It's that wonderful time of year when members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences are reminded that their Emmy ballots are due this Friday, June 20, 2014, and those of us who cover TV do our best to sway a vote or two. Let me join the chorus, category by category...
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMATIC SERIES
Josh Charles, "The Good Wife"
Peter Dinklage, "Game of Thrones"
Jack Huston, "Boardwalk Empire"
Dean Norris, "Breaking Bad"
Aaron Paul, "Breaking Bad"
Peter Sarsgaard, "The Killing"
It's the "Time to Say Goodbye" category this year as a majority of the best supporting actor performances of 2013-14 were in roles that will never be repeated, either due to character death or show cancellation. Is there something more attractive about nominating a performance simply because we know it's our last chance to do so? Possibly. Josh Charles' work on "The Good Wife" may not have been in the top six this year specifically, but he's been so good on that program since it premiered and gone largely unrecognized. So, there's a "show achievement" nature to his selection akin to when film actors win Oscars after multiple nominations without a trophy.
There's a similar poignancy for two men who drove the action on the best drama of 2013, "Breaking Bad." The final showdown between Jesse and Hank and Walt earned all three nominations, and I'd actually be stunned for Aaron Paul or Dean Norris to miss out here. My least-likely pick would be Peter Sarsgaard's nuanced performance, reason alone to seek out the third, underrated, best season of "The Killing." The final two spots go to two HBO scene-stealers: annual "ensemble representative" Peter Dinklage for "Game of Thrones" (although Charles Dance could realistically take his place for an all-dead category; as could the very-possibly-dead Laurence Fishburne for "Hannibal") and another "Series Achievement" nod for the GREAT Jack Huston, a character who I will truly miss when "Boardwalk Empire" returns for its final season this fall. Was he better in season three? Sure, but we didn't nominate him there either, so consider this a make-up vote.
The runner-ups in this category hint at likely picks for next year's nominations: Eddie Marsan and Jon Voight were both fascinating in markedly different ways on Showtime's "Ray Donovan"; Nestor Carbonell used his increased screen time on "Bates Motel" well; Noah Emmerich and Walton Goggins stole scenes on FX hits "The Americans" and "Justified"; Mandy Patinkin for "Homeland" and John Slattery for "Mad Men" are more likely choices than some of my dream picks, if a little safe. Finally, there are a few supporting turns that failed to get the buzz they deserved and would be welcome surprises if this category wasn't so crowded by the ghosts of Supporting Actors past: Gerald McRaney for "House of Cards," Norman Reedus for "The Walking Dead," and Jeffrey Wright for "Boardwalk Empire."
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMATIC SERIES
Anna Gunn, "Breaking Bad"
Lena Headey, "Game of Thrones"
Christina Hendricks, "Mad Men"
Annet Mahendru, "The Americans"
Michelle Monaghan, "True Detective"
Kiernan Shipka, "Mad Men"
Is anyone going to beat Anna Gunn here? The answer is no. While there's some undeniable talent in this category, it's Gunn's emotional final-year performance on "Breaking Bad" vs. the field. Who fills out the category? A "Game of Thrones" nominee is likely and deserved. Who is it? Emilia Clarke or Lena Headey seem the safe bets, but inspired voters may usher in Sophie Turner or Maisie Williams. I'll go with Headey, who delivered the most complex performance of the season (but be just as happy with Turner or Williams, for the record).
After Gunn and Headey, the field is filled with a surprising number of good-not-great performances. Unlike a lot of categories, it's hard to find the real standouts here. Sure, Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi are good enough every year on "The Good Wife." Emily Mortimer and Olivia Munn are underrated on the frustrating-but-fascinating "The Newsroom." Joelle Carter never gets enough credit for her work on "Justified" and had arguably her most complex season. I wish the great Paula Malcomson had been given a bit more to do on "Ray Donovan." And my darkest horse of all would be Olivia Cooke's expanded role on "Bates Motel." Do you think any of them are Emmy worthy? Close but not quite.
