We’re having a sustained and much needed break from the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean that awards are completely banished from the cultural landscape. For better or worse, Emmy season is sneaking up. The biggest and most prestigious TV awards in the calendar ended their qualifying season at the end of May, and ballots opened only a few days ago, with voting set to finish next week, ahead of the announcement of nominations on July 10th (with the awards themselves following on August 25th).
Because they mostly focus on ongoing series, the Emmys are even more of a closed shop than their big-screen equivalent: once you’re in the club, you’re in the club, and many series continue to rack up the nominations long past their prime (*cough* “Modern Family” *cough*), while newer series, or performers without the same kind of star power, can end up missing out.
So, with the close of voting approaching, we wanted, as we’ve done before, to shine a light on some of our favorite TV performances of the 2013/2014 season that, unfortunately, stand little chance at joining the mainstays like Jim Parsons, Bryan Cranston, Julianna Margulies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus when nominations are announced next month. You can take a look below at the twelve we picked, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
Laurence Fishburne – “Hannibal”
The chances of “Hannibal” ever picking up any love from Emmy voters is pretty minimal. It’s a show that finds new ways to disgust, repulse and horrify every week (in a good way!) , and hardly anyone watches it anyway. Which is a shame, because all the show’s leads are pulling off phenomenal work (even Caroline Dhavernas, whose character has rather less to do than the others), with Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen adding new shade and complexity to Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter this season. But our favorite performance of the last season might have come from Laurence Fishburne, who’s doing some of the best work of his career as FBI agent Jack Crawford. On paper, it’s a thankless part, with the actor essentially playing the standard police chief-type role, something even Fishburne has done plenty of times before. But the writing and the performance have superseded the archetype. Fishburne has brought real paternal warmth, and even humor, to Crawford, and with season two, a truly wounded sense of betrayal, at first a sickening self-loathing that he could have been taken in by Will Graham, then, an even more stomach-churning reaction as he slowly realizes that the real evil is still under his nose. The nature of the plotting meant that Crawford took a back seat in the second half of the season, but he was so good in the first half (especially in scenes with real-life wife Gina Torres) that we’d love him to pick up a nod.
Annet Mahendru – “The Americans”
“The Americans” went from being one of last year’s strongest debut dramas to being one of the best things on TV for its second season. It remains to be seen whether the deserved critical raves convert to Emmy love (it has a better chance this time, but might still be an outsider), but if anyone from the show gets an acting nomination, it’ll be leads Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and/or Noah Emmerich. Not that that wouldn’t be well-deserved, because it would be, but the real gem on the series is relative newcomer Annet Mahendru. The Groundlings graduate (born in Afghanistan to a Russian mother and Indian father) had only a handful of one-off TV gigs behind her when she joined “The Americans” in season one as recurring character Nina Sergeevna, a Soviet employee blackmailed by FBI agent Stan (Emmerich) into betraying her country, only to soon turn the tables on him, even as the pair became lovers. Upped to a regular for season two, Mahendru continued to turn in a performance that made Nina the most complex and ambivalent figure in a series packed with complex and ambivalent figures, deftly layering levels of doubt as to what her real motivations were, and keeping you guessing without muddying the waters too much. The result is that even as she continued to play Stan for a fool, you could see the toll on her soul as she did so, which is a more than impressive feat. Hopefully the character will continue to get material that’s just as interesting in the third season, assuming she returns…
Alison Tolman – “Fargo”
The most unexpectedly brilliant new series of 2014, “Fargo” should never have worked, and it should never have featured as many brilliant performances as it does. Competing in the miniseries/movie category means that it actually has a chance at picking up some nominations (probably for Billy Bob Thornton, maybe for Martin Freeman too), but we worry that one of the loveliest turns in the series may end up being overlooked. Alison Tolman has, until now, been virtually unknown, plying her trade mostly on stage, but she’s front-and-center on “Fargo,” as Deputy Molly Solverson, the closest thing the series has to a surrogate for the film version’s Marge Gunderson—not that Tolman’s just Xeroxing Frances McDormand‘s Oscar-winning performance. Molly has the same sweetness in the face of evil, the same intrinsic goodness, but it’s a sadder, lonelier turn, even after she finds love with Colin Hanks‘ Gus, the traffic cop who accidentally shot her. Watching her spirit be a little more crushed in the face of the evil (as represented by Thornton’s Malvo and Freeman’s Lester) around her is heartbreaking, and yet it only makes you root for her to catch the bad guys even more. She’s a hugely winning presence, and whether or not she returns for any second season that might come to pass, and whether or not she picks up a nomination, we’ll be seeing a lot more from her.
