Every year the Emmys nominate their usual favorites and a few surprises to the yawns and complaints of the audience, but it’s genuinely impressive how much wheat is in that chaff: “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Louie,” “Friday Night Lights,” the list goes on. Still, rooting for “Mad Men” to get a nomination for Best Drama is like rooting for Meryl Streep to score more Oscar nominations. So here’s a list of nine series and performances that have never been nominated by the Emmys and one that has that’s better than ever, all of which deserve serious consideration from any awards body promoting excellent television. For your consideration, our top ten most wanted Emmy nominations for 2012.
10. Best Supporting Actor in a Drama: Giancarlo Esposito, “Breaking Bad”
2010 winner Aaron Paul is sure to be invited back, but the Emmys also ought to make room for the season’s standout, Giancarlo Esposito. Mild-mannered fried chicken mogul by day, razor-wielding meth kingpin by night, Esposito’s Gus Fring looms over the fourth season like the supervillain on the cover of a comic. It’s a performance of such careful calculation that it almost seems mechanical, but Esposito isn’t going through the motions. He’s playing it as cool as possible for as long as possible, the better for his hot moments — the escape from Mexico or the final showdown — to bear the force of a splash page. Esposito memorably reconciles these poles, the humdrum and the chaotic, in a flashback origin story that’s as harrowing for its events as it is for Gus’ unguardedness, suggesting his entire journey to merciless samurai stoicism with that one formative expression of terror.
9. Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy: Eden Sher, “The Middle”
The Emmys’ favorite good, old-fashioned American family sitcom will likely take up every nomination in the comedy categories and some on the drama side, but right down the block from “Modern Family” is the funnier, messier, more honest “The Middle.” Nowhere on television is financial anxiety as palpable as it is for the Hecks (and most Americans), but the show is powered by an essential optimism embodied in middle child Sue Heck. Sue has always radiated cheerful determination, and if it seemed a little naive, well, she was a tween. But this season Sue is hitting adolescence hard, and the challenge of maintaining Sue’s basic Sue-ness while learning to rebel has made Eden Sher’s performance more moving than ever. She punishes herself for sneaking into an R-rated movie, she buys a possibly too flattering shirt in place of her usual kidswear, she’s as bratty as her brothers in cutaways, and still she can wake up to a last-minute thrown-together birthday celebration and appreciate it. She’s the shining spirit of a great American sitcom, not to mention a powerful antidote to television’s sullen teen epidemic, and long overdue for Emmy evaluation.
8. Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy: Casey Wilson, “Happy Endings”
The funniest comedy on television deserves consideration for most of its ensemble — not least Adam Pally’s thoroughly lazy Max — but if only one breaks through, it ought to be Casey Wilson’s hapless Penny Hartz. Dubbing this the Year of Penny, she’s the least lucky and most determined of her friends, which accidentally positions her as the one everyone’s rooting for, the center of a centerless show. As one of the most detailed performers on television, Wilson makes the most of her role. What she does with her vaguely English catchword “amahzing” would enrapture Henry Higgins. In any given scene Wilson is furiously working for laughs — as when she goes from vocal affectation to sad-face to eye-roll in the course of three lines when a boyfriend she can’t stand breaks up with her first. Wilson’s animated detail captures the essence of Penny, tirelessly striving for success in not just one of the funniest but one of the best performances on television.
7. Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy: Adam Driver, “Girls”
Inasmuch as “Girls” is about the slow awakening of growing up, a journey postponed for most of the characters by privilege, Adam Driver’s Adam represents Hannah’s, and by extension the audience’s, most compelling case study. What starts as a strange cardboard sex buddy — beneath the mannered behavior, a stereotypical guy — becomes a full human being with a rich psychology informed by his history. Adam didn’t suddenly spring to life; Hannah’s perception of him expanded. Driver’s genius is in making it all feel seamless, like the guy who agrees to become Hannah’s boyfriend is the same guy who seemed to just want her for sex. Adam is also the one character who never succumbs to the cartoonish flights of the writing, thanks mostly to the way Driver grounds his more absurd moments in his specific peculiarity. He’s the most watchable character on the show, a weirdo surrounded by types, and Driver’s naturalism is one of the most powerful components of “Girls.”
6. Best Guest Actress in a Comedy: Kathryn Hahn, “Parks and Recreation”
Just as the campaign subplot on “Parks and Recreation” needed a jolt, along came Kathryn Hahn’s Jennifer Barkley, high-powered Washington campaign manager for the dumb, entitled rich kid with daddy issues. Hahn is hilarious as a ruthless mastermind of political strategy who considers herself totally above the fray of a local election in some podunk Indiana town, going from authentic appreciation of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in person to saying “Leslie Knope is everything that’s wrong with politics today” on a local news show. Her feigned aloofness about the problem with voting machines sponsored by her campaign speaks to her brilliance. It’s crucial that she’s smart, funny and good at what she does, the perfect foil for Leslie. The moment when she crumples as the recount postpones her return to civilization sums up in one quick gag how Pawnee and all it represents is her Kryptonite. Finally, there’s an engaging mystery to Jennifer that electrifies her scenes. Until the credits rolled after the finale, you couldn’t be sure her respective offers to Chris and Ben weren’t tactical. Maybe not even now.
