Emmy Predictions: Variety’s TV Critics Make Their Picks

With the Emmy awards imminent, our TV critics have strong opinions about who should take home the top prizes. Naturally, they don’t always agree. The question is: will voters agree with Team Ryan or Team Saraiya? (Play along with them: Our full list of nominees is here.)

Outstanding Comedy Series
Sonia Saraiya: It was such a great year for comedy — I’d happily give it to any of the nominees (except “Modern Family,” because come on). But even against the fellow sophomore seasons of “Transparent” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” both of which made me sob, “Black-ish” has an energy and appeal that so deserves recognition.

Maureen Ryan: You’ll get no argument from me. “Black-ish” solidified its status as one of TV’s funniest, most nimble and best-acted comedies in its second season. You’re absolutely right that this is a tough category: “Kimmy Schmidt,” “Transparent” and “Silicon Valley” all improved on their solid first seasons and “Master of None” was a ridiculously fun breath of fresh air. But it’s “Black-ish’s” year.

Saraiya: The timing might be more appropriate for “Veep,” though. The HBO comedy handled the showrunner transition (from Armando Iannucci to David Mandel) with astonishing grace, and with Decision 2016 ever-looming, the show’s commentary feels more relevant than ever. Plus, it won this award last year, and the Academy doesn’t change its mind easily. I’d just like to change it up more than Emmy voters do.

Outstanding Drama Series
Ryan: Predictably, I’ll stump for “The Americans.” What a turnabout it would be for a show that was ignored by the Emmys for too long to walk off with the top prize! It would be richly deserved as well; a lot of dramas are flailing these days, but “The Americans” provides a weekly object lesson on how to do character-driven, pulse-pounding drama right.

Saraiya: I’m that person that never quite warmed to “The Americans” — so even though I would have no qualms with it winning the category, I’ll stump for another show. “Better Call Saul” had a second season which made me want to tear my hair out with joy, if that makes sense — closely plotted, gorgeously filmed, and affecting character arcs. It created that sense of addictive suspense that I identify with “Breaking Bad,” while being little like its parent show. It’s a masterpiece, and would be very worthy of the Emmy.

Ryan: Who are we kidding: “Game of Thrones” is probably going to win. And the show can be maddening at times, but when it’s on its A-game, it’s something. Hodor!

Outstanding Limited Series
Saraiya: It has to be “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” IT HAS TO BE, MO.

Ryan: Duh.

Saraiya: It’s actually astonishing just how much of a coup the mini is. More than just being brilliantly made, the FX miniseries found a way to tap into a surprising vein of gooey nostalgia to make this Trial of the Century a mini-moment for 2016, too. That ability to capture the conversation is rarer than ever in our era of Peak TV.

Ryan: It was dramatically cogent, intelligently took on race, class and gender, it was suspenseful and entertaining (qualities too often missing from too many recent dramas) and it had a pre-teen Kim Kardashian. I mean, what didn’t this mini do right?

Outstanding TV Movie
Ryan: The Limited Series category is on fire these days, but the TV movie category is still a bit wobbly; there’s certainly no shoo-in among these nominees. Part of me leans toward “Sherlock” given that I’d watch any of those actors read a grocery list, but perhaps “Confirmation” deserves the nod. Convince me?

Saraiya: “Confirmation” wasn’t perfect, but Kerry Washington, Jeffrey Wright, and Wendell Pierce are all great in it. And it has the added, weird benefit of reminding you how terrible everything was in the ‘90s.

Ryan: Sold.

Saraiya: Wait, I’m still stuck on you enjoying “Sherlock”’s “The Abominable Bride.” Mo. That was bad. Don’t tell me Benedict Cumberwhatsit swayed you.

Ryan: I know, there were some problems with it. But when the Cumberbatch talks really fast, it distracts me and I forget how mansplain-y this show can be.

Lead Actor, Comedy
Ryan: My mind is melting as I try to make this choice. Not only are all of these actors incredibly good, they’re all in very different kinds of shows that require a really varied array of skills. I’m going to go with Anthony Anderson, given that his performance involves hilarious physical comedy, deft sarcasm and a core of emotional gravitas that grounds the more serious moments of “Black-ish.”

Saraiya: It’s times like this I’m glad I’m not an Emmy voter. Anderson is a great choice, and I would be very happy if he won. And I would have felt more confident stumping for probable winner Jeffrey Tambor in Season 1 of “Transparent” — I felt that Maura had more of a central role in that season, which allowed Tambor to flex his skills — but I’d still be ecstatic if he were honored, because he, and “Transparent” are fantastic. But so is this whole category — even Will Forte in “The Last Man On Earth,” a show I don’t always love, has been a pathetic, moving, and absolutely frustrating protagonist for the post-apocalyptic comedy.