So who is? Michelle Monaghan could have used a bit more character to work with on "True Detective," but consider how much she did with very little. When she was needed as support in a few key scenes, particularly with Harrelson, she really delivered. "The Americans" went from a good show in 2013 to a great one in 2014 and one of the reasons was the complex, challenging performance from Annet Mahendru as a woman who seemed like a pawn in season one but turned the tables in the second year. She's fantastic. Finally, there's "Mad Men," a show that produced two strong supporting actress performances this year: the likely-nominee Christina Hendricks and a young performer much-less-likely to be recognized, Kiernan Shipka, who delivered one of my favorite performances of the year in the second episode of the season, "A Day's Work," as young Sally confronted her father in another lie but seemed to be finding her way from betrayal to sympathy.
BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMATIC SERIES
Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad"
Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"
Woody Harrelson, "True Detective"
Matthew McConaughey, "True Detective"
Mads Mikkelsen, "Hannibal"
Kevin Spacey, "House of Cards"
The craziest category of the year. By far. Not only is the current state of television increasingly driven by male anti-heroes but just look at the new arrivals in this category: The two leads of "True Detective," Mads Mikkelsen for "Hannibal" (who was supporting last year), Demian Bichir for "The Bridge," Freddie Highmore for "Bates Motel" (also upgraded from supporting, where he never belonged, to lead), Liev Schreiber for "Ray Donovan," Michael Sheen for "Masters of Sex," and James Spader for stealing every single scene he's in on "The Blacklist." That's eight already and we can only pick six.
Add the veterans to that list. Is there any part of you that thinks they shouldn't recognize Bryan Cranston's last season of "Breaking Bad"? How about Jon Hamm's unfaltering work on "Mad Men"? Other show leaders arguably past their prime but still in the conversation include Steve Buscemi for "Boardwalk Empire," Jeff Daniels for "The Newsroom," Michael C. Hall for the final season of "Dexter," Damien Lewis for "Homeland," and Timothy Olyphant for "Justified." There are some great performances in there that just don't make the cut in such a tough year but would win in lesser ones.
Finally, there's Matthew Rhys' improved work in season two of "The Americans" and the scenery-chewing so essential to the overall success of "House of Cards" from Kevin Spacey. Who do you pick? You actually have to stretch to make a "bad" decision here. That's how much talent there is. The field should all be grateful that Cranston, Harrelson, and McConaughey won't be eligible next year, making a little bit of much-needed room.
BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMATIC SERIES
Vera Farmiga, "Bates Motel"
Juliana Margulies, "The Good Wife"
Tatiana Maslany, "Orphan Black"
Elisabeth Moss, "Mad Men"
Keri Russell, "The Americans"
Robin Wright, "House of Cards"
I wish I could say this category was as deep as actor but the top of the field is just as talented. There may be fewer performers to choose from, however, the ones that will make up the final six will almost certainly comprise one of Emmy night's most interesting races. I count nine remarkable performances here that would make me happy and I'll be damned if I could pick a winner (although I'm leaning toward breaking the streak of zero wins for the cast of "Mad Men").
My runner-ups would be winners in lesser years. Lizzy Caplan is the pulse of Showtime's "Masters of Sex" and the best reason to watch the show; Claire Danes continues to do strong work despite the overall decline of "Homeland"; and Kerry Washington has proven there's still life in network drama on ABC's "Scandal." All just miss out for me.
Robin Wright was given much more to work with in the second season of "House of Cards" and deserves a nod. Keri Russell has crafted such a tightly-coiled, fascinating character on "The Americans" that her scene-to-scene work can be so subtle that it goes underrated. She's incredible. Ditto Tatiana Maslany, who plays multiple characters with distinguishable arcs on "Orphan Black." She'd be a great choice to win. As would Vera Farmiga, who took what worked about season one of "Bates Motel" and really expanded her character, recrafting the way we feel about Norma Bates. Finally, there are two long-time veterans of this category, working with two of the most complex characters of the last decade in television: Juliana Margulies on "The Good Wife" and Elisabeth Moss on "Mad Men." They're both so, so good that we've started to take them for granted.
