With the Television Academy preparing to dole out trophies for the 70th time—first with the Creative Arts Emmys on Saturday, September 8 and Sunday, September 9, followed by the big primetime ceremony on Monday, September 17—we ask: Of the nominees, who deserves to win an Emmy this year?
The Americans got as happy an ending as could have been expected under the show’s sleeper-cell, FBI-agent-across-the-street, eldest-daughter-trained-to-take-over-the-family-sabotage-business circumstances. But I won’t be truly happy with any version of the show’s conclusion that doesn’t include Keri Russell finally accepting an award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Russell has quietly (and not so quietly) been giving the best performance on TV for the past five years, and she took that to new heights in the show’s final season, internalizing the tension of Elizabeth Jennings’ many loyalties in a way that had a nasty tendency of boiling over. The episode for which she’s nominated, “The Summit,” depicts the pivotal moment when the character makes her true priorities known, and it’s absolutely stunning. (She also commits a mercy killing with a paintbrush.) C’mon, TV Academy: The woman did not work the veins in her face this hard to walk away without an Emmy. Give her the Jon Hamm treatment, and send Elizabeth Jennings into the sunset with a win.
Despite some very worthy fellow names in the category, I’m not sure what kind of maniac would hand anyone other than David Lynch the statue for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special. Twin Peaks: The Return certainly had some polarized reactions to its elliptical, audacious storytelling, but its direction was a master class in how to deliver a challenging (and at times avant-garde) series without tipping over into pure abstraction. From the gobsmacking visual high point of episode eight (the atomic bomb releasing the Bob-globs) to the beautiful and bold long shots of faces—think Amanda Seyfried looking up at the sky as the convertible goes racing down the road, or Kyle MacLachlan’s endlessly compelling thousand-yard stares in his three different personas (his lack of a Best Actor nom is still the biggest snub this year)—every episode contained a sumptuous feast of directorial invention. Lynch makes art that looks and feels like nothing else in the world, and the Television Academy shouldn’t shy away from doing the obvious and rewarding him for returning to the small screen with such zest and pure filmmaking passion.
Sorry, Erik, but if the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series doesn’t go to Sandra Oh, I’m going to riot. Granted, I don’t watch a ton of TV—certainly not as much as our TV editor—but Oh’s unassumingly layered performance as Eve Polastri on Killing Eve was masterful. (Her eyebrow movements alone are Emmy-worthy, IMO.) Her performance on that particular show wasn’t afraid to play up the less sympathetic areas of Eve’s personality—her callousness, her myopia, her stubborn refusal to even pause for a moment to consider the phrase “work/life balance”—while fleshing her out enough to avoid tired antihero stereotypes and emphasize the character’s drive and intelligence above all. Eve’s tired, and she’s cranky, and she has a very poor sense of boundaries. But she’s damn good at her job, and so is Sandra Oh.
After years of being criminally underappreciated for Gilmore Girls (a show that was only ever nominated for one Emmy award—Outstanding Makeup), Amy Sherman-Palladino has finally broken through with a comedy series that awards shows actually want to honor. So you better believe I’m rooting for her to take home the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The 1950s-set show about a burgeoning female stand-up is the perfect distillation of Sherman-Palladino’s distinctive comedic voice coupled with stunning production values courtesy of an Amazon Studios budget. Sherman-Palladino is also nominated for directing as well, and both nominations are specifically for the show’s pilot—a tightly crafted, tonally confident debut that’s both the best episode of the season and one of the strongest TV pilots in recent memory. Sherman-Palladino’s work may not have the dark edge we generally associate with the term “prestige TV,” but she’s absolutely a defining TV auteur of the 21st century. It’s high time she was treated like one.
The Lead Actor In a Limited Series or Movie category is stacked this year, and if I’m being completely honest, Darren Criss probably deserves to take the trophy home. But my personal pick is Jesse Plemons for his work on the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister.” Plemons plays a put-upon computer genius who spends his private time getting petty revenge on the co-workers who spurn him in a Star Trek-esque virtual universe. The actor’s ability to switch between bitter introversion and a Captain Kirk-esque bravado while still maintaining internal consistency is impressive as hell. It’s also a thankless role, the sort of unlikeable asshole who’s both uncomfortable to watch and deeply unsympathetic, and the degree to which Plemons commits to the part without ever trying to endear himself to the audience is one of the reasons why the episode is so effective. Tragic creeps are a dime a dozen on TV now; to offer up a loser who deserves to stay lost is an accomplishment, and one that should be recognized.
It seems wrong-footed to even consider the second season of Atlanta a comedy—it was frequently as unsettling as anything in Twin Peaks and as deeply pained as The Leftovers. And yet when it wanted to be funny, good god was it, whether via the mounting misadventures of Robert S. Powell’s always-hustling barber or the moment when Teddy Perkins broke his eerie spell to detail his museum to great fathers throughout history. You know: Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Sr., Tiger Woods’ father, Serena Williams’ father, the father who drops off Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club. Moments like these weren’t incongruous—they didn’t deflate the tension—but were instead part of the strange fabric of the show, proving that horror and comedy can work as different expressions of the same sense of surreality.