5. Best Comedy: “Louie”
Nominating Louis CK’s performance and not his series is like admiring the shine and not the trophy. The performance is the perfect guide, but the revolution is in the series, a collection of unpredictable vignettes about a middle-aged divorced dad and New York comedian. “Louie” is the poster child for auteurist television, consistently creative formally and thematically with its energetic ambition and bracing tonal surprises. The cumulative effect is that of staying up late when it feels like anything can happen, the world operating on a half-awake dream-logic. The government could swap out one homeless man for another, say, or you could get lost in your favorite Who song. Underlying the surrealism are a handful of deep, running themes exploring the art of comedy and fatherhood and the strange negotiation of relationships, and the searing moments of pathos are as vital as any of the bizarre gags. “Louie” may not be straight comedy, but there’s nothing else like it.
4. Best Supporting Actress in a Drama: Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men”
“Mad Men” has never won an acting Emmy, but if her previous nominations are any indication, Christina Hendricks is at least a likely repeat nominee for her sensitive performance as the most competent person in advertising, Joan Harris. But even more than the last two years, this season has been seismic for Joan. Her husband returns from Vietnam just in time to depart on a second tour, which leads to a climactic confrontation that gives Hendricks the mother of all fan service. She roars, needles, holds, drawing on three years of sublimated tension, exhausted the whole time but on the verge of relief. And that’s nothing compared to her one-two punch with Jaguar, an account that gives her the dream — a charming, flirtatious, play-acted marriage to dashing old friend Don Draper (Jon Hamm) at Christmastime — and then reveals the nightmare, the impression that all five partners, including Don and Joan’s former lover Roger Sterling (John Slattery), are counting on her to sleep with a sleazy exec in order to win the account. Hendricks is a ninja with a glance, and her arc is a compelling throughline in a season of fracture.
3. Best Supporting Actor in a Drama: Alfie Allen, “Game of Thrones”
Last year’s winner Peter Dinklage deserves another nomination for slapping King Joffrey alone, but Alfie Allen’s tortured Theon Greyjoy had an equally rich arc in a rapturously messy season. Even if he hadn’t met disappointment after disappointment on his voyage home, Theon’s conquest of Winterfell yields three of the strongest scenes in the series. First his hand is forced into executing a knight, then he talks over his limited options with a monk while under siege, and finally he delivers a funny, stirring, inspirational speech to his men focused primarily on killing the enemy’s nocturnal horn player. All three scenes reveal Theon to be a factotum, and Allen paints frustration like an expressionist, highlighting various facets, from tearful exhaustion to last-ditch effort, in this full portrait of an unfair life.
2. Best Drama: “Luck”
As David Simon has shown time and again, the Emmys are inclined to ignore critically acclaimed HBO tapestry dramas with low ratings, but hopefully Dustin Hoffman earns some consideration for David Milch’s “Luck.” The immersive storytelling plops the audience into a world where jargon and history don’t need to be explained, yet “Luck” is totally absorbing. Part of that is thanks to the clear, purposeful camerawork of Michael Mann’s directorial team, working rigidly in the system run by cops and officials and more freely, more experimentally on the outskirts. The horse races are breathtaking both as emotional high points and liberating, impressionistic, symphonic montages, slowly introducing each section of the band — the jockeys, the gamblers, the trainers — and then playing all their dreams against each other. The Emmys seem poised to treat “Luck” like “Treme,” but with its focus on cheating, windfalls, and fall guys, it’s hard to think of a more relevant drama.
1. Best Actress in a Comedy: Laura Dern, “Enlightened”
It’s a shame Mike White’s “Enlightened” escaped all the auteurist buzz that surrounds “Louie” and “Girls.” His sensitive exploration of the crazy-making, anti-humanist contradictions of modern city life, from corporate technocracy to grassroots politics and beyond, revolves around the most burrowing television performance since Tony Soprano. Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe is a narcissist extraordinaire, and Dern plays plausible deniability like a Wall Street CFO. The show depends on that mystery of authenticity — the question of how self-aware Amy is could occupy the Supreme Court for a whole session. But the general answer is obvious: Amy lives in a constant state of flux between all the show’s central dichotomies, including sympathetic pawn and unsympathetic manipulator. You can’t pin her down because she’s not your average TV character, a pithy game-piece in a simplistic cause-and-effect narrative. She’s fuller than that, more self-contradictory, more unknowable, and not out of ass-covering writerly vagueness but rather Dern’s digging. On a network dedicated to static female antiheroes reveling in bad behavior to piss off Mom, Dern keeps finding new expressions for the raw material of her physicality, all motivated by Amy’s sincere if hesitant attempts to grow. In short, Laura Dern burns through her character like a star. Here’s hoping the Emmys take notice.