OUTSTANDING DRAMATIC SERIES
"Game of Thrones"
As my opinion of so many of these shows can be read between the lines of the categories above, there's probably not much room for surprise here and so I'll be brief. The best two dramas of the 2013-14 season were "Breaking Bad" and "True Detective"; they are locked-in, deserving nominees. There was some backlash to the recent half-season of "Mad Men," but I found its peaks among the highest of the show's history. Same with "Game of Thrones," which earned a number of detractors this year but still presented the kind of sprawling, ambitious storytelling that we simply don't see much of even in this golden age of TV. Finally, there are the only two shows this year in the drama category that come close to "True Detective," arguably topping it: FX's riveting "The Americans" and the best show on network TV by a large margin, NBC's "Hannibal." Bryan Fuller's program is a black swan, the kind of thing that I can't even believe exists, much less on NBC. And the finale was the most breathtaking hour of the 2013-14 season.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDIC SERIES
Andre Braugher, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
Adam Driver, "Girls"
Tony Hale, "Veep"
Keegan-Michael Key, "Key and Peele"
Nick Offerman, "Parks and Recreation"
Christopher Evan Welch, "Silicon Valley"
First, a note on exclusions overall: Yes, the men and women of "Modern Family" are talented, but you won't find any of them on my Dream Emmy ballot as I have jumped ship on the ABC hit. Repetitive plotlines, recycled scripts, and stale jokes have dragged it down. So, while I won't tweet too loudly if talents like Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara get nods, they're not in here. Ditto the Emmy-likely "The Big Bang Theory," a show that isn't awful by any stretch but has been knighted too many times by the Academy, especially Mr. Parsons. Let's leave "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory" for next year and bring in some new blood.
With that out of the way, the two best comedy ensembles on TV are on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and HBO's "Veep." They both deserve citation in multiple categories. In an attempt to spread the wealth, I'd advise limiting each show to one nomination here. Let's have the great Nick Offerman stand in for Aziz Ansari and Chris Pratt for "Parks" and the amazing Tony Hale fill in for the nearly-as-worthy Kevin Dunn and Matt Walsh for "Veep."
Four spots left. The sketch comedy show has become a major part of the landscape in the last few years and the Academy keeps allowing "SNL" stars to sneak into the supporting categories here. Why not one of the stars of the funniest sketch show on TV, Keegan-Michael Key or Jordan Peele, both equally deserving? The best freshman ensemble of comedy actors came courtesy of FOX's surprisingly great "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and while Joe Lo Truglio or Terry Crews would be inspired choices, Andre Braugher seems the most likely. "Girls" is less likely to be the major Emmy player it was in its first season, but Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky deserve consideration every year. And, finally, there's the poignant performance from Christopher Evan Welch on "Silicon Valley." The actor who passed away far too young delivered one of the year's most memorable moments when his eccentric billionaire became obsessed with Burger King sesame seeds.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDIC SERIES
Alison Brie, "Community"
Danielle Brooks, "Orange is the New Black"
Allison Janney, "Mom"
Kate McKinnon, "Saturday Night Live"
Amy Schumer, "Inside Amy Schumer"
Christine Woods, "Hello Ladies"
Again, I find myself returning to a pair of shows that could fill out the entire category on their own just as I did with "Veep" and "Parks and Recreation" above. This time it's "Orange is the New Black" and the best crop of female performers that "Saturday Night Live" has seen in a long time. Just so you know, a lot of the "Orange" stars have inexplicably been put in the "Guest" category so Laverne Cox, Natasha Lyonne, and others are eligible down there (and I'll get to that category). Two strong contenders are eligible here, Danielle Brooks and Kate Mulgrew. Either would be deserving. I pick Brooks because of how much that character grew to become one of my favorites in season one. As for "SNL," Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer would all be great choices but they don't top Kate McKinnon, the most talented performer in the current era of "SNL."
In a bit of baffling categorization, Amy Schumer is eligible for Best Supporting Actress for the show that bears her name. Whatever. She's so incredibly talented that she should be nominated wherever she's eligible even if it's a lot of silly to call her supporting when she's in EVERY SCENE. The other three spots are a little more difficult to pinpoint. For voters considering a nod for "The Big Bang Theory," look to another CBS comedy hit and recognize that Allison Janney's comic timing is PERFECT. I don't love "Mom" at all, but every time I see it, I'm blown away by what Janney can do with so little.
I'd be happy with Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Melissa Fumero and Chelsea Peretti ("Brooklyn Nine-Nine"), Anna Chlumsky ("Veep") or Merritt Wever ("Nurse Jackie") filling out the final two spots but let's get creative. One of the best things about the return of Dan Harmon to "Community" was a renewed focus on Annie, perfectly played by Alison Brie. And the best thing about HBO's canceled "Hello Ladies" was the support of the underrated Christine Woods. There's no way she's getting nominated, but this is a dream ballot and some dreams should be a bit impossible.
