Emmy ballots are due this Friday, June 26th and, with most voters likely to still have them on their to-do list, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how this TV critic would fill one out. What was the best that television had to offer from June 2014 to May 2015? Without “Breaking Bad,” “True Detective” and “Fargo” to dominate this year’s awards, which shows will be the big players? Heck, we don’t even have “Hannibal” to dream about finally getting the recognition it deserves. (Season two was eligible last year and the current season three will be eligible for its likely snubbing for its final season next year.)
Will “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” continue to predictably run the table in the comedy categories or can they make room for a surprisingly robust selection of new offerings? Can we finally break the Emmy run of “Downton Abbey”? (You’ll find none of those programs on this ballot, by the way. It’s way past time for new blood.) In an unusual happenstance, comedy this year was arguably more competitive than drama, which has rarely been the case in the past. Emmy picks seem easier to choose in the “serious” programming section of this year’s ballot—so let’s start with the funny ones.BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY
The two HBO spring comedies—“Veep” and “Silicon Valley”—not only comprised the best hour of comedy on any network during this Emmy season, but also featured two of its strongest supporting casts. Unlike the Academy, which often fills out “party ballots” as programs get multiple nominations in categories like this (“Modern Family” being the dominant example), I often think it best to spread the wealth. If we truly are in the golden age of television, let’s try to get as much of it recognized as possible, right? Unfortunately, that means I have to make some tough decisions when it comes to a show like “Veep,” for which one could make arguments for 4 or 5 candidates for Best Supporting Actor. Matt Walsh had a first-rate season, as did Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole, and Sam Richardson’s hapless Richard Splett surprisingly delivered some of this year’s biggest laughs. But the show still belongs to the dynamic between Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Hale has to be in.
In the half-hour before “Veep,” T.J. Miller elevated his obnoxious routine from season one of “Silicon Valley” into something more genuine and phenomenal. His timing is perfect. I don’t quite understand who Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele are supporting on their breakthrough Comedy Central series (each other?), but this is the category where they’re officially listed on this year’s ballot. Neither is likely; either would be outstanding. For me, the Netflix show of the season was not “Daredevil” or “House of Cards,” but rather the hysterical “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and the program simply wouldn’t be what it is without the timing of Titus Burgess. He’s a no-brainer choice.
“Parks and Recreation” had an incredible final season, even if it sometimes felt like NBC was racing to get to its conclusion. I’ve suggested Nick Offerman here pretty much every year that the show has been on. This is your last chance, people. Do what’s right.
Finally, there’s a pick from last year who certainly didn’t falter this season, even if the show he’s on seems to be in a bit of a decline. I wouldn’t mind a bit of a shake-up—maybe giving Terry Crews or Joe Lo Truglio the nod—but “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” would have been unwatchable at its low points this season if not for Andre Braugher. He’s still the MVP.
Andre Braugher, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
Titus Burgess, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Tony Hale, “Veep”
Keegan Michael-Key, “Key & Peele”
T.J. Miller, “Silicon Valley”
Nick Offerman, “Parks and Recreation”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
What I love about the comedy categories this season is the breadth of options from which to choose. Only one program from the supporting actor category makes a return appearance here as the amazing Anna Chlumsky is impossible to ignore for the best season she’s had to date. You’ve nominated her before—it would be downright silly not to do so this year.
Who joins her on the ballot is a little tougher. “Silicon Valley” is sadly a bit thin on female characters and, as much as I like Carol Kane and Jane Krakowksi on “Kimmy,” they don’t quite make the cut for me. Aubrey Plaza had a good year on “Parks & Rec,” but not a great one. There are no real candidates on ABC hits like “Black-ish” or “Fresh Off the Boat.” So you have to stretch a bit to get to six. There is one ABC show that’s not “Modern Family” that had a truly underrated supporting actress performance this year: “The Middle.” Perennially underrated, Eden Sher got to portray the tumultuous senior year of Sue Heck as she finally made it to graduation. She’s fantastic.
Another actress who has been delivering for years with no Emmy recognition is Kaitlyn Olson on FX’s hit “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” She’d be a daring, left-field choice. And, while this year was relatively awful for “SNL,” it was through no fault of Kate McKinnon, the comedian with the best timing on the NBC stalwart right now.
Chlumsky, McKinnon, Olson, Sher. That leaves two spots and I suspect at least one of them will go (and should go) to one of the three candidates on Amazon’s “Transparent”—Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker, and Judith Light. The former “Who’s the Boss?” star had the best single episode (the finale, which Hoffman is great in too, BTW), but Landecker gets my pick for the overall season arc. If voters wanted to go with Hoffman or Light for the sixth spot, I wouldn’t blame them, but one of the most underrated comedies of this season was HBO’s “Togetherness,” a biting, brilliant comedy that didn’t get nearly the buzz it deserved. Amanda Peet never faltered all season and deserves some recognition.