Laverne Cox – “Orange Is The New Black”
“Orange Is The New Black” is timed slightly curiously for the Emmys: the series has debuted two seasons in the last twelve months, but the second landed on June 3rd, just after the window for eligibility for this year’s ceremony ends, so only season one will be competing. That means that Lorraine Toussaint will have to wait until 2015 to win ALL THE AWARDS for playing Vee, but it’s also a good chance to fight for some of the actors in the show’s tremendous ensemble who got a slightly shorter shrift second time around. To wit: Laverne Cox, who’s become something of a figurehead for the series (being the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine to promote season two), but actually faded somewhat into the background for the most part with the most recent batch of episodes. But one shouldn’t forget how astonishing she was in season one, regardless of the groundbreaking nature of her casting. Cox played Sophia, a transgender inmate who went down for credit card fraud she performed to finance her operation, and the dignity, wisdom and ferocity she brought to the part, especially in the early episode that focused on her character, is emblematic of the compassion and humanity that makes the series so special. As with “Game Of Thrones,” the depth of the series’ ensemble makes it hard for anyone to stand out from the pack, but it’s definitely Cox who lodged herself in our memories.
Jeffrey Wright – “Boardwalk Empire”
“Boardwalk Empire” is that kind of weird show that has all kinds of disconnects in the signal to noise ratio of audience, buzz and awards. Ratings have dipped over its four seasons, but it has still received plenty of awards love. The series has earned forty Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including two for Outstanding Drama Series, and has won seventeen. It’s won a Golden Globe and two SAG awards for best dramatic series ensemble too. And yet, the show is overlooked in the online cultural space that’s been more obsessed with shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Game Of Thrones” and audiences seem to be dwindling too (the show has essentially been given one more season to wrap it up). The individual acting love the show gets from the Emmys has fallen off too, though in part because it’s such a big long, sprawling ensemble. And so many great character actors are doing some of the best work of their lives too. Gretchen Mol in particular has never been better, Michael Pitt’s recent renaissance is directly related to the show, Michael Stuhlbarg is phenomenal and this doesn’t even cover actors like Jack Huston, Stephen Graham, Michael Shannon and Michael K. Williams. But if someone from the cast of season four should get a shout-out from Emmy voters, it’s Jeffrey Wright. The character actor favorite plays Dr. Valentin Narcisse, an educated African-American New York underground figure who soon becomes the bête noire of Chalky White (Williams). Narcisse is a cunning, wicked snake in the grass, using pro-Africa, pro-Negro empowerment axioms to further his own agenda, meanwhile he’s selling heroin to the “lesser valued” members of his own Harlem-based community. Narcisse is essentially a fraud, no greater or less than any of the characters on the show for whom the buck stops with the almighty dollar, but his facade is perhaps the most hypocritical of them all. And as played by Wright, it’s a quiveringly dangerous portrait of power-mongering, greed and haughty arrogance—the kind of character you fear, never trust and want to strangle. Wright is one of those performers who is always good, but on “Boardwalk Empire” he’s absolutely terrific, a commanding presence amongst a cast of titans and deserving of any awards or nominations bestowed upon him. He’s got a longshot for a nomination, but he’d 100% be on our ballot.
Sarah Sutherland – “Veep”
Season three of Armando Iannucci‘s HBO comedy “Veep” saw it go from a good show to a great one, and while the Emmys were already firmly on board, they’re likely to be even more so this year (we’d argue that it actually has a pretty good chance of taking the Comedy prize this year). But there’s at least one performer in the series who stands little to no chance of recognition this time, although she’s been doing beautifully undersung work on the series, and that’s Sarah Sutherland. The daughter of Kiefer and granddaughter of Donald, Sutherland made her acting debut on the first season of the show as Catherine, the daughter of Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ vice president, and Iannucci and co. clearly know what they have, with Sutherland featuring more and more on the series as time has gone on. It’s not as showy as some performances on the series, and she’s to some extent a straight woman, coming in and becoming increasingly horrified by the ineptitude and callousness of both her mother and the people who surround her. But Catherine’s been fleshed out a lot this year, her own flaws and vanities and flirtations drawn out, and Sutherland’s demonstrated that the acting genes of the family aren’t dormant. She’s got near-perfect comic timing, a fascinating screen presence, and the ability to get a laugh just in the background of a scene. We’d nominate almost the whole cast if we could (Matt Walsh and Timothy Simons have been doing particularly great work this time around), but Sutherland’s the one who needs a little extra attention.
