In a little over a week, we’ll be finding out who’ll be picking up nominations for this year’s Emmy Awards, the biggest celebration of achievement in television. Emmy votes like the familiar, and once a show is in the club, it’ll mostly continue to pick up the same nods every year, regardless of quality.
Now more than ever in this golden age of television, this means that there will be an enormous amount of talented performers who will be overlooked (you may recall that “The Wire,” arguably the greatest show in the history of the medium, got two Emmy nominations during its five season run, both for writing), and that will likely continue to be the case. So as we look ahead to next week’s announcement, we’ve picked out twenty phenomenal performances that are very, very unlikely to pick up nods but are just as deserving of being highlighted. Take a look below, and let us know who’d be on your ballot in the comments.
Constance Wu – “Fresh Off The Boat”
Along with “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off The Boat” has given a new lease on life to the traditional family sitcom, a format briefly reinvigorated by “Modern Family” before it descended into shrill sameness. Based on the memoir by hip chef Eddie Huang, the show follows a Taiwanese family who moves to Florida to open a steak restaurant in the mid 1990s, ‘Fresh’ proves so engaging in part because of its specificity and in part because of a terrific ensemble, with some excellent child actors and strong work by “The Interview” star Randall Park as Huang’s dad. But the standout by far is Constance Wu, a relative unknown who absolutely kills as Eddie’s mother Jessica. Heavily accented and brushing against tiger mom stereotypes without ever entirely embodying them, Wu displays an impeccable sense of comic timing belying her relative lack of experience in the genre. But she also carries much of the show’s pathos as a woman struggling to fit in in an alien culture and whose values differ entirely from her children, yet she’s more adept at fitting in and has a well-hidden soft side. “Fresh Off The Boat” isn’t a great sitcom yet, but it comes close every time Wu is on screen.
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Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer – “Broad City”
The cult comedy for millenials, bringing a stoner silliness to the twentysomethings-in-New-York sub-genre, “Broad City” had a strong first season and an even better second season, which confirms that the show’s co-creators and stars Jacobson and Glazer deserve award recognition as much as anyone in the business (and probably more than most of those who’ll end up being nominated). But it would be impossible to honor one and not the other —a shared nod would be the only way to go. The second season saw the girls face a heatwave, have their wisdom teeth removed, face the FOMO, sleep with a doppelganger, go to a dog wedding and turn 23, and Jacobson and Glazer have become more and more confident and more beautifully unhinged as performers with every episode. Glazer’s probably the more immediately noticeable —her Ilana is unchained id. But this isn’t a clear-cut funny woman/straight woman dynamic, and Jacobson, while more subtle, is just as capable of brilliance and debauchery. But of course, it’s their perfect chemistry that makes the show what it is: unlike so many other similar shows, they actually feel like BFFs. Long may it continue.
Aya Cash – “You’re The Worst”
We’ve been singing the praises of “You’re The Worst,” Stephen Falk’s brilliant anti-but-also-actually-still-a-rom-com, for close to a year now, and it somehow doesn’t get boring. This is down to the sharp writing and the show’s giant, barbed-wire-covered heart, but it’s also in large part because of the core cast mostly made up of newcomers, but all of whom pretty much kill it. All four of the central quartet are worthy of nomination, but if we had to pick one, it’d be Cash as Gretchen, one half (with the also terrific Chris Geere) of the toxic, star-crossed couple the show focuses on. Best known before the show for a small role in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” Cash plays a character unlike few others in TV comedy: selfish, self-obsessed, troubled, messy, acerbic, cynical, self-destructive and intimacy-phobic young woman who is nevertheless as deserving of love as anyone else. She visibly relishes playing the ‘worst’ aspects of the character, but nevertheless creates someone who’s capable of moving you right from the off, and along with Geere, she’s worth rooting for despite tremendous flaws.