Ryan: If I was going to go in another direction (and to be clear, I’m still going with Anderson), I’d lean toward Thomas Middleditch, who somehow made his character’s neuroses and obsessions both funny and emotionally resonant.

Saraiya: Agreed. In general what I like in this category is how many of these roles are deceptively simple. There’s so much room to flail badly in these delicately balanced shows, and yet these actors don’t.

Lead Actor, Drama
Saraiya: Bob Odenkirk is so brilliant as Jimmy McGill that it’s honestly criminal. I feel like my heart is breaking every time I see him look at Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Let me have this, Mo.

Ryan: Your request has been noted, but since I’m a bad person, I’m denying it. Both Rami Malek and Matthew Rhys break my heart regularly on their respective shows. They could both coast on their expressive, melancholy eyes but both can do everything: Dry comedy, secret-agenda slyness, wrenching confusion, burnt-out exhaustion. But I have to pick, so it’s Rhys, by a mustache.

Saraiya: Typical Soviet propaganda! A true American would know that Jimmy McGill standing in front of a rampant American flag taping a litigator’s ad for old people to air during “Murder She Wrote” is the real winner.

Ryan: You make a good case for Slippin’ Jimmy. But I’m still going with Mother Russia’s Rhys. (He’s actually from Wales, but never mind.)

Lead Actor, Miniseries or Movie
Saraiya: To use the slang the kids use, Courtney B. Vance or GTFO.

Ryan: Courtney B. Vance. Now and forever.

Saraiya: Case in point: The moment where he calls Chris Darden “n—er.” Bone-chilling in its malice and power. It’s also just exciting to have a chance to reward an actor who’s had such a long and fascinating career.

Ryan: Absolutely agreed. Emmy voters, if you don’t reward Vance, WE WILL HAVE WORDS.

Lead Actress, Comedy
Saraiya: This is a six-way split to hell.

Ryan: My heart hurts. Can there be a tie? I really want both Ellie Kemper and Tracee Ellis Ross to win this. Kemper is such a lovable sparkplug as Kimmy Schmidt, but she’s also able to show the pain and repressed anger that lurk at the edges of her character’s mind. But I have to give this one to Tracee Ellis Ross, who can take Rainbow Johnson through ten different emotions or reactions in one scene and make them all work — and they’re all funny.

Saraiya: Right. In all honesty, Julia Louis-Dreyfus — who has won this category for this role a whopping four times already — has this on lock. But Ross is a titan on “Black-ish”; I give her more comedic credit than Anderson in most episodes. Kemper is walking a fine line between slapstick comedy and Lifetime-movie melodrama with astonishing skill. And Laurie Metcalf is a stone-cold monster in “Getting On,” in a way that’s both bone-chilling and very funny. I think they should cut that statue into four pieces and let all of these performers go home with a piece.

Lead Actress, Drama
Saraiya: Eva Green isn’t on this list, so I’m just ignoring the nominees.

Ryan: I support this strike action. Will we get in trouble if we don’t pick someone?

Saraiya: Unfortunately, I think I can already hear our poor editor yelling at us.

Ryan: Okay, I’m going to be predictable and throw my support behind Keri Russell, who has been giving an incredibly deep, thoughtful and committed performance for four seasons. Come on, comrade, show some solidarity here.

Saraiya: I’m intrigued by the idea of Taraji P. Henson winning — who has long since been the only good thing about “Empire,” after that show decided to careen off the rails — but I’m a lot less moved by her Season 2 performance than I was by her explosive, brilliant debut. It’s not Henson’s fault, but it does make me a little apathetic going into this category. So yes, I will demonstrate solidarity with the Soviets. Russell’s been doing great work on “The Americans” for years now.

Lead Actress, Miniseries or Movie
Saraiya: To once again use the slang, Sarah Paulson or GTFO. Performance of the year, to my mind.

Ryan: I know I whined about tough decisions a few paragraphs ago, but is truly the nightmare choice of the list. Of course, Paulson deserves a dozen Emmys for her work as Marcia Clark; she showed so many sides of the lawyer with such precision and heart. But I am wound up about the fact that not enough people are shouting from the rooftops about Kirsten Dunst’s incredible performance in “Fargo.” She had to thread an incredibly difficult needle: Her character, Peggy, was funny and tragic and possibly mentally ill — or not? She absolutely crushed it. Please help me, I can’t decide.  

Saraiya: PISH, I say, to your Paulson competitors. (Just kidding, I agree that Dunst did a great job.) What really stands out about Paulson as Marcia Clark is how she transformed this reviled, minimized figure into a human — and moreover, how she threw herself body and soul into the part. In a show where the most wronged characters are killed in the first few minutes, Paulson as Clark makes the viewer feel the crime’s seriousness and impact, when nearly everyone else has lost sight of it. To my mind it’s an extraordinary act of humanity on the parts of the showrunners and Paulson herself — reminding us of real stakes to the media circus.

