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.
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.
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.