Melanie Lynskey – “Togetherness”
It was only a matter of time before Lynskey, an indisputably great, undervalued character actresses, found a TV vehicle deserving of her talents (or at least more deserving than her recurring role on “Two And A Half Men” back in the day). And it arrived in “Togetherness,” the Duplass Brothers’ top-notch HBO comedy-drama. Attempting to examine the realities of marriage are a common TV trope (“Married” did the same in the past year to lesser effect), but thanks to the quiet observation of the filmmakers’ style, “Togetherness” succeeds with flying colors. Among a terrific cast (a revelatory Amanda Peet came close to taking this slot), Lynskey is the stand-out, using everything we’ve loved about her film work in the past: the vulnerablity, the occasional spikiness and weariness, the fearlessness. With Mark Duplass, who plays husband Brett to her Michelle, they play one of the most complete portraits of a marriage we can remember on TV (including the rare and very awkward HBO sex scene): they love one another but are also somehow out of sync, and watching Lynskey reconnect with herself through her flirtation with John Ortiz’s fellow parent was one of the great bits of acting in any medium this year.
Amy Landecker – “Transparent”
Every actor is stellar on “Transparent,’ and Jeffrey Tambor is a lock to pick up a nomination and the favorite to win for his central performance as the transgender parent of the title (his on-screen ex-spouse Judith Light may well pick up a nod too). But it would be a shame if it was only the older generation who receive nominations, because “Transparent” is the kind of series where every time an actor appears, you think to yourself, “oh, they’re the best one in it,” and then change your mind the next time another performer speaks. The one we kept coming back to was Landecker, who plays Sarah, the eldest of the Pfefferman children who breaks away from her marriage in order to renew a relationship with a woman she had an affair with in college, in part inspired by her father’s revelation. A veteran stage actress best known onscreen for the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” Landecker’s should be lauded for a precise, detailed turn as a woman more immediately accepting of Maura than her siblings, but still caught up in her own selfishness. It’s a moving and sometimes deeply funny turn that, like every performance on the show, is also incredibly human.
Melissa Fumero – “Brooklyn Nine Nine”
The second season of “Brooklyn Nine Nine” isn’t quite as strong as the first —there have been some storytelling dead-ends, some repetitiveness and some unevenness. But it’s still a very good workplace sitcom, a fine successor to “The Office” and “Parks & Rec,” and like those shows has a deep bench of comic talent. Andre Braugher is nomination-bound, and we wrote about the brilliance of Terry Crews in this equivalent piece last year, but it’s Fumero who gets our endorsement this year. An actress who’d principally worked in the daytime soap world, she’s been an absolute revelation from the earliest stages of the show as Detective Amy Santiago, the foil to Andy Samberg’s nominal lead. Initially blandly written, the show soon seemed to realize what it had in Fumero, and Santiago turned into the show’s secret weapon —a brown-nosing, adorably nerdy try-hard, like Hermione Granger if she was in the NYPD, who is also really good at pratfalls. Fumero’s seemingly game for anything (in particular: looking ridiculous), and her and Samberg possess the rarest quality for a show like this: actual chemistry that makes their will-they-won’t-they a boon rather than an albatross.
Kevin Dunn – “Veep”
Like so many of these shows, “Veep” is spoilt for choice when it comes to comedy talent, and we could have gone with half-a-dozen cast members here (special shout-out to Sam Richardson, a new regular this season who makes us laugh with almost everything he does). Our favorite in season four and a great addition to the show is Kevin Dunn, as chief-of-staff Ben Cafferty. A veteran character actor (likely best known as Shia LaBoeuf’s dad in the “Transformers” movies or as the police chief in “True Detective”), Dunn’s had one of his best ever roles in Armando Iannucci’s show as the impossibly hangdog Cafferty, a man who’s had the best years of his years taken by the Washington machine and now seems to live entirely off coffee. Dunn would be easy to underestimate, but he does a beautiful job at showing the fierce operator lying underneath the wreckage of a career, and his genuinely warm (though sometimes rocky) relationship with Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ now-President gives some heart to a show that sometimes feels a little too cynical. Unimaginative Emmy voters will keep nominating Tony Hale as long as the show’s on air, and no disrespect to the “Arrested Development” star, but we’d love to see Dunn get a turn this time.