Supporting Actor, Comedy
Saraiya: This is the year where I feel like Keegan-Michael Key should really get some love, for the final season of “Key And Peele.”

Ryan: That would be great. That said, I wouldn’t be sad if Andre Braugher walked off with the Emmy for his very dry, eternally amusing performance on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Then again, I have a feeling Louie Anderson might win; he was the best part of “Baskets” and he’s my pick.

Saraiya: Agree with both of these — but I’ll continue to stump for Key. In this contentious and dispiriting election year, wouldn’t it be amazing if the Emmys honored the man that embodied President Obama’s anger both on “Key and Peele” and at the actual White House Correspondents Dinner? We need this, Academy of Television. We need this for AMERICA.

Supporting Actor, Drama
Saraiya: One of the more boring categories this year; a lot of repeat nominees in shows that have been kicking for several seasons now. Jonathan Banks had a lot to do this season on “Better Call Saul,” so I’m happy to go with him. He had a few sequences, this season, that were some of the most tense scenes on TV this year.

Ryan: I am good with that pick. Banks has been great in so many things for so many years, and he’s solidified his reputation as one of the most commanding yet supple performers around in “Better Call Saul.”

Supporting Actor, Limited Series/Movie
Saraiya: I feel unequipped for the challenge of this selection.

Ryan: I need a nap. Or a drink. This is too hard. I was one of the people who actually liked John Travolta’s big performance as Robert Shapiro (he was playing a larger than life character — what, people wanted him to go small? No.) Anyway, while Jesse Plemons, Bokeem Woodbine and Hugh Laurie also turned in exceptional work (and I must add a shoutout to David Schwimmer, who, as Robert Kardashian, found at least 74 different ways to say the name “Juice”). I have to go with Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. He brought so much passion, energy and craftsmanship to the role that it will haunt me if he doesn’t win.

Saraiya: Brown’s an amazing choice. He made me care about Darden, which wasn’t a given going into this story. But I’ll lean the other way and go with Travolta, who I think redeemed his slightly befuddled, slightly out-of-touch reputation (Adele Dazeem, anyone?) with a scenery-chewing performance that embodied the cheesy, larger-than-life appeal of “People v. O.J.” Plus, those eyebrows! Those eyebrows deserve their own Emmy.

Supporting Actress, Comedy
Saraiya: It’s the year of Kate McKinnon, isn’t it? And to be honest, I have no problem with that. She’s basically holding together “Saturday Night Live” by force of will right now.

Ryan: Can we do a separate dialogue someday about whatever is going on with “SNL” these days? Because it is, to be diplomatic, in a rebuilding phase (I hope), and the ladies are absolutely holding it down during this rocky patch. No one more so than Kate McKinnon, obviously. Still, even with that said, I am a Shelly Pfefferman obsessive and I want the fabulous Judith Light to win. Let me have this.

Saraiya: I think it’s some kind of sin to cross Judith Light in her time of need, so I’m not fighting you here.

Ryan: Shelly would somehow make us feel guilty about picking her, and yet we would still love her.

Supporting Actress, Drama
Saraiya: Constance Zimmer, because my eyes are glazing over reading the rest of this list, and even if “UnREAL” Season 2 was terrible, Season 1 was still amazing.

Ryan: I am unmatched in my love for Zimmer, but despite the fact that her performance continues to be exemplary, I don’t think the show served her well in its most recent season. As I wrote in a recent column, I really think Lena Headey should win this. I never had much time for Cersei in the “Song of Ice and Fire” books, but thanks to Headey, the HBO version of the character is a revelation. She’s never really likeable as such, but she’s complicated and fascinating, which is preferable.

Saraiya: Hold up though: It’s “UnREAL”’s Season 1 that’s up for these Emmys. I think that puts Zimmer back in the running in a big way. I don’t disagree with you on Headey — either in terms of her performance or how much she lends to the adaptation complexity — but her arc this spring drove me up the wall. That being said, I wouldn’t be angry if either won — because in both cases we get a Super Bitch with a heart of gold. Thanks, television!

Supporting Actress, Limited Series/Movie
Ryan: Olivia Colman, the end.

Saraiya: I was for sure going to peg you as stumping for Jean Smart. Care to explain yourself?

Ryan: Smart was great, ya sure, as an Upper Midwest crime boss/matriarch. But Olivia Colman was so good in “The Night Manager.” She managed to steal the whole thing out from under Loki and Dr. House. Advantage Colman.

Saraiya: I’ll concede, but let sing a short hymn of praise for Regina King, who played a difficult, stubborn character in “American Crime” and did so in style. She was probably better in “The Leftovers,” but I can’t control the nominations.

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