The 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards face some steep competition themselves this week — they’re airing on CBS on Sunday, September 22 at 8pm ET, forcing a good chunk of the country to choose between tuning into the ceremony or watching “Breaking Bad” live. As lovable as host Neil Patrick Harris is bound to be, he’s going to have to charm viewers away from the penultimate episode of one of the best television shows of all time — and how can a goofy song and dance number beat that? Still, with many excellent series (including “Breaking Bad”) up for awards this weekend, we’re offering up a wishlist for the major categories. Here’s who we’d like to see win and why.
Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series: Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”
Cranston’s won this award three times for playing Walter White, but the first half of season five featured him making a turn that was truly impressive — from anti-hero to flat out bad guy. Whether telling Skyler about how he’ll have her committed if she tries to take the kids away from him to shooting another character, then apologizing as he dies for realizing the murder was unnecessary, Walt pushed past the previous boundaries of protagonist bad behavior into territory that felt new and daring, and Cranston’s commitment to not softening Walt while keeping that layer of humanity has been astounding. Last year’s winner, Damian Lewis, is coming off the weaker second season of “Homeland,” while Jon Hamm had to steer Don Draper through a (intentionally) frustratingly mopey year on “Mad Men.” And while a win for Kevin Spacey’s deliciously silky turn in “House of Cards” would be a historic moment, neither his performance nor the show can compete with the AMC meth drama.
Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series: Robin Wright, “House of Cards”
Spacey had the showiest role in “House of Cards,” but Robin Wright was coolly terrific as Claire Underwood, Francis Underwood’s perfect partner in crime. Besides offering a refreshing change of pace from the usual protesting, out of the loop spouse of the morally questionable hero, Claire offered a more contemplative, relatable look at the sacrifices the Underwoods made in choosing their calculated, political power couple lives, as she considered a different path with her lover and punished her husband for treating her career as secondary to his. As old school movie star as Kerry Washington’s turn as Olivia Pope is in “Scandal” and as good as Elisabeth Moss always is on “Mad Men,” the only performance that rivaled Wright’s in its power was last year’s winner Claire Danes in “Homeland,” and it’d be nice to see the subtlety of Wright’s acting be rewarded over Dane’s raw and impressive but showy work.
Outstanding Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie: Matt Damon, “Behind the Candelabra”
This is a star-filled all-HBO category that puts Matt Damon up against his “Behind the Candelabra” co-star Michael Douglas, but while the latter is a hoot in his outsized and eventually poignant role as Liberace, it’s Damon’s journey from naive newcomer in the performer’s glittery world to drug-addicted, cast-out lover that formed the film’s emotional core.
Outstanding Lead Actress In A Miniseries Or A Movie: Jessica Lange, “American Horror Story: Asylum”
As good as “Top of the Lake” is, Elisabeth Moss was outshone by some of her other cast members in an excellent ensemble, particularly Peter Mullan. This category is otherwise packed with great actresses in roles that were often just okay — Laura Linney in “The Big C,” Helen Mirren in “Phil Spector,” Sigourney Weaver in “Political Animals.” It’s only Lange as the fiery Sister Jude Martin in the second season of “American Horror Story” who had a part that matched her presence, as the campy, outsized and utterly compelling horror series finally came into its own.
Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series: Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”
It was the last season of “30 Rock,” and it feels like Alec Baldwin might as well get one more award for playing Jack Donaghy, the perfect platonic partner to Liz Lemon all these years, a mentor, friend and boss who in the last season got exactly what he wanted, only to realize he wasn’t happy. Jack dealt with attempts to tank the network, the death of his mother and battled Tracy Jordan over whether or not he served as the inspiration for the villain in Tracy’s “Aunt Phatso” film, with both graceful aplomb and silliness when the role called for it. Baldwin could do with a nod for the consistently good work he’s done on the NBC sitcom over the years. As much as it was great to see Jason Bateman back as Michael Bluth, his work in the Netflix season of “Arrested Development” wasn’t up to what he did before, and while Louis C.K. has yet to win an acting award for “Louie,” this past season doesn’t feel like the right one.
Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series: Laura Dern, “Enlightened”
It wasn’t until it was essentially already canceled in the second half of its second season that Mike White’s “Enlightened” received an avalanche of critical adoration, but Laura Dern has been phenomenal throughout the run of the HBO comedic drama as a woman who can be completely grating while never been less than sympathetic. Dern and White together made Amy Jellicoe’s search for meaning into something sublime, and even if the series was cut short, Dern should get recognition for the delicate dedication with which she brought the character to memorable life.
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series: Jonathan Banks, “Breaking Bad”
The exasperated resignation on Jonathan Banks’ face at the end of his last scene with Bryan Cranston in “Say My Name” alone should win Banks a dozen awards, and that’s without even considering the arc of his complex performance in a half season that found him reluctantly pulled into business with Walt despite concerns that turn out to be absolutely justified. Mike Ehrmantraut was competent, pragmatic and just desperate enough to allow himself to partner up with Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) while knowing they weren’t career criminals and were far more dangerous because of it — a great character made possible by Banks’ great performance. Paul’s already gotten deserved recognition for playing Jesse, and Peter Dinklage, whose won in this category once before, is likely to get nominated every year for as long as “Game of Thrones” runs and his character survives. It’d be nice to see Banks get a moment in the sun.
Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series: Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad”
For as much shit as Skyler unfairly takes from a certain fan contingent that sees her as dislikable, Anna Gunn challenged you to see the character as in anything other than a dire situation in the first half of season five. While Cranston boldly took Walt to some dark, dark places, Gunn matched him by showing her character’s fear and growing sense of being trapped, in skin-crawling moments like the one in the White bedroom after the party in “Fifty-One,” or where she comes close to confessing to Marie (Betsy Brandt), only for her sister to think her distress is about the affair she had with Ted. Every assertive action that Skyler attempted was countered by Walt until, with a sense of numbness, Skyler clearly surrendered.
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series: Adam Driver, “Girls”
It’s a rare actor who can make a scene of his character jerking off onto his unhappy girlfriend’s chest into something genuinely, emotionally complicated, but as Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) odd ex Adam, Adam Driver has fleshed out what started as a hipster cipher into someone legitimately wrestling with heartbreak. Adam went on a ramble to Staten Island with Ray, he sweetly started and then failed at a relationship with a nice girl and came to Hannah’s dramatic rescue. He’s a strange and not always easy to contend with contemporary heartthrob, and Driver’s prickly performance has filled the character out into one difficult, complicated and believable.
Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Comedy Series: Mayim Bialik, “The Big Bang Theory”
Mayim Bialik’s Amy Farrah Fowler is a fan favorite on CBS’ top-rated sitcom for a reason — she’s a charmingly awkward and brilliant female counterpoint to Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper, and in the most recent season the two tentatively mapped out new ground in their unconventional romance. Bialik’s been particularly good at navigating her character’s desires for more traditional intimacy while trying to respect her beau’s previous reluctance to engage in physical interactions of any sort, and “The Love Spell Potential” found her leading the two in a discussion about whether or not they need to have sex to legitimize their relationship in a conversation that touched on ground one would never have expected to find on a standard network sitcom. Bialik went a long way towards grounding the conversation and making it a legitimately emotional one.
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie: Peter Mullan, “Top of the Lake”
As Matt, the father of missing pregnant girl Tui and the town tough ruling over illicit activities from the compound in which he lives with his sons, Mullan was frightening and undeniably charismatic, never easy to reduce to just the local villain. His long gray hair flying, he managed to make the transition from threatening the women’s camp GJ (Holly Hunter) to spending a sweet, druggy day with one of its inhabitants in a passage deliberately meant to evoke a momentary return to Edenic innocence. His savagery was tragic, because it never felt entirely willing — like many of the characters, he felt like the severed half of a forgotten whole, trying to struggle on in life while aware of his own incomplete nature.
Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Miniseries Or A Movie: Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story: Asylum”
“American Horror Story: Asylum” was an outstanding platform for actresses, and in the less showy but wrenching part of journalist Lana Winters, Sarah Paulson went to some deeply disturbing places as an intrepid reporter who ends up being kept in the asylum for outdated but real reasons. The character began as an entry point from which to look at life in Briarcliff, but as the logic of the series began to melt and warp, like so many of the character her power was quickly turned on her. Paulson’s Lana was a emotional throughline in a season that that took wild swings, and her experiences and imperfections made the never-quite-exact metaphors the show offered about oppressed groups and trauma into something resonant and profound.
Outstanding Miniseries Or Movie: “Top of the Lake”
This is a tough category this year — Steven Soderbergh’s excellent “Behind the Candelabra” and the surprisingly complex season of “American Horror Story” are both worthy of awards, but Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” has been something else entirely, a fantastic expansion of the filmmaker’s favorite topic of the gender divide delved into in ways both personal and dramatic, like the incident that sent Robin Griffin fleeing from New Zealand as a teenager, to the beautifully abstract, like GJ’s shipping container camp for damaged women. Not quite a movie, but not really episodic either, “Top of the Lake” is a unique achievement that looked like nothing else on television this year.
Outstanding Comedy Series: “30 Rock”
“Louie” had a mixed season with some terrific highlights, “Girls” lost its way, “Veep” has improved immensely and “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” continue to chug along with much larger audiences than these cable series. But it was the last “30 Rock” season, the show managed a solid landing and none of its competitors had such an outstanding season that we’d feel bad about Tina Fey’s series getting the win — call us sentimental.
Outstanding Drama Series: “Game of Thrones”
Last year’s winner “Homeland” had a controversial second season that some felt pushed the bound of believability too far, “Mad Men” was both about and consumed by Don Draper’s malaise and, as loved as “Downton Abbey” is, it just doesn’t have the ambition or heft of its competitors in this category. As much as it’d be interesting in seeing “House of Cards” pick up a prize this big and indisputably announce the arrival of non-traditional networks like Netflix, this category belongs to either “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones,” and the latter had such a good season, complete with an episode for the ages that made unprepared viewers rend their hair in “The Rains of Castamere.”