Keegan Michael-Key & Jordan Peele – “Key & Peele”
It’s rare but not unheard of for sketch comedians to end up with Emmy nominations in supporting categories —Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Kate McKinnon have managed the feat for “SNL” in recent years, and Fred Armisen did the same for “Portlandia.” It’s unlikely that anyone as such will follow in their footsteps this year, which is a huge shame given that Comedy Central have been reinvigorating the genre of late. The current season of “Inside Amy Schumer” isn’t, we believe, Emmy eligible (voters would be considering the not-quite-as-great second season), so it would great to see the network’s other culture-impacting series “Key & Peele” get the nod. Soon to enter its fifth season (tonight, in fact), it’s elevated Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from their status as comedy’s best-kept secrets to something like household names (Key played his anger translator character Luther on stage with President Obama), and the pair have continued to showcase that they’re mightily diverse performers, and with a deceptively weird, specific sense of humor that skewers big issues without feeling like polemic. The show’s rumored to be winding up, so the Emmys only have a few more chances to honor it, and should take them while they’re here.
Keri Russell – “The Americans”
It’s remarkable that FX have stuck with “The Americans” for this long — a fourth season will air next year. Across three seasons, it’s never been highly rated (averaging about a third of the viewers that watched the premiere), and depressingly, it’s struggled to break into the difficult-to-crack Emmy circle. Fortunately, it’s a critical darling that the network love, and so we got a third season that was even more beautifully written and performed than ever, while finding dark new places to take their characters. We’ve highlighted breakout Annet Mahendru in the past, and the show in general has been revelatory for most of its performers, but for none more so than Keri Russell. The actress has long struggled to escape the shadow of Felicity, but that’s no longer a problem for anyone who’s seen the Cold War-era espionage drama, in which she and Matthew Rhys play Soviet spies in deep cover in Washington. Russell’s been tremendous from the off, and this spring’s third season gave her the best material to date, building up her relationship with her daughter (the equally good Holly Taylor, the rare non-annoying prestige-cable-drama teenager), and testing her devotion to her home nation more than ever before.
Eva Green – ‘Penny Dreadful”
In one of those oddities of eligibility, Emmy voters are only now considering the first season of John Logan’s enjoyably batshit horror mash-up “Penny Dreadful,” just as the second season wrapped up. Both seasons have been a blast in a guilty-pleasure kind of way, in part thanks to the strong cast, with Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear and (in recent episodes in particular) Billie Piper all doing excellent work. But if there’s a single reason to watch the show, it’s, of course, Eva Green. The French actress is invariably the best thing in whatever she’s in, and has a doozy of a character as Vanessa Ives, a troubled, mysterious young woman with a destiny to dance with the devil. Television can be a medium for great, subtle acting, as many of the examples on this list demonstrate, and Green is absolutely capable of that — part of the show’s appeal is a relatively grounded, low-key approach to big operatic horror. But when she goes big, as she often does (the possession episode of season one being an absolute highlight), there are few who can match her, and you pity the other actors in the show for having to share a frame with her, because you’re not going to be watching them.
Mackenzie Davis – “Halt & Catch Fire”
Another show that falls between the eligibility cracks is “Halt & Catch Fire,” which has gone through a remarkable and fascinating transition in the last year, and one that speaks to the changing face of cable drama. The first season (which the TV Academy can vote for this time) almost reached a level of self-parody when it came to its devotion to the white-male-anti-hero cable drama archetype, but in its currently-airing second-season has reinvented itself by focusing on the female characters (and made the male leads more interesting as a result). Perhaps that was the plan all along, but one suspects it’s a reaction to having two tremendous actors on board, and in particular s1 standout Mackenzie Davis. The young actress, who broke out in “Breathe In” and will soon be appearing in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” plays Cameron, a young coding genius who could so easily have been some kind of girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo cliche, but Davis makes her a real person rather than a nerd lust object, even when the writing wasn’t serving as well as it is at present. She’s an eminently watchable and surprising actor, and though it’s unlikely the Emmys recognize her this year, we hope voters have an eye on her and co-star Kerry Bishé (who’s been fantastic this year) next time around.