There's going to be an understandable temptation to skew to the A-list actors who have decided to grace the small screen such as Don Cheadle for "House of Lies," William H. Macy for "Shameless" (moved from drama to comedy this year), and Chris O'Dowd for "Family Tree." All good choices but there are better ones. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Thomas Middleditch show up here for "Silicon Valley" or Matt LeBlanc for "Episodes," but they're both runner-ups for me, especially Middleditch, who I believe found a groove eventually in his freshman year but struggled at the beginning. He's a more likely deserving nominee next year.
As for my dream six, let's start with the obvious. Louis C.K. has gone from an actor that I was once incredibly surprised to see get an Emmy nomination to one that I would call a lock. He's in and he should be. Andy Samberg is close to a lock as well, especially after winning the Golden Globe. Much less likely would be recognition for Stephen Merchant's great work on "Hello Ladies," but I expect voters will finally recognize Adam Scott's performance on "Parks." Finally, there's my left-field DREAM pick: Andy Daly's fearless work on Comedy Central's "Review." For "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes" alone.
BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY
Edie Falco, "Nurse Jackie"
Ilana Glazer, "Broad City"
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "Veep"
Wendi McLendon-Covey, "The Goldbergs"
Amy Poehler, "Parks and Recreation"
Taylor Schilling, "Orange is the New Black"
We're almost there. Stick with me. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is likely to win a third Emmy in a row for her work on "Veep" and she should. Other likely/deserving, returning nominees include Edie Falco for "Nurse Jackie" and Amy Poehler for "Parks and Recreation." Lena Dunham deserves consideration for "Girls" every year but she just misses for me in 2013-14, as does Zooey Deschanel for "New Girl" and Patricia Heaton's underrated work on "The Middle."
JLD, Falco, and Poehler leaves three spots. ABC has started to build a following for their surprisingly funny "The Goldbergs" and a strong majority of the credit for the success of that show goes to Wendi McLendon-Covey. She's phenomenal. And I suspect Taylor Schilling will ride a wave of deserved support for "Orange is the New Black." She's even better in season two (and the timing seems likely to help "Orange" as voters have been binging that season while voting on the last one). Finally, as I have in each of these comedy categories, my crazy dream shot: Either of the ladies from "Broad City."
BEST COMEDIC SERIES
"Orange is the New Black"
"Parks and Recreation"
Let's take the lead of "Louie," a show that's not really comedy or drama, and "Orange is the New Black," and think outside of the box, dear voters. Pencil those two in. If you need a comfortable, traditional comedy like "Modern Family," "The Goldbergs" or "The Middle" are often very funny, but not quite there yet. The final season of "Community" may have been the program's best. You have one last chance to recognize it. Take it. "Parks and Recreation" is more likely and even more deserving. Ditto HBO's "Veep," arguably the most deserving winner here and a dark horse if the Academy jumps off the "Modern Family" bandwagon as many suspect they will. That leaves one spot for the Golden Globe-winning and increasingly funny "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," the best office comedy on TV, believe it or not.
BEST TV MINISERIES
"The Hollow Crown"
"The Spoils of Babylon"
BEST TV MOVIE
"Burton and Taylor"
"Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight"
"The Normal Heart"
"Sherlock: His Last Vow"
Helena Bonham Carter, "Burton and Taylor"
Holliday Grainger, "Bonnie and Clyde"
Jessica Lange, "American Horror Story: Coven"
Julianne Nicholson, "The Red Road"
Sarah Paulson, "American Horror Story: Coven"
Kristen Wiig, "The Spoils of Babylon"
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, MOVIE/MINI
Kathy Bates, "American Horror Story: Coven"
Ellen Burstyn, "Flowers in the Attic"
Janet McTeer, "The White Queen"
Julia Roberts, "The Normal Heart"
Allison Tolman, "Fargo"
Ruth Wilson, "Luther"
GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Gillian Anderson, "Hannibal"
Rosanna Arquette, "Ray Donovan"
Marcia Gay Harden, "The Newsroom"
Charlotte Rampling, "Dexter"
Diana Rigg, "Game of Thrones"
Gina Torres, "Hannibal"
OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with John Stewart
Inside Amy Schumer
Key & Peele
The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
OUTSTANDING REALITY-COMPETITION PROGRAM
The Amazing Race