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.
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.
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.