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep”
Amy Landecker, “Transparent”
Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”
Kaitlyn Olson, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
Amanda Peet, “Togetherness”
Eden Sher, “The Middle”
BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY
This category has been remarkably difficult to fill over the last few years, especially with the departures of “The Office” and “30 Rock.” The streak of Best Actress being more competitive than Best Actor continues and I’m putting money again on Jim Parsons inexplicably winning another Emmy. There are better choices, people. Here are six.
The one man who I think could break the Parsons streak is everyone’s moppa, Jeffrey Tambor, who brought such honesty to the central role on “Transparent,” the program that has really put Amazon on the television map. He captured the emotional truth of his character’s journey in ways that other actors would have missed. It would be stunning were he NOT to be nominated. Same with Louis CK, who certainly wasn’t down as a performer or director this year. It would be crazy not to nominate him again.
Let’s look a little deeper for the other four candidates. While I think he can sometimes overplay his character’s awkwardness, one shouldn’t under-value the way Thomas Middleditch serves as the emotional center of “Silicon Valley.” He’s a strong candidate. And I think Mark Duplass is getting better as he gets older, arguably doing his best work to date on “Togetherness.” Chris Geere would make a really solid nominee for “You’re the Worst,” but there are two others that just edge him out.
Will Forte delivered the most unique network sitcom of the year in “The Last Man on Earth” and, as much as I like Kristen Schaal and even January Jones’ work here, the program is nothing without Forte. He’s in nearly every scene and it’s his timing that sells the unusual rhythm of the overall piece.
Finally, ABC has become one of the few lonely islands of quality comedy on network television, especially now that NBC has essentially given up on it entirely. While “Modern Family” gets all the attention, newcomers “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” are both superior programs. Let’s bring them into the Emmy fold this year, starting with Anthony Anderson’s work on “Black-ish” (although Randall Park on “Fresh Off the Boat” would be a phenomenal alternative).
Anthony Anderson, “Black-ish”
Louis CK, “Louie”
Mark Duplass, “Togetherness”
Will Forte, “The Last Man on Earth”
Thomas Middleditch, “Silicon Valley”
Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”
BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
If Anderson represents “Black-ish” in actor and Park misses out, let’s slot in the amazing Constance Wu for “Fresh Off the Boat” (although, again, I’d be nearly as happy with Tracee Ellis-Ross for “Black-ish”… just trying to spread the wealth).
Unlike most categories, this is one where I expect my top three candidates will coincide with the Academy’s. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won for every year that “Veep” has been on the air, and, despite my general rooting for the underdog, I’d be fine if she won again. The fourth season of “Veep” was just about perfect and JLD deserves every bit of praise she’s received. Similarly, Amy Poehler has been nominated several times for “Parks and Recreation” and she should be again. Finally, if “Kimmy Schmidt” plays at all this year, you can’t NOT nominate Ellie Kemper. She drives the show.
We’re left with four spots and a wide array of choices. I like Melanie Lynskey, Mindy Kaling, Zooey Deschanel, Patricia Heaton, and the ladies of “Broad City” a lot, but there are two who edge them out. Amy Schumer’s star continues to rise and I actually expect she will get her first Emmy nomination this year. If she doesn’t, it really shows you how out of touch the Academy is with popular culture.
Finally, there’s my longshot dream pick—Aya Cash for “You’re the Worst,” one of the funniest shows of 2014. Like a lot of my suggestions, she represents a beyond-talented ensemble, any of whom would make a fine choice. You really need to start watching “You’re the Worst” when it returns this Fall. You won’t regret it.
Aya Cash, “You’re the Worst”
Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Amy Poehler, “Parks and Recreation”
Amy Schumer, “Inside Amy Schumer”
Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat”
If you’ve made it this far, you can likely figure out the seven series (yes, the Academy has gone to seven now just in the series categories) that I’d recommend here. Only one is a network show, and it’s been canceled, so, sorry CBS, ABC, and FOX—although “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Last Man on Earth” DO make it clear that there’s still life left in network comedy. In fact, any of those three series could be best comedy candidates next year with stronger sophomore seasons. But cable still rules the day with HBO producing three of the best comedies on TV, and FX claiming the fourth. What’s most notable to me about shows like “Louie,” “Togetherness,” and Amazon’s “Transparent” is how much one could accurately say that they’re not really comedies. They push genre boundaries. And then there’s the show that NBC passed on before it jumped over to Netflix—“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the strangest comedy of the year. Again, this is an incredibly robust group, much more so than in recent years, and all but one aired in the last six months. Comedy is on the rise and it’s changing fast. Academy members have the opportunity to really look to the future with their best comedy picks this year. I hope they don’t miss out.