Zach Woods – “Silicon Valley”
There was a point earlier in the year where it was possible to see Zach Woods on three different shows on a Sunday night. The actor, who broke out in “In The Loop” before being a regular on “The Office” for the last couple of years of the show, had a recurring role as an NSA employee on “The Good Wife” and played Anna Chlumsky‘s boyfriend on a few “Veep” episodes. But it’s the third show, on which Woods was a regular, that the comic actor did the finest work we’ve seen from him yet — Mike Judge‘s excellent “Silicon Valley.” Woods plays Jared, who’s so impressed by the start-up of Thomas Middleditch‘s Richard that he quits his secure job at Google surrogate Hooli to go and work for it. The most obviously nerdy-looking among a cast of obviously nerdy-looking people (“like someone starved a virgin,” as the character INTRODUCES HIMSELF), he’s also actually the most obviously likable of them. He doesn’t have the ego of T.J. Miller‘s Erlich, or Zuckerbergish tendencies of Richard, and Woods brings a sweetness that hasn’t often been present in his work before. But it’s the sweetness that makes the torments that Judge & co. put him through all the funnier. The script plays on Woods’ gangly gift for physical comedy as he’s tormented by the others, accidentally shipped in a container to an island staffed by robots in the middle of the Pacific, and returns sleep-deprived and basically demented, and Woods is responsible for many of the biggest laughs that the show’s come up with so far. Again, this is a talented cast, and we’d love for it to get multiple nominations (especially a guest actor nod for the late Christopher Evan Welch), but Woods is the pick of the bunch for us.
Lizzy Caplan – “Masters Of Sex”
Like “Orange Is The New Black,” “Masters Of Sex” serves as a promising counterbalance to the male dominance of the prestige cable drama—it’s a show created by and run by a woman, focused predominately on sexuality, and especially female sexuality, and features several top-notch performances from actresses. There’s Caitlin Fitzgerald, who finds unexpected nuance in what could be a rote part as the wife of Michael Sheen‘s character, there’s the always superb Julianne Nicholson, and the legendary, ever-heartbreaking Allison Janney who is absolutely terrific (and is likely to be the series’ best hope for an Emmy in the Guest Actress category, in which she’s very likely to be nominated). But it’s still confounding that the show’s central figure, Lizzy Caplan‘s Virginia, could end up missing out. The actress is best known for her comedy work, and as such might have a way to go before she can crack a set-in-stone field, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s absolutely superb. Even as long-time fans of the star, we were stunned by her work on the show, in which she’s brittle, warm, defiant, smart, vulnerable and magnetic, to the extent that it’s hard to see anything else on screen when she’s there. Everyone is great in the show (which we feel wasn’t talked about as much as it should have been), but it’s hard to imagine it working at all without Caplan.
Terry Crews – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
A surprise win at the Golden Globes helped to put “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the year’s best new network sitcom, on the radars of awards voters who, if the show’s disappointing ratings are anything to go by, might not have been bothering before. As such, it’s a decent bet at making the Best Comedy cut, and leads Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher are strong possibilities for nominations on top of that. But the show has a deep and hugely talented ensemble beyond them who are likely to go overlooked, and that’s a particular shame when it comes to the work of Terry Crews. The former NFL player is probably best known on screen for being one of the “Expendables‘ gang, but he’s long shown that he has serious comedy chops thanks to roles in things like “Idiocracy” and sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris.” But he’s never had a better showcase than in ‘Nine-Nine,’ in which he plays Detective Sergeant Terry Jeffords. A gentle, albeit somewhat terrifying, giant, he’s a man of action who’s recently been suffering from a kind of PTSD after too long in the field, and is now happily behind a desk, and focused on the equally stressful job of being a father to two young daughters. Crews is such perfect casting as a soft-hearted titan that you suspect the role might have been written for him, but that doesn’t stop him from knocking it out of the park, and his mix of sincerity, ferocity and goofiness makes Terry instantly lovable, and the source of some of the show’s best material. Hopefully as the show grows, Emmy voters will start to pay more attention to him.
Tom Mison – “Sleepy Hollow”
Yes, “Sleepy Hollow,” the one about the headless horseman, and Ichabod Crane waking up in present-day America. The one that looked like the most ridiculous thing in the history of television. But what is a piece like this for if not considering odd, left-field possibilities, and while “Sleepy Hollow” as a whole doesn’t deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as most of these shows, it was far better than it had any right to be (particularly as something with the involvement of Kurtzman, Orci AND Len Wiseman), an enormously fun and self-aware piece of escapism, and one acted very, very well by its cast. Nicole Beharie and Orlando Jones are both excellent in the show, but again, it’s one that lived or died by its Ichabod Crane, and with Tom Mison playing him, it very much lived. Mison was a relatively little-known actor before the show began, but at this rate, he’ll be all over the movies during his hiatus. He has a deft line in comic readings, but one that crucially, is done without winking or nodding at the audience, and the laughs come from the character, not from cheapness. And yet there was plenty of steely drama in his heroics as well. Is this a performance to rank alongside Gandolfini and Cranston and co. in the annals of TV drama? Don’t be ridiculous. But this sort of thing is infinitely harder to pull off than it looks, and imagining anyone else other than Mison in the role demonstrates that quite quickly.
