In the animated series category, there is little suspense year-to-year over which shows will get nominated since there are four key shows — led by “The Simpsons,” with 26 nominations and 10 wins over 28 seasons — that have been honored for the bulk of their runs. The real question is which one will win, so picking the right episode for Emmy submission is key. “I have a highly scientific system,” jokes longtime “Simpsons” showrunner Al Jean. “I usually go with the highest-rated episode on IMDb.” This year Jean will put his system to the test against returnees “Archer,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “South Park,” and the newcomer: “Elena of Avalor”/“Sofia the First” crossover episode, “Elena and the Secret of Avalor.”
“Archer” (pictured above)
“Archer Dreamland: No Good Deed” (FXX)
The seventh season of Adam Reed’s stylish and irreverent spy series ended with Archer floating facedown in a swimming pool, an image that evoked the classic 1950 film noir “Sunset Boulevard.” So it’s only natural that the eighth season, dubbed “Archer Dreamland,” would explore the show’s strong noir underpinnings with a visually lush trip to the shadowy underworld of 1947 Los Angeles. The first episode, “No Good Deed,” enters Archer’s coma dream, in which he imagines himself as a private eye seeking justice for his murdered partner.
“I went through a lot of popcorn and binge-watched dozens of noir films,” says Reed, who cites “The Big Sleep” and other classics as a model for the season’s lush atmosphere and labyrinthine plotting. But TV scholars will spot one influence that’s considerably less expected: “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” a special hour of “Moonlighting” that has David and Maddie investigating a murder case from the ’40s. “A lot of Ray Gillette’s trumpet-playing moves were an homage to that episode,” says Reed.
“Bob, Actually” (Fox)
For the Valentine’s Day episode of “Bob’s Burgers” last season, creator Loren Bouchard and his writers, Steven Davis and Kelvin Yu, turned to the mega-romcom “Love, Actually” for inspiration, with several romantic subplots building to a symphony of smooches. But this being “Bob’s Burgers,” the sentimental finish doesn’t come without a few humbling moments, including Bob struggling through a crash course on hip-hop dancing and Tina feeling the aftereffects of winning a leftover chili-eating competition. Nearly everyone in the Belcher family gets a candy-heart ending, even the cynical Louise, and the combination of humor and sentiment was too much for Bouchard to resist.
“It has a level of heart that I’m a real sucker for,” says Bouchard. “Gushy but not treacly. The writers really studied the form. There’s a flavor of rom-com [as in ‘Love, Actually’] that gets all these storylines going and then pays them off one by one by one at the end until you’re in this montage of satisfying payoffs. We wanted to do an episode in that form.”
“Elena of Avalor”/”Sofia the First”
“Elena and the Secret of Avalor” (Disney Channel)
Creator Craig Gerber has two hit animated shows running at once, with “Sofia the First” airing its fourth season on Disney Junior and the new “Elena of Avalor” on Disney Channel, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to put them in the same universe. Both shows take place in vibrantly colorful fantasy realms and both center on young royals who challenge the traditional limitations of their age and gender. (Gerber refers to Sofia as “the self-rescuing princess.”) Still, Gerber fondly recalls the pandemonium that broke out when the crossover episode, “Elena and the Secret of Avalor,” was announced to an audience of little girls and boys in New York.
“When we showed the trailer for this movie, it was like watching a group of grown fanboys watching an ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ trailer,” Gerber says. “The room erupted. Kids were turning around and saying to their parents, ‘See! I told you so!’ It was hilarious to see the kind of excitement from children that you usually only see from adults and comic-book movies.”
“The Town” (Fox)
Even in an everytown as accommodating as Springfield, the Simpson family has occasionally needed a change of scenery over its 28 seasons, which has created a subset of “The Simpsons are going to …” episodes that include visits to New York, Tokyo, Australia and Africa. What sets “The Town” apart is the sheer volume of references to Boston, where the family goes on a “hate-cation” after a New England Patriots-like football team defeats Springfield under dubious circumstances. Some of the references are widely known, like Tom Brady and the “Deflategate” controversy, while others are more obscure and particular to the region, including fans stopping in Springfield on a Dennis Lehane book tour.
“I really love that the bowling alley is run by Whitey Bulger,” says Jean. “My wife is from Boston and many of my writers went to college there, and if you’re from that city, so many details are really amazing. The bobblehead sequence alone is priceless. We just hope that the Academy rewards encyclopedic hard work.”
“Member Berries” (Comedy Central)
With 275-plus episodes of fearless provocation and occasional controversy, “South Park” has become a reliable barometer on the political and cultural issues of the day. Creator Trey Parker, who’s the credited writer and director of every episode since season six, mixed things up with a serialized story for the 20th season, but the first episode, “Member Berries,” is a familiar inventory of editorial nuggets, including Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, J.J. Abrams reboots, and the then-upcoming presidential election.
“We always try to look at something that’s happening right then,” says Parker. “It’s hard for us to get back in a writers’ room after a break and say, ‘This thing happened three or four months ago. What do we think about that?’ For us, we’re more interested in what’s going on today, whether it’s something in the news or something with our families or something we saw on the way to work. It’s like a live show where we’re energized by what’s going on right then and there.”