It’s a measure of the television medium’s strength that I’ve been fiddling with this unofficial Emmy ballot for days and still managed to snub more worthy candidates than I can count.
In nearly every category, the rather anemic Outstanding TV Movie sextet excepted, what strikes me is the depth and breadth of the art form. With the broadcast networks, basic cable, premium channels, and streaming services all represented, there’s not only a surplus of quality television, but also an array of styles, subjects, tones, and target audiences, from the warm embrace of “Jane the Virgin” (the CW) and the icy satire of “Veep” (HBO) to the operatic pitch of ‘Empire” (FOX) and the contemplative power of “Rectify” (SundanceTV).
I know that, come the TV Academy’s announcement on July 16, I’m likely to be disappointed, and my failure to include series such as “Silicon Valley” (HBO) and “Better Call Saul” (AMC) in several major categories may raise suspicion in some circles. (Feel free to tell me what I got wrong, or what I got right, in the comments section.)
Nonetheless, without the task of predicting the nominees, an Emmy ballot becomes a field of almost infinite possibilities. As the industry prepares to honor yet another tremendous year in television, here are a few of mine, with my preferred winner in each category in bold:
Even with this year’s expansion from six to seven nominees, the competition in Comedy Series is fierce, and that’s excluding strong showings from FX’s “Louie”; ABC’s “Cristela” and “black-ish”; and HBO’s “The Comeback,” “Togetherness,” and Silicon Valley.” With due respect to the finest season of “Veep” (HBO) to date, however, I’d never consider giving the top prize to any series but one of two empathic, funny, extraordinarily moving portraits of LGBT life in present-day California. Independent filmmakers Andrew Haigh and Jill Soloway invest “Looking” (HBO) and “Transparent” (Amazon), respectively, with both gorgeous aesthetic grace notes and their personal histories; to award the former over the latter, by a hair’s breadth, is not to dismiss the fact that both count among the most meaningful viewing experiences of my young career.
It’s been four years since Matthew Weiner’s impeccable depiction of a decade in the “Time & Life” of an advertising agency won the last of four consecutive Emmys, and its stirring, unpredictable final season is certainly worth a fifth. Edging out the bleak force of “The Americans,” the formal brilliance of “The Knick,” and the period pleasures of “Masters of Sex” by combining all of the above, it wasn’t simply the best of the year’s many superb dramas—it is, by my reckoning, one of the finest television series of all time.
I’m an outlier when it comes to the Limited Series race, having been left unmoved by clear favorite “Olive Kitteridge,” but that doesn’t mean the category doesn’t offer several contenders. In addition to the uneven “American Crime,” the underrated “The Casual Vacancy,” and the under-watched “The Missing,” “Wolf Hall” offered an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction as propulsive as her prose, but it’s Sundance’s dense, difficult, secretive thriller “The Honorable Woman” that deserves the top prize, nearly one year after its premiere. Anchored by the edgy, vulnerable Maggie Gyllenhaal, in perhaps the performance of her career, “The Honorable Woman” is a collision of intellect and instinct that defies expectation at every turn.
Outstanding TV Movie
“Big Driver” (Lifetime)
“Bojack Horseman: Sabrina’s Christmas Wish” (Netflix)
“Foyle’s War: Elise, the Final Mystery” (Acorn TV)
“Hello Ladies: The Movie” (HBO)
In a relatively weak field—though “Bojack Horseman,” “Foyle’s War,” and “Nightingale” star David Oyelowo are terrific—”Bessie” wins my vote in a walk. Dee Rees’ biopic of blues legend Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) is overstuffed, perhaps, yet still emerges as one of film and television’s most artful glimpses of black culture and black consciousness in the depths of the Jim Crow era.
Outstanding Variety Talk Series
“The Colbert Report” (Comedy Central)
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (Comedy Central)
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” (Comedy Central)
“No, You Shut Up! (Fusion)
“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (NBC)
Wringing every advantage from his unconstrained, uninterrupted half-hour, Oliver packs each episode with a sublime blend of news, commentary, satire, sketch comedy, and the odd interview, sewn together by his particular brand of jovial fervor. Despite the evolution of “The Nightly Show” and the intermittent vitality of “The Daily Show,” however, Oliver successfully critiques “the news” and outshines its satirists by respecting the value of information better than either. He’s in a class of his own.