“Parks and Recreation”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA
As it has been for years, best supporting actor for drama is dense with candidates. What about John Slattery for the final season of “Mad Men”? Jon Voight is still bringing his A-game to the declining “Ray Donovan,” as is Mandy Patinkin on “Homeland”. What about the cast of “The Good Wife”? Alan Cumming is always a terrific choice, and I suspect “Downton Abbey” will entice a number of voters here, possibly with Jim Carter. I’d love to see a “Boardwalk Empire” guy drop in, maybe the underrated Michael K. Williams. I wouldn’t be stunned to see Sam Waterston show up here for the final season of “The Newsroom” too. And, yet while those are all decent picks, there are six better ones.
First, I’m going to break my “one per category per show” rule because I can’t pick between Michael McKean and Jonathan Banks on AMC’s stellar “Better Call Saul.” Again, Banks has the better single episode but McKean had a hell of a season. Banks seems like a definite nominee, but consider McKean again. He’s more than worthy.
Peter Dinklage certainly didn’t falter in the fifth season of “Game of Thrones,” even if I think the show is a bit down overall. Not suggesting he get nominated here is like not suggesting the sun will rise. It’s inevitable. (And a good call.) Similarly, Walton Goggins has been nominated before for “Justified” and it would be sinful to omit him for one of his best seasons. The show’s final year really let Goggins shine as Boyd Crowder realized that he may not be able to trust the one person for whom he would do anything.
Banks, McKean, Dinklage, Goggins. It leaves us with two spots. I expect “House of Cards” to be a major player again this year—Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are locks—but you won’t find it anywhere but here on my dream ballot. The truly rocky third season of the Netflix hit was rescued for me by Michael Kelly’s arc as a man dealing realistically with the emotional and physical tolls of rehabilitation. And he has strong competition for the “Best of Netflix” title from the fantastic Ben Mendelsohn, who carried “Bloodline” as the man who came home again to a family unwilling to let the past stay buried.
Jonathan Banks, “Better Call Saul”
Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”
Walton Goggins, “Justified”
Michael Kelly, “House of Cards”
Michael McKean, “Better Call Saul”
Ben Mendelsohn, “Bloodline”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA
While I’m not as big a fan of the last season of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” and it faces stiffer competition by being forced into drama this year instead of comedy, this is the best place to recognize the show’s greatest asset—its ensemble. In fact, I could see two or even three of the show’s cast members dropping by here. But who? Likely candidates include Uzo Aduba, Lorraine Toussaint, Kate Mulgrew, and Laverne Cox. Pick your favorite. I’m going with Aduba.
Former nominees Christina Hendricks and Lena Headey both had praiseworthy seasons, and it would be a shame if either missed out this year. Is this the year that “Mad Men” finally breaks the Emmy acting award curse? The show hasn’t won a single acting award. Hendricks would a wonderful choice to break that streak. And if we’re talking specific episodes—Emmy nominees submit their best of the year for consideration—January Jones had arguably her season-long best when her character learned she had inoperable cancer. I know it’s become trendy to hate on Jones but she was actually quite good this year. She just misses out for me.
Aduba, Hendricks, Headey. Three more and they’re all unlikely, dream-ballot nominees. The first is Abigail Spencer, who grounds Sundance’s outstanding “Rectify,” arguably the most underrated drama on TV. We shouldn’t forget Mackenzie Davis, the rebellious spirit of AMC’s excellent “Halt and Catch Fire,” one of the network’s two heirs to the now-abdicated “Mad Men” throne. Finally, there’s the always-strong Joelle Carter, who got her best dramatic arc to date in the final season of “Justified” as Ava Crowder—the way she captured her character’s moral uncertainty when it came to possibly turning in Boyd was mesmerizing, always keeping her character unpredictable, and yet fully believable.