Carrie Coon – “The Leftovers”
We’re already on record as saying that Carrie Coon should have got an Oscar nomination this year: the actress, best known until recently for theater work, was the standout in a great cast in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” bringing some heart and soul to the picture as Ben Affleck’s sister. As such, it seems chronically unfair that she makes this list as well, because she was just as good on “The Leftovers,” and will end up similarly overlooked. Damon Lindelof’s unique, desperately sad HBO show sees Coon play Nora, a woman who lost her entire family in the ‘departure,’ and has taken to carrying a gun around, and begins an affair with Justin Theroux’s Kevin. The series was principally an examination of grief, and Coon served it better than most as a woman who’s not quite reacting how society wants her to, march-stepping through life and no longer engaging with it. Her showcase episode, the terrific “Guest,” at the midpoint of the show, proved to be something of a masterclass in fleshing out a character into something distinctive and entirely fascinating. The show’s changing locations and much of the cast, but Coon will reportedly be sticking around, and that’s the best news we could have hoped for about season two.
Lorraine Toussaint – “Orange Is The New Black”
Again, this year’s eligible season of “Orange Is The New Black” is the second, rather than the recently-added-to-Netflix third. It might be confusing, but there’s one major advantage, as it means that it gives a chance to honor the astonishing Lorraine Toussaint, probably the best thing about the second outing of Jenji Kohan’s brilliant prison drama. It’s too easy for a show to shift into villain-of-the-season structure (see “Dexter,” even “Justified”), but “Orange Is The New Black” has resisted that, in part because finding a bad guy as towering and complex as Toussaint’s Vee, a tough drug dealer with relationships with several Litchfield inmates, including Taystee, to whom she was something of a maternal figure, and Red, who she had decidedly… not. Charismatic, manipulative and machiavellian, but always human (letting her be sexual in the way that an analogous male character would be is just one of the quiet revolutions of the show), it’s a phenomenal showcase for an actress who’s long deserved some time in the spotlight, and thanks to this, and her work with Ava DuVernay on “Middle Of Nowhere” and “Selma,” is finally getting it. As good as “Orange Is The New Black” season three was, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t miss Vee a little bit.
Ben Mendelsohn – “Bloodline”
Playlist staff are divided on Netflix’s “Bloodline” — some were absorbed by the meticulously-unfolding character drama, some found it kind of a slog. But we’re all agreed on one thing: it’s extremely well-acted, not least by the extraordinary Ben Mendelsohn. The Australian actor’s been quietly killing it since he was exposed to U.S. audiences in “Animal Kingdom,” and is invariably the best thing in whatever he’s in, but he’s rarely had a character with as much meat on the bones as Danny Rayburn, the oldest, estranged son of a well-to-do Florida family with their share of secrets. Danny’s return is the catalyst for all the drama in the series, and Mendelsohn’s as magnetic as you’d need a character like that to be. He’s mercurial, untrustworthy and unreliable, but what you get in the actor’s hands more than anything is the desperate sadness of a little boy who’s been rejected by those he shares blood with, for something that’s come from little fault of his own. All the actors are good (Kyle Chandler and Linda Cardellini in particular), but Mendelsohn is the single biggest and most compelling reason to watch it.