Outstanding Reality-Competition Program
“The Amazing Race” (CBS)
“Face Off” (Syfy)
“MasterChef Junior” (FOX)
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” (Logo)
“So You Think You Can Dance” (FOX)
“Top Chef” (Bravo)
It may be that I’m an avid cook, and not an athlete, adventurer, artist, or performer, but for me this category comes down to two series that showcase the talent, and the tortures, behind the best meals. Where the high professionalism of Bravo’s “Top Chef” is aspirational, “MasterChef Junior” contestants’ sincere, unabashed embrace of the task at hand is inspirational—an award-worthy reminder of the pleasures of process, not product.
Outstanding Lead Actor (Comedy)
Anthony Anderson, “black-ish” (ABC)
Louis C.K., “Louie” (FX)
Jonathan Groff, “Looking” (HBO)
Chris Messina, “The Mindy Project” (FOX)
Thomas Middleditch, “Silicon Valley” (HBO)
Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent” (Amazon)
As Maura Pfefferman, a divorced parent of three coming out as trans in sunny Los Angeles, Tambor conjures up such pain, such relief, such ecstasy from a lifetime of not being but wanting to become that it’s almost possible to forget you’re watching television. “People led secret lives, and people led very lonely lives,” Maura tells her eldest, Sarah (Amy Landecker), to this end. “All my life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.” The other performances here deserve recognition, but as far as I’m concerned, Tambor’s the only one in the category.
Outstanding Lead Actor (Drama)
Jon Hamm, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Freddie Highmore, “Bates Motel” (A&E)
Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul” (AMC)
Matthew Rhys, “The Americans” (FX)
Michael Sheen, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
Aden Young, “Rectify” (SundanceTV)
I will admit that this is a sentimental vote, of sorts; in the most recent season of “The Americans,” which finds him torn nearly to shreds by the moral compromises of Cold War espionage, Matthew Rhys, as Philip Jennings, gives a performance of such intensity it becomes almost unbearable. That said, Hamm has been nominated seven consecutive times for the role of Don Draper, only to be defeated by Bryan Cranston (four times), Kyle Chandler, Damian Lewis, and (ugh) Jeff Daniels. If ever there were a time for the “body of work” Emmy, the end of “Mad Men” is surely it.
Outstanding Lead Actor (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Timothy Hutton, “American Crime” (ABC)
Richard Jenkins, “Olive Kitteridge” (HBO)
Michael Kitchen, “Foyle’s War: Elise, the Final Mystery” (Acorn TV)
James Nesbitt, “The Missing” (Starz)
David Oyelowo, “Nightingale” (HBO)
Mark Rylance, “Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Played by Rylance with subtle cunning, Thomas Cromwell registers as a Tudor Frank Underwood without the taste for theatrics, a man of humble beginnings, spotty past, and deceptively placid manner. By comparison, the fireworks of several other performances in this category, though no less powerful, come across as uncontrolled—Cromwell is the creation of an actor, in other words, who need not raise his voice to command your attention, and that’s a rare skill indeed.
Outstanding Lead Actress (Comedy)
Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Lisa Kudrow, “The Comeback” (HBO)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep” (HBO)
Gina Rodriguez, “Jane the Virgin” (The CW)
Kristen Schaal, “The Last Man on Earth” (FOX)
Amy Schumer, “Inside Amy Schumer” (Comedy Central)
Nine years after its debut season, “The Comeback” returned late last year as scarily funny as ever, deploying Kudrow’s keen intelligence to test the far reaches of Valerie Cherish’s tolerance for humiliation and disappointment. In the season finale, “Valerie Faces Her Critics”—a surprisingly warm-heated portrait of loyalty in a pitiless system—Kudrow’s assumed another layer of complexity, however, and in the process emerged as the comic performance of the century so far, male or female. I almost hope the series ends there, so I can always remember it just like that.
Outstanding Lead Actress (Drama)
Gillian Anderson, “The Fall” (Netflix)
Lizzy Caplan, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
Taraji P. Henson, “Empire” (FOX)
Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black” (BBC America)
Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Keri Russell, “The Americans” (FX)
The Best Actress (Drama) race once again turned out to be the most ruthless—I cut fully 10 names from my shortlist to arrive at the final six. The nominees, then, must offer out-of-this-world performances even to compete, which makes it hard to admit the truth: as much as the other nominees, most especially Moss, deserve attention for their fearless, iconic performances, the most vital player here is clearly Henson. Without her Cookie Lyon, “Empire” is a run-of-the-mill primetime soap; with her, it’s a roller coaster of emotional excitement, a gleeful, high-camp treat, and the most popular show on television. Now that’s what you call a star turn.