Uzo Aduba, “Orange is the New Black”
Joelle Carter, “Justified”
Mackenzie Davis, “Halt and Catch Fire”
Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones”
Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men”
Abigail Spencer, “Rectify”
BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA
Like it has been for years now, this category is thick with potential snubs. Is there any real chance that Kevin Spacey won’t get nominated? Probably not, but I can make the case for at least six better candidates. Consider this alternate universe version of my “next six,” my runner-ups for the most competitive category on TV:
Kyle Chandler, “Bloodline”
Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom”
Terrence Howard, “Empire”
Timothy Olyphant, “Justified”
Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”
Dominic West, “The Affair”
It hurts me that I can’t get most of those people into my personal top six. But that’s just how amazing this year has been for male roles on TV (and, lest you worry, the actress category is just as strong). We are in an era of character-driven drama and there is no dearth of impressive actors playing them. Who pushes out phenomenal performances like Spacey’s and Chandler’s? The least likely to actually make the cut—but, again, this is a dream ballot not a prediction—is Lee Pace for his riveting work on “Halt and Catch Fire.” If this show can survive another couple seasons, I suspect it will be a major Emmy player. Let’s start now.
Another unlikely nominee for whom I would like to go to bat is Matthew Rhys, who did the best work of his career this year on “The Americans.” While the first two seasons of FX’s incredible drama hinged more on Keri Russell’s character, this season belonged to Rhys. As for new shows, Bob Odenkirk and Clive Owen both seem like no-brainers for “Better Call Saul” and “The Knick,” respectively. If you like both shows—and I very much do—you have to like what they do on them.
Finally, there’s a pair to whom we must say goodbye. While “Boardwalk Empire” didn’t end with its best season, Steve Buscemi never faltered from premiere to series finale, and the way he captured a man who could sense that his days were numbered was often mesmerizing.
All of these talented men are going to have to settle for runner-up. If “Mad Men” goes into that great TV sunset without Jon Hamm winning an Emmy for one of the most memorable characters of the last decades, that will be one of the greatest Emmy crimes of all time.
Steve Buscemi, “Boardwalk Empire”
Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”
Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”
Clive Owen, “The Knick”
Lee Pace, “Halt and Catch Fire”
Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”
BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA
This category may have never been stronger. Again, the people I’m excluding could make solid choices to WIN in inferior years. I expect most voters will make room for Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder”), Robin Wright (“House of Cards”), and Juliana Margulies (“The Good Wife”). All sound choices. But there are better ones. And, if any of them push out either of my two favorites, as several outlets are predicting they will, that would be a tragedy. So allow me to beg for a minute—this category should come down to a race between Elisabeth Moss for “Mad Men” and Ruth Wilson for “The Affair.” The former has been so consistently brilliant for almost a decade now and never won, while the latter was easily the best thing about Showtime’s buzzy drama.
I suspect Emmy voters will ignore “The Americans” again this year, despite general agreement by the entire critical body that it’s one of the best dramas on TV. If you’re done dismissing the show, Keri Russell deserves a nomination. Then again, she deserved one the last two years too.
So did Tatiana Maslany for “Orphan Black,” a show in steep decline creatively, but still carried by her fearless work. Speaking of fearless, Vera Farmiga holds nothing back on “Bates Motel,” arguably delivering her best season to date as Norma realized she can no longer protect Norman from himself. Finally, there’s the queen of “Empire,” Taraji P. Henson, an underrated actress who realized how to take a character like Cookie Lyon and make her a phenomenon.
Vera Farmiga, “Bates Motel”
Taraji P. Henson, “Empire”
Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”
Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men”
Keri Russell, “The Americans”
Ruth Wilson, “The Affair”
Again, if you haven’t skipped ahead and actually read the four previous categories, my choices here are probably obvious. They represent a diverse array of what’s possible for TV drama in 2015—from the way that period dramas like “The Americans” and “The Knick” comment on modern concerns to the technical accomplishments of something as ambitious as “Game of Thrones.” The dark humor of “Better Call Saul” and “Justified” is so perfectly balanced with the dramatic edges on both of those shows that it’s easy to take them for granted. And then there’s the program that towers above all others this year, the pitch-perfect final season of “Mad Men.” You could make safe, decent choices like “House of Cards” and “Downton Abbey.” Or you could really make a statement about the quality of TV this season and pick these seven:
“Better Call Saul”
“Game of Thrones”
“Halt and Catch Fire”
We’re already running long, and there’s not quite enough to say about the Movie/Mini-Series categories to break them down individually, but voters, please remember HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge,” Starz’s “The Missing,” and Sundance’s “The Honorable Woman.” They’re all multi-category picks. As for the guest categories, there are some truly expert performances here, including a few for which I can’t quite figure out why they were placed here instead of supporting (Kathryn Hahn). I’m just playing along with the official ballot. The Guest categories often seem based more on star status than actual performance, but please don’t miss Michael Rapaport’s work on “Louie” or Lois Smith’s on “The Americans.” Those two are good choices to win, much less get nominated.BEST LIMITED SERIES