Michael McKean – “Better Call Saul”
There’s something particularly fascinating about when an actor best known for comedy gets to flex some dramatic muscles, and though Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, holdovers from “Breaking Bad” and likely Emmy nominees, were the expected pleasures of “Better Call Saul,” the unexpected joy came from Michael McKean. Though he’s long done more serious work on stage and has occasionally ventured into drama (an “X-Files” episode, among others), McKean’s best-known for his comedic collaborations with Christopher Guest, which made his brilliantly subtle, enormously powerful turn as Chuck McGill, beloved older brother of Odenkirk’s man-who-would-be Saul, so unexpected. Though the show was arguably lighter than ‘Bad,’ little of that came from Chuck, a deeply tragic figure whose career has suddenly been crippled by probably-psychosomatic electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and McKean beautifully drew a portrait of a near-genius trapped by his own mind. And then was equally powerful as Chuck starts to shake off his illness, and reveals his contempt, and in a strange way his fear, of his younger brother, who has sacrificed so much for him and yet he believes to be under the law. McKean’s chances of recognition in a tough field are slim, but we’re certainly rooting for him.
André Holland – “The Knick”
Much of the attention that “The Knick” drew was from a technical perspective, and little wonder, given that it looked and sounded, thanks to Steven Soderbergh and Cliff Martinez, better than almost anything on TV. But it had a tremendous cast too — Eve Hewson is destined for next-big-thing ingenue status; Cara Seymour is genius as the abortionist nun Sister Harriet, especially sparring with Chris Sullivan’s boorish ambulanceman; Juliet Rylance is similarly excellent as the patrician liberal Cornelia and of course the show offers established star Clive Owen his best role ever. But the real breakthrough for us was André Holland (like Toussaint, also highly impressive in “Selma” in the last year), as the brilliant, entirely undervalued African-American surgeon Algernon Edwards. As troubled and conflicted as Owen’s Thack, but with his own exterior demons to battle too — stomach-churning racism, love that must be kept secret and peers and patients alike who regard him as a liability, no matter his surgical talents — Holland’s character was an entirely original character, and perfectly executed, never making him into a martyr, and with a generosity and detail that marks every great actor. Let’s hope that he’s in everything from now on.
Richard Dormer & Stanley Tucci – “Fortitude”
Pivot’s little-seen, but hugely enjoyable murder mystery, which melded a Scandi-noir setting with “Twin Peaks” weirdness and even “Hannibal”-ish horror, had a deep bench of great actors involved, to the extent that they could kill off one of the best-known at the end of the first episode and you somehow didn’t miss him. The honors here could have gone to a number of performers in the show — Sofie Gråbøl, Nicholas PInnock, Jessica Gunning, Michael Gambon — but in the end it was split, between the biggest star it had, and a relative unknown. Stanley Tucci, in his first cable drama of the new age, was a sly, mercurial presence as a detective in the Arctic wilderness, a sore-thumb as much for his American accent as for his job with the British police. Meanwhile, Richard Dormer (best known as Benric Dondarrion in “Game Of Thrones”) was his Norwegian counterpart, Sheriff Dan Andersen, complete with a wonderfully convincing accent, and a real sense of sadness and instability behind him. The pair were at odds more often than they were on the same page, but when they got to play together, “Fortitude” was at its very best.
Brit Marling – “Babylon”
Like “Fortitude,” another Brit import airing on a small channel in the U.S. (in this case, Sundance), “Babylon” got most of its attention for having a pilot helmed by Danny Boyle, but proved to have much more to it beyond that, not least a selection of tremendous British acting talent with some atypically meaty roles to dig into. James Nesbitt, Bertie Carvel, Nicola Walker, Paterson Joseph and Adam Deacon all did strong work, but our fave was actually an imported American, in the shape of Sundance queen Brit Marling. The “Sound Of My Voice” star is a fascinating presence, but can sometimes sit uneasily in the wrong role. Here, though, she’s excellent as a slick American PR type brought in by London’s Metropolitan Police to help rebuild their image. As with Tucci on “Fortitude,” Marling’s innately alien qualities work well as the sole American in a sea of Brits, but she quickly proves as adept as any of them at the politicking and backbiting, and her clashes with Carvel’s rival Finn proved to be some of the highlights of the show. It’s still unknown if “Babylon” will be returning for a second run, but if not, Marling and regular collaborator Zal Batmanglij have a Netflix series coming next year, which will hopefully give her a better run at awards recognition.