Outstanding Lead Actress (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Maggie Gyllenhaal “The Honorable Woman” (SundanceTV)
Felicity Huffman, “American Crime” (ABC)
Jessica Lange, “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
Queen Latifah, “Bessie” (HBO)
Frances McDormand, “Olive Kitteridge” (HBO)
Frances O’Connor, “The Missing” (Starz)
Even though “Olive Kitterirdge” left me unmoved, McDormand, the likely winner, is superb as a curmudgeonly title character; Latifah grows into the demanding role of Bessie Smith, and Huffman illuminates the consequences of a mother’s vengeance with a gratifyingly audacious turn. It’s Gyllenhaal, though, as immaculate as that close-cropped hair, who transforms the raw materials into the headiest brew; with the arch of her back or strain of her voice, she manages to transform Anglo-Israeli businesswoman Nessa Stein from power broker to fragile figure and back again.
Outstanding Supporting Actor (Comedy)
Fred Armisen, “Portlandia” (IFC)
Tituss Burgess, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Daniel Franzese, “Looking” (HBO)
Tony Hale, “Veep” (HBO)
Kyle Mooney, “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)
Zach Woods, “Silicon Valley” (HBO)
This category amounts to a battle of the MVPs in strong ensemble casts, including Zach Woods as a starchy, inadvertently hilarious tech executive and Kyle Mooney as the bone dry, off-kilter prankster of NBC’s stalwart variety show, but it’s Burgess who most forcefully expresses his series central theme—in his case, that the catastrophes that befall us are not the end of the world. As the titular heroine’s roommate, Titus, a gay black man with dreams of stardom, Burgess stumbles again and again into the indignities of showbiz, only to dust himself off once more. With his triumphantly campy music video for “Peeno Noir,” like the blooper-filled viral video he inspires near the end of the season, Burgess approaches a level of prominence of which his character could only dream: cultural sensation.
Outstanding Supporting Actor (Drama)
Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Christopher Eccleston, “The Leftovers” (HBO)
Noah Emmerich, “The Americans” (FX)
Walton Goggins, “Justified” (FX)
André Holland, “The Knick” (Cinemax)
John Slattery, “Mad Men” (AMC)
By turns virulent racist and unapologetic anti-Semite, god-fearing preacher and anti-meth vigilante, crime kingpin, old friend, new lover, and unsparing accomplice, Boyd Crowder has long been the emblem of “Justified”‘s laudable discomfort with easy answers, and Goggins, nominated for the role in 2011, finally deserves recognition for his slimy, terse performance. Then again, all six of the actors in this category play complex, stunted products of their damaged societies, and any one of them winning would be a victory for us all.
Outstanding Supporting Actor (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Andrew Buchan, “The Honorable Woman” (Sundance TV)
Damian Lewis, “Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Michael Gambon, “The Casual Vacancy” (HBO)
James Nesbitt, “Babylon” (SundanceTV)
Jonathan Pryce, “Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Cory Michael Smith, “Olive Kitteridge” (HBO)
In HBO’s provocative adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel, Gambon’s Conservative parish council chairman, Howard Mollison, sports an ornate necklace to a funeral as he plots to “raise the drawbridge” against outsiders of all kinds. With echoes of his embittered patriarch in “Gosford Park,” Gambon’s is the most the substantial role here—save, perhaps, the somewhat disappointing Lewis—but in the end he wins my vote for conjuring up the potent, tragicomic parable of HBO’s miniseries by working seamlessly across two emotional palettes: satire and suffering.
Outstanding Supporting Actress (Comedy)
Carrie Brownstein, “Portlandia” (IFC)
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep” (HBO)
Jane Krakowski, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Melanie Lynskey, “Togetherness” (HBO)
Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)
Lauren Weedman, “Looking” (HBO)
Supporting Actress (Comedy) runs the gamut. There are the comic chameleons, Brownstein and McKinnon, the latter’s most brilliant impression underlining the vulnerability in Hilary Clinton’s desperate ambition. There are the understated, even devastating, Lynskey and Weedman, traipsing the line between comedy and drama. There’s Krakowski’s madcap fearlessness. And then there’s this. ‘Nuff said.
