Pontificating and prognosticating is the sport of awards season. Sizing up the preferences of Television Academy voters is a game that requires experience, true grit (to survive all of the screenings, panels and receptions) and instinct.
But every year, there are a few Emmy Award categories that defy the skills of even the top athletes working the kudos circuit — races that are simply too close or too wide open to call. This is a fundamentally a good thing because it A) adds suspense to the Big Night, B) indicates a wealth of formidable talent to choose from and C) gives red-carpet warriors plenty to talk about at all of those screenings, panels and receptions.
Here’s a look at the three most perplexing Emmy heats for the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, with some help from our colleagues at Gold Derby.
Writing for a Drama Series
Gold Derby Odds
1/10 “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu);
40/1 “The Crown” (Netflix);
50/1 “Better Call Saul” (AMC);
66/1 “Stranger Things” (Netflix);
66/1 “Westworld” (HBO);
100/1 “The Americans” (FX)
The six nominees in the category represent a fine cross-section of TV’s new golden age. There are the spectacle and psychological thrills of HBO’s “Westworld” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and Netflix’s “The Crown” are studies in character, time and place. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is a lighter fantasy romp and then there’s the genre-defying portrait of a marriage in FX’s “The Americans.”
The episodes that were selected for the writing race add to the difficulty of doping out the category. Typically, first-year shows are nominated for pilot episodes, as “Handmaid’s Tale” (“Offred,” penned by showrunner Bruce Miller) and “Stranger Things” (“Chapter One,” from creators-showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer) are here. But “Westworld” got the nom for its season-closer, “The Bicameral Mind,” written by showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. And “The Crown” is up for its penultimate season-one installment, “Assassins,” written by showrunner Peter Morgan.
“The Americans” was recognized for the final installment of its fifth season, “The Soviet Division,” penned by showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg. “Better Call Saul” got in for episode five of its third season, “Chicanery,” by Gordon Smith. Of this year’s crop, only “The Americans” was nominated last year (when the trophy went to HBO’s “Game of Thrones”).
Emmy voters have the high-class problem of having to make a hard choice from a diverse field of worthy contenders. For all the new blood in the category, “Better Call Saul” may have the edge for an episode that beautifully rendered a heartbreaking turning point in the central conflict of the series, the sibling rivalry between Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill and Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill.
Lead actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
Gold Derby Odds
1/3 Nicole Kidman “Big Little Lies”;
6/1 Jessica Lange “Feud”;
12/1 Susan Sarandon “Feud”;
50/1 Carrie Coon “Fargo”;
66/1 Reese Witherspoon
“Big Little Lies”;
100/1 Felicity Huffman “American Crime”
This category is a murderers’ row of talent that reflects the new sizzle of TV for marquee names. The choice among the six nominees is made even harder because of the intramural competition between actresses in the same series: Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon of FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Felicity Huffman collected her third straight nom in the category for her work on ABC’s “American Crime.” TV’s breakthrough star of the 2016-17 season, Carrie Coon, landed a bid for FX’s “Fargo” — and even still there was outrage that she wasn’t also nominated for her tour de force performance on HBO’s “The Leftovers.”
The good news for TV fans is that the blossoming of the limited-series genre has made it possible for the biggest stars to tackle intriguing material without having to make the years-long commitment to a regular series. The bad news for Emmy voters is having to settle on a winner among this lineup.
It’s no surprise that “Big Little Lies” and “Feud” would be well-represented in this category. Both projects delivered incredible stories of women grappling with one another and the expectations of a male-dominated world. Both projects also landed two nominees apiece in the supporting actress limited series heat (Judy Davis and Jackie Hoffman for “Feud,” Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley for “Big Little Lies”).
It’s tempting to think that Coon’s ascent to A-list status will be cemented by a win over such noteworthy competitors. But in a year when the material was so rich for female characters, the advantage here is to Kidman. Her portrayal of a wealthy, educated woman caught up in a vicious cycle of domestic violence, and a psychological prison of her own making, was nuanced and chilling. Kidman delivered a portrait of a battered woman unlike anything ever seen on TV, and for that she is likely to be rewarded.
Variety Talk Series
Gold Derby Odds
13/10 “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (HBO);
21/10 “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (TBS);
4/1 “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (CBS);
66/1 “Late Late Show With James Corden” (CBS);
66/1 “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC);
100/1 “Real Time With Bill Maher” (HBO)
Don’t be surprised if Donald Trump gets a heartfelt thank-you from the winner in this category. The Trump presidency has been nothing less than a massive stimulus program for late-night TV hosts. Every one of the six nominees in this field has dined out on the president’s foibles, faux pas and daily serving of WTF moments. The sudden shift in the cultural landscape has energized hosts and brought new urgency to late-night viewing.
CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” has been the single-biggest beneficiary, skyrocketing past NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in the ratings as Colbert became a big comedic voice of the Trump resistance. HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” last year’s winner, has continued to deliver its excellent in-depth reporting on issues and outrages of our times. CBS’ “The Late Late Show With James Corden” still emphasizes the lighter side, but has added more edge to its political humor and commentary in these turbulent times.
ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” had a big moment this year when Kimmel broke down on air talking about the life-threatening heart problem that his infant son faced at birth. The host known for his sharp tongue related his family’s personal trial to the larger political tussle over health care in Washington with an unusual level of sensitivity. It was the kind of unrehearsed candor that plays well on a clip reel.
HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” is a perennial bridesmaid (with 12 noms in the category since 2005) but never yet a bride. This is surely not going to be his year, not after his careless use of the n-word in June.
As tough as Colbert has been on the commander-in-chief, nobody has sunk her teeth into the Trump era with more gusto than Samantha Bee. TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” is a full-throttle, bipartisan weekly assault on Washington shenanigans and pop-culture inanities. Look for Bee to elbow past the guys in this formidable field to make Emmy history this year.