Vincent D’Onofrio – “Daredevil”
As with the Oscars, the chances of a superhero show picking up much more than technical awards at the Emmys are minimal, and in most cases, we’d say that’s fine. But it’s a shame that a performance as weird and fiercely enjoyable as Vincent D’Onofrio in “Daredevil” will be overlooked, as there was as much depth to his comic-book supervillain as to many characters in more prestigious shows. Now freed from his long service in “Law & Order,” D’Onofrio takes up the hefty mantle of Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin, a self-made man who’s been quietly assembling a criminal empire in Hell’s Kitchen, and who clashes with Charlie Cox’s titular hero. A little of the actor’s Brando-ish showiness can sometimes go a long way (see: “Jurassic World”), but he was eminently and entirely watchable as Fisk, his quiet, even faltering line readings belying the fury of the giant man underneath, his genuine romanticism never excusing the psychotic violence. Like the best villains, he genuinely believed he was doing the right things, and like the best villains, he was scary as fuck. It’s unclear, with Elektra and The Punisher arriving next time around, if D’Onofrio will be sticking around on the show, but given that many suggested that the show should have been called “Kingpin” instead, one can only hope so.
Walton Goggins – “Justified”
Given how hard it is to break into the club, it should probably be seen as a triumph that Walton Goggins managed to get an Emmy nod for “Justified” back in 2011. But given the brilliance of the performance, it’s sort of outrageous that he doesn’t have four others, and isn’t about to get a fifth, for playing Boyd Crowder on the now-wrapped-up FX Elmore Leonard drama. Famously, Goggins was only meant to be appearing on the pilot of the show, until the showrunners saw what they had in him and decided to make him an integral part of the show, and with little wonder: Goggins’ enormously charismatic, slyly funny, snake-like redneck crime lord was just as compelling as Timothy Olyphant’s hero, if not more so, turning the show’s dialogue, the best on TV, into poetry with the relish with which he delivered it. The stellar final run of the series put the two head to head again, and Goggins spent the last episodes reminding us that as appealing as Boyd could sometimes be, he was also a very, very bad guy, and the performance sung better than ever as a result. Goggins has now been mostly overlooked for appearing in two of the best crime dramas ever, between this and “The Shield” — one last nod for Boyd would be the least that voters could do.
Honorable Mentions: We might talk shit about them sometimes, but we do sympathize with Emmy voters in terms of the wealth of talent they have to choose from: even excluding those that they will nominate, and all the names above, there’s still plenty of people worthy of mentioning. Perhaps first among them are the cast of “Rectify,” who only didn’t make the list because the staff member who’s up to date on the show is off on festival duties. Consider slots 21-25 to be theirs.
Past that, Lisa Kudrow could get a nod for “The Comeback,” but if she doesn’t, it’ll be a crying shame. Will Forte was excellent in embracing the unlikability of his character in “The Last Man On Earth,” while Amy Schumer gets better and better, and among a very good cast, we really enjoyed the unhinged insanity of Carol Kane on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
Among the cast of “Parks & Recreation,” Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman and Retta had great final seasons, while Olivia Colman continued to rock it, as per, on “Broadchurch.” Tatiana Maslany is still a wonder on “Orphan Black” even if the show around her has never lived up to the central performance(s), while Olivia Williams is best among an excellent cast on the underwatched “Manhattan.” And though the show will have plenty of nominations to go from, we’d love Michael Kelly to pick something up for “House Of Cards,” with the veteran character actor having his best season yet. Anyone else you think we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.