Outstanding Supporting Actress (Drama)
Christine Baranski, “The Good Wife” (CBS)
Carrie Coon, “The Leftovers” (HBO)
Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men” (AMC)
January Jones, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Lorraine Toussaint, “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
Alison Wright, “The Americans” (FX)
In “Guest,” as suburban wife and mother Nora Durst, Carrie Coon is simply astounding, evolving before our eyes from a supporting character into the stricken emblem of the series’ title. With humor, romance, rage, and sorrow, she conveys every color in a kaleidoscopic portrait of grief, a performance so impressive that the episode singlehandedly earns Coon my vote over wickedly stiff competition—particularly the underrated January Jones, as the dying Betty Draper, and the unsung Alison Wright, as unsuspecting Soviet collaborator Martha Hanson.
Outstanding Supporting Actress (Limited Series/TV Movie)
Claire Foy, “Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Regina King, “American Crime” (ABC)
Abigail Lawrie, “The Casual Vacancy” (HBO)
Janet McTeer, “The Honorable Woman” (SundanceTV)
Mo’Nique, “Bessie” (HBO)
Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
What might otherwise be a close race for my affections among Foy, Lawrie, and Paulson is, thanks to Mo’Nique’s transfixing performance as Ma Rainey, no race at all. When “Bessie” premiered last month, I wrote an entire column on why Mo’Nique deserves the Emmy, and I stand by every word.
Outstanding Host (Reality/Reality-Competition)
Anthony Bourdain, “The Taste” (ABC)
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, “Project Runway” (Lifetime)
Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, “Top Chef” (Bravo)
Gordon Ramsay, “MasterChef Junior” (FOX)
RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (Logo)
McKenzie Westmore, “Face Off” (Syfy)
To be frank, I try to maintain a principled resistance to the inclusion of this category in the Primetime Emmys when nonfiction programs, variety sketch series, and the crafts are left out of the main telecast. If I have to vote, I’ll go with RuPaul, who does more work to create the distinctive atmosphere of a reality show on “Drag Race” than any host since Jeff Probst first uttered “The tribe has spoken.”
Outstanding Directing (Comedy)
Richard Shepard, “Girls” (HBO) — “Sit-In”
Matt Shakman, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (FX) — “Charlie Work”
Phil Lord and Christopher Miler, “The Last Man on Earth” (FOX) — “Alive in Tucson”
Andrew Haigh, “Looking” (HBO) — “Looking for a Plot”
Jill Soloway, “Transparent” (Amazon) — “Best New Girl”
Armando Iannucci, “Veep” (HBO) —”Testimony”
Lord and Miller’s “Last Man on Earth” pilot, Shepard’s midseason “Girls” standout, and Iannucci’s dramatic “Veep” departure would seem to be the sexier selections in this category. All are assertively directed, sharply drawn half hours, and yet it’s the other three episodes’ subtler charms that strike me as most worthy of attention. In particular, though I might have submitted Haigh’s breathtaking season-two finale, “Looking for a Plot” similarly suggests the power of the director’s delicate, rumpled aesthetic to cause riptides of emotion, humor, and identification in the viewer.
Outstanding Directing (Drama)
Daniel Sackheim, “The Americans” (FX) — “March 8, 1983”
Lee Daniels, “Empire” (FOX) — “Pilot”
Dan Attias, “Homeland” (Showtime) — “13 Hours in Islamabad”
Steven Soderbergh, “The Knick” (Cinemax) — “Method and Madness”
Matthew Weiner, “Mad Men” (AMC) — “Person to Person”
Michael Apted, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime) — “Fight”
It’s fascinating to think that an Emmy category might include three directors (Daniels, Soderbergh, and Apted) whose primary experience has been in the more “highbrow” realm of the cinema, and yet none of whom crafted as ambitious, exciting, or wrenching an episode as the three who cut their teeth in television. Though I adored the season finale of “The Americans,” and watched in awe as “13 Hours in Islamabad” almost singlehandedly returned “Homeland” to form, “Person to Person” was a great, bold stab at “sticking the landing,” so to speak, and even where it felt off-kilter it seemed about as close as TV comes to high art.
Outstanding Directing (Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special)
Ryan Murphy, “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX) — “Monsters Among Us”
Dee Rees, “Bessie” (HBO)
Hugo Blick, “The Honorable Woman” (SundanceTV)
Tom Shankland, “The Missing” (Starz)
Lisa Cholodenko, “Olive Kitteridge” (HBO)
Peter Kominsky, “Wolf Hall” (PBS)
This category is a tough call. Alongside solid work by Blick, Shankland, and Cholodenko, Kominsky’s direction animates the dexterous literary adaptation, and Rees’ stylish rendering of black political thought is one of the highlights of HBO’s film. But even if “AHS: Freak Show” slipped as the season wore on, “Monsters Among Us,” the season premiere, showcased Murphy’s high-velocity pastiche at its best. Filtering the moral revulsion of Tod Browning through the prism of Douglas Sirk, the episode culminates in an anachronistic, glittering homage to David Bowie, including a batshit star turn by Jessica Lange that I could scarcely imagine anywhere else on television. It’s anything but monstrous: it has soul.
