then subverts it one more time in a single shot.
While a handful of slots usually get frittered away on “here are our favorite SNL performances from the past year” picks — though it’s kinda nice that Melissa McCarthy’s “Spicey” will remain on the record books as this year’s winner — most find extraordinary actors giving a mini-masterclass on their craft. With a smaller window in which to make an impression than anyone else, guest actors sketch a complex, multifaceted character that must reckon with change, or the inability to do so.
Guest acting can mean tracing an arc or finely shading a moment. Among this year’s most well-earned guest nods went to Angela Bassett for her decade-spanning turn on Master of None as a mother processing her daughter’s sexual identity over a series of Thanksgiving dinners. She begins the episode pretty staunchly intolerant, an emblem of the homophobia entrenched in the black community mentioned earlier in the episode. But the elapsing of time (and one mortifying encounter with an Instagram thot) ultimately softens the woman, and by the time we’ve reached the present day, she’s made her first overtures of acceptance. Bassett fields every beat expertly, bolstering her prejudice with love that exposes her intolerance as symptomatic of its time, rather than simple hate. We watch her learn a new kind of love at hyperspeed. Like a short story, her performance concludes closed-off and complete.
However, as a greasy and manipulative celebrity author with a penchant for seducing his harsher female critics, Girls’ guest Matthew Rhys reveals the full depths of a man with no moral bottom floor. Over a single afternoon, his character makes no significant emotional progress and signals no intention to change anytime soon. (The chilling final shot confirms this much.) Rhys instead captivates audiences by cloaking his character in several layers of bullshit and methodically peeling them back, one by one. First he’s prickly but interesting, then he’s vulnerable, then he’s making horrific sexual advances out of nowhere, then he’s unveiling the sum total of his villainy. This all takes place in 30 minutes flat. It’s a journey of a different sort, burrowing deeper inward rather than traversing a change.
And for its own sake, these categories collect a more eclectic selection of stars than their major-league sister categories. They give richly deserving character actors a moment in the spotlight: Becky Ann Baker is in the running for playing Hannah Horvath’s long-suffering mother on Girls, Ann Dowd racked up her second of two nominations this year as a guest on The Leftovers, and these categories bumped Character Actress Margo Martindale up to the hat-trick last year. Brian Tyree Henry gets the nod he should have gotten for Atlanta for a brief stint on This Is Us, too. Moreover, the guest categories allow the Emmys to siphon a little additional star power from Hollywood. This year’s Guest Actor in a Drama class features Rogue One stars Ben Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed, and last year’s race included Max Von Sydow and ascendant superstar Mahershala Ali. And while the leading categories repeatedly cite Jeffrey Tambor for his best approximation of life lived transgender, the guest races have singled out Laverne Cox for the real thing — the first-ever acting nomination for a trans performer.
It’s easy enough to overlook the guest acting races. They exist only to those determined enough to scan the endless scroll of the Emmys’ official nominations list; a casual telecast viewer could go year in and year out with no idea they exist. But they regularly offer more overstuffed, unpredictable competition than the major races, which have been analyzed to death and back several times over by Emmy night. Who could forget the deadlocked Guest Actress in a Comedy matchup of 2015, where Joan Cusack shocked the world by emerging with the win over Tina Fey, Elizabeth Banks, and possible dark horse Pamela Adlon? The Guest Actor in a Drama category was practically a public utility during the Mad Men days, annually shining on Robert Morse’s wise, kooky Bert Cooper and a rotation of other excellent bit players. Anything that gets the words “Emmy Award-winner” appended to Justin Timberlake’s name (two easy-peasy SNL wins) can only be a force of positivity.
So this year, take a moment or two and appreciate the unsung heroes of the guest acting categories, races with more drama than some of the Lead in a Drama nominees have themselves been able to summon. In the days before McCarthy, Dave Chappelle, Bledel, and This Is Us’ Gerald McRaney collected their awards, anything was possible. Carrie Fisher could’ve nabbed a statuette from beyond the grave. There was no easy populist favorite in a race that pit Lin-Manuel Miranda against Tom Hanks and Riz Ahmed. The greatest commodity of any awards show is surprise, and the guest categories turn in an unexpected sampling year in and year out. It’s time to spice up your office Emmy pool.