This kills me to say it, but for as thoughtful a presence as Donald Glover has brought to Atlanta, no performance (by an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series) brought me greater pleasure last season than Ted Danson on The Good Place. As Michael, Danson had a spectacular and unexpected heel turn at the climax of the first season, revealing his fumbling but well-intentioned neighborhood planner to be a manipulative demon utilizing sitcom devices as a method to redefine the very way by which humans are punished in the afterlife. The second season provided Danson the space to play around with these two aspects of his character. He retains his earnest curiosity while folding in the macabre humor of a being privy to damnation’s most terrible secrets. His own redemption arc—from mercenary self-preservation to becoming a sincere advocate for the people he’d once tried so hard to torture—was better than the best frozen yogurt in the afterlife.
Sharing a category with iconic figures and comedy institutions, the show that should win Outstanding Variety Sketch Series is At Home With Amy Sedaris. I might be the only person who knows what channel TruTV is on, but At Home is worth scrolling through the channel guide. The series is like stepping into the world of Sedaris’ books I Like You: Hospitality Under The Influence and Simple Times: Crafts For Poor People. In less capable and less sardonic hands, segments like “The Lady Who Lives In The Woods” about a hippie couple living off the land would be pedestrian—but in the unpredictable world of At Home, “The Lady Who Lives In The Woods” is about an earthy lesbian couple who avoids talking about their relationship problems by making acorn animals. Sedaris effortlessly shifts between playing the effervescent host hot gluing rhinestones to dinner and a homeless man with a foot fetish. The show is visceral and subversive and cheerful and life-affirming. If it sounds a little confusing and dark and fun, it’s a good thing.
Since the nominees that immediately came to mind have already been stumped for—thank you, Katie and Clayton, for recognizing Sandra Oh’s and Atlanta’s greatness—I’m going to take this opportunity to remind everyone that The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is head and shoulders above its limited-series competition. Though it never quite matched the scope of People Vs. O.J. Simpson, Versace’s exploration of fame, queerness, and ostracism was often as heady as its predecessor’s examination of race in America. Versace writer and executive producer Tom Rob Smith, who adapted a true-crime story for his 2008 novel Child 44, skipped the splashier pages from Ryan Murphy’s playbook and focused on more meditative storytelling. The series found a magnetic lead in Glee’s Darren Criss, who gives an exquisitely conflicted performance while surrounded by high-caliber talents like Penélope Cruz, Judith Light, and Édgar Ramirez, who plays the titular victim. Versace’s costuming and set design made it easy on the eyes, but the cast made it an experience that wasn’t to be missed.
David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter made an Everest-like jump in quality from its pilot to its second episode, largely because of the eerie, magnetic presence of guest star Cameron Britton, who plays real-life serial killer Ed Kemper. Britton does a solid impression of Kemper, both verbally and physically, but more importantly, he embodies Kemper’s discomfiting charisma. He has a sociopath’s self-awareness and a barfly’s agreeability, which shouldn’t complicate his record of murder and necrophilia, but unfortunately does for special agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who has an inordinate-bordering-on-disturbed fascination with the serial killer community. From the moment he enters the frame, Britton’s performance electrifies, and almost singlehandedly turned a middling streaming show into a can’t-miss streaming show. It’s the kind of performance that would’ve quickly made Britton famous 15 years ago, but now, in a crowded TV culture, it could slip through the cracks. Here’s hoping an Emmy gets people’s attention.
It’s hard to imagine The Handmaid’s Tale’s completely hatable Aunt Lydia brought so perfectly to life by anyone other than Ann Dowd. Her character is among the scariest in Gilead, because she’s not a victim of the new order, or someone upholding it for personal power: She’s a true believer who does evil things without quite being evil herself, and it’s one of the most complex beings to grace TV screens in the past year. Dowd’s already received an Emmy for her portrayal of Aunt Lydia, and was nominated for her work in The Leftovers before that. She deserves it again this year, for bringing Aunt Lydia’s twisted agenda to new heights, helping June through her pregnancy with real care, but not before she did her best to break June down into a properly repentative Handmaid. She feels a motherly protectiveness over her “girls,” and through the warped society she’s helping to uphold, she also makes them suffer. Dowd brings the simultaneous warmth and brutality to her role, and she should get every award she can for it.
I’m excited about all your excellent nominations—hoping for a Russell/Oh tie, personally—but somehow only Danette has mentioned costuming in this, the Golden Age of People Wearing Clothes On Television. How is that possible? There are excellent nominees in all four costuming categories, and I’ll be rooting for Outlander, Westworld, and Jesus Christ Superstar: Live In Concert in three of them, but the year’s best belong to the contemporary category, and in particular The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (and designers Lou Eyrich and Allison Leach). It would be easy to dwell on the most evocative of the bunch—the red “this little thing” jumpsuit Andrew wears in the “Whip It” sequence—but the subtler designs were just as effective, whether using the richness of fabric to differentiate between two men wearing white, or playing the associations we make about color and gender off of each other to say something complicated about a complicated series. Contemporary costume designs can be easy to overlook, but these shouldn’t be, as the fashion in a series about the murder of a fashion titan is unsurprisingly integral to the show’s success. And yes, the jumpsuit is perfect.