Outstanding Directing (Variety Series)
James Hoskinson, “The Colbert Report” (Comedy Central) — “Episode 11040” (Series Finale)
Amy Schumer and Ryan McFaul, “Inside Amy Schumer” (Comedy Central) — “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”
Jim Hoskinson, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO) — “Episode 204” (Paid Family Leave)
Nathan Fielder, “Nathan for You” (Comedy Central) — “Dumb Starbucks”
André Allen, “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” (Comedy Central) — “Episode 1049” (Baltimore)
Steve Buscemi, “Portlandia” (IFC) — “House for Sale”
In perhaps the best single television episode of the year so far, Schumer and McFaul re-imagine Sidney Lumet’s enduring classic as an indictment of popular culture’s gendered double standards, but the most dazzling thing about it is how well it apes the film’s style. It’s not even close.
Outstanding Writing (Comedy)
“Broad City” (Comedy Central) — “Knockoffs”
“Girls” (HBO) — “Sit-In”
“Last Man on Earth” (FOX) — “Alive in Tucson”
“Looking” (HBO) — “Looking for a Plot”
“Transparent” (Amazon) — “Pilot”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix) — “Kimmy Goes Outside!”
“Sit-In” snatched back my flagging interest in “Girls” by stripping away all the narrative detritus of this season’s excursion to Iowa and reviving the vein of honest emotion that has defined the series at its best. As Hannah (Lena Dunham) hides in her former bedroom, attempting to process the end of her relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), her friends come one by one to coax her out, and each conversation—funny, combative, rambling, loving—suggests the balance of stasis and change that defines the transition between entering your twenties and nearing their end.
Outstanding Writing (Drama)
“The Americans” (FX) — “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”
“The Good Wife” (CBS) — “The Deconstruction”
“Homeland” (Showtime) — “There’s Something Else Going On”
“The Leftovers” (HBO) — “Guest”
“Mad Men” (AMC) — “Person to Person”
“Masters of Sex” (Showtime) — “Fight”
Like “Sit-In,” many of the entries on this list constitute “bubble episodes,” and to that end I may marginally prefer the tense, controlled action of “Guest” and “Fight” to the slightly more expansive—if no less impressive—developments of “The Deconstruction,” “There’s Something Else Going On,” and “Person to Person.” With “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” anchored by Keri Russell and the legendary Lois Smith, “The Americans” weaves together its primary influences, the spy thriller and the family drama, into a searing whole. The destruction wrought over the course of this terrifying hour is so raw, so intimate, you may never see the characters the same way ever again.
Outstanding Writing (Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special)
“American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX) — “Monsters Among Us”
“The Honorable Woman” (SundanceTV)
“The Missing” (Starz)
“Olive Kitteridge” (HBO)
“Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” are at once exhilarating and unforgiving sources for an adaptation—their gutsy and efficient, but that means there’s no room for error. Streamlining the narrative without losing Mantel’s staccato rhythms and finely constructed historical realism, “Wolf Hall” bests “Olive Kitteridge” and “The Honorable Woman” here by embracing the dynamism of the present to examine the events of the past.
Outstanding Writing (Variety Series)
“Comedy Bang! Bang!” (IFC)
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (Comedy Central)
“Inside Amy Schumer” (Comedy Central)
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” (Comedy Central)
With its outrageously funny and endlessly inventive third season nearing an end, “Inside Amy Schumer” nearly surpassed “Last Week Tonight” in this category. And then I remembered that Oliver, for more than a year now, has bested his fellow satirists by tackling broadcast journalism on its own terms rather than simply poking fun at its excesses. The design of “Last Week Tonight” is as much “HBO Weekly News” as “The Weekly Show,” combining and modifying elements of TV news and its most popular parodies to stake out fresh territory for both. If you’re at all interested in the future of either, “Last Week Tonight” is essential viewing.
The first round of Emmy voting closes Friday, June 26. Uzo Aduba and John Stamos will announce the nominees live on Thursday, July 16 at 11:30am. Winners will be announced at the 67th Emmy Awards, Sunday, Sept. 20 at 8pm on FOX.