Sophie Turner – “Game Of Thrones”
Yeah, if we had our way, the acting nomination for “Game Of Thrones” would just go to ALL OF THEM and given the vastness of the cast, the consistency of excellence in the acting is just remarkable. But it’s that vastness, that sprawling nature, that means it’s often going to struggle to attract Emmy nominations for anyone except Peter Dinklage. Particular standouts across the fourth season have included Charles Dance, Rory McCann (the Hound’s big scene in the finale was spellbinding) and Gwendoline Christie, not to mention Maisie Williams. Instead, we wanted to showcase someone who hasn’t always won over fans, but has been terrific across the most recent run of episodes—Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark. The eldest of the Stark girls attracted fervent hate across the first couple of seasons for her superficiality and blind desire to be a princess (though through no fault of Turner, who’s always been excellent). But her arc, as the scales fall from her eyes and she becomes more pragmatic and learns how to play the game (the only Stark who has, really), has been a real highlight. And this season, as she was finally freed of Joffrey and escaped to the Eyrie, has seen Turner really come into her own. With the character’s naivety stripped away, she’s becoming a survivor, and Turner played her big monologue in Littlefinger’s “trial” like an aria. It would have been unthinkable a season or two ago, but we’re positively champing at the bit to see how that particular storyline develops, and so much of that is to do with the actress (it certainly isn’t anything to do with Aidan Gillen‘s accent, anyway…)
Andy Daly – “Review”
If there’s any show on this list you didn’t watch, it was probably “Review.” It’s entirely possible you didn’t even hear of it. Airing quietly on Comedy Central, it stars comic Andy Daly as Forrest MacNeil, a comedian who, as he says in the intro, is a reviewer, but not of books, movies or food, but of life. Or more accurately, life experiences: the show-within-the-show’s fictional viewers suggest things for Forrest to try out, which can be as seemingly innocuous as “Having A Best Friend” or “Hunting” to more ambitious things, such as “Going To Space.” But the suggestions seem borderline malevolent, and Forrest has to wholeheartedly throw himself into drug addiction, racism and, in the best episode of comedy we saw all year, unwillingly divorcing his wife. Daly’s cheery persona as Forrest gives an immediate comic zing to the premise, but the greatness of the performance only becomes apparent as the show goes on, with the humiliations and disasters taking an increasing toll on MacNeil’s sanity and well-being, and Daly becoming ever more unhinged and broken in the process. Given how terrible some of what he does (or is forced to do) is, it’s an impressive feat that your sympathy is maintained, and even increased, over time, and it really does feel like a tour-de-force for the performer by the time the series wraps up. The show is probably too small and strange to ever get Emmy love, and that’s a huge injustice. Perhaps someone should suggest Forrest reviews “Winning an Emmy” for season two?…
Honorable Mentions: So we should say that some of the thoughts that first occurred to us were ones that, it turns out, are either likely to be nominated (Allison Janney in “Masters Of Sex” and Ellen Burstyn in “Louie” are both tipped by pundits for nods in the Guest Star categories), or ineligible for this year (there are a number of possibilities from “Penny Dreadful,” most notably Eva Green‘s firecracker turn, but a series has to air a certain number of episodes before the May 31st cut-off point).
We’ve named a lot of the other names we’d like nominated above—Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen for “Hannibal,” Noah Emmerich for “The Americans,” Kate Mulgrew and Uzo Aduba for “Orange Is The New Black,” Timothy Simons and Matt Walsh for “Veep,” and Julianne Nicholson for “Masters Of Sex.”
But let’s also take a second to spotlight Alex Karpovsky, who was better than ever in the third season of “Girls,” Michelle Monaghan, doing a lot with an underwritten role in “True Detective” (she might get a nomination yet, but it’s a tough category), Jonathan Groff, very good indeed in “Looking,” Matt Czuchry, who stepped up his game a lot in “The Good Wife,” Tatiana Maslany, who’s still sensational on “Orphan Black,” but who we showcased last year, and “Fargo” actors Oliver Platt and Bob Odenkirk, the latter of whom was so textured and tragic that we’re even more excited about “Better Call Saul” than we were before. Anyone else we missed? Make your own suggestions in the comments below.