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Emmys 2017: TV’s Top Showrunners Pick Their Favorite Shows

Every awards show reflects the tastes of its voting pool. The Golden Globe Awards are voted on by obscure journalists from outlets no one has ever heard of. The People’s Choice Awards are voted on by people.

But the Emmys are voted on by the group whose opinion is most trusted by the folks who make television — other folks who make television. Those are the individuals who understand not only that making a great piece of television is hard, but also why it’s hard.

Showrunners, being the persons in charge, are the TV professionals who have the most holistic view of the craft. Because of that, Variety asked some of the best showrunners in the business what shows — besides their own — they would hand an award to if they could.

Many answers came back as expected. There was no shortage of love for previous nominees such as Netflix’s “Master of None.” And despite never being nominated for an Emmy previously, “The Leftovers” clearly has some buzz within the industry on the heels of its well-regarded series finale. Rookie series such as NBC’s “This Is Us,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and FX’s “Atlanta” all have plenty of fans among top producers. And HBO’s “Big Little Lies” was liked by more than just the critics.

But other shows that either haven’t been nominated before or are fresh off their first seasons also registered. AMC’s “Humans” was likened to one of the best-loved shows of the previous decade. Canadian drama “Anne With an E” landed a shoutout from one of the most respected creators of TV’s current golden age.

The range of responses does more than provide hints at which shows might find favor at the Emmys — it shows that in the too-much-TV era, there is plenty of greatness to go around.

Adam Arkin, “Get Shorty”

“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” He’s doing such an incredible service to the sanity of this nation. They’re educators, and they manage to do that in a way that doesn’t make you want to blow your brains out. And it’s brave, too, to be doing what they’re doing in this era.

Dave Andron, “Snowfall”

I really enjoy “Master of None,” I just like that they’re willing to take risks. They’re tackling big subjects in a way that’s so accessible and relatable. To make something that is so natural and real — that’s so hard. And the love story in the second season — I just bought into it — hook, line and sinker. I was completely invested. They took some risks with some episodes, and they turned out marvelously. You never know where the show is going to go next, and I love that.

Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, “This Is Us”

We thought this season of “Master of None” was incredibly special — it’s very rare to watch something that makes you laugh, feel and crave pasta all at the same time. We both absolutely loved “Big Little Lies.” It was so much fun to see Reese [Witherspoon] back in Tracy Flick mode, and Jean-Marc Vallée can do no wrong. Plus, every single character on that show is just perfectly cast. Too bad they all lived in such small, ugly houses.

Mara Brock Akil, “Black Lightning”

“This Is Us” because it’s that good. “Atlanta” because it sets a new bar and Insecure because it gives me goosebumps.

Ilene Chaiken, “Empire”

I’m currently hooked on AMC’s “Humans,” and feel it deserves to be recognized. It’s my favorite genre, speculative fiction, and is full of provocative themes.  I would liken it to Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” — you’re drawn into the humanity of the stories without realizing it’s simultaneously taking on big thematic ideas. It’s just brilliant.

The Duffer Brothers, “Stranger Things”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is fantastic. Any of these shows that keep pushing the boundaries of being truly cinematic is great. Reed Morano did an amazing job of setting that look. And Elisabeth Moss is of course is just stunning. And “Big Little Lies” is amazing, too. If you find a show when you’re in the middle of production, like “Big Little Lies,” it’s really nice to come home to that. It feels very different from our show. It’s hard to watch stuff that’s tonally similar at all. It’s tonally in another world than we’re in. It’s lovely to come home from set and wind down with that.

Kerry Ehrin, “Bates Motel”

I am a huge fan of “Better Things.”  I admire it, from the perspective of a single, working mom with kids — it’s dead on — but I also admire it as a writer-producer.  It is incredibly well executed, genuinely funny, dark, absurd and moving all at once. Wonderful writing and acting. Pamela Adlon is a treasure.

Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, “The Americans”

“The Leftovers” has been a big favorite. It’s both a compelling drama and a visual poem that manages to stay fun and emotionally engaging while it engages deeply about life and death, and, ultimately, love.  What could be greater than that? We were also riveted by “Fauda” this year — an enthralling and exciting political thriller from Israel that manages to show both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while also offering up rich character stories and a nail-biting suspense.

Vince Gilligan, “Better Call Saul”

Oh man, so many shows, so little time. However, I have to mention “Silicon Valley.” It’s funny as hell, it’s populated by wonderful, dimensional characters, and the density of the plotting is amazing to behold.  And I’m absolutely loving “Anne With an E.” Moira Walley-Beckett [our Emmy-winning writer from “Breaking Bad”] has created something really special here.  It doesn’t feel like any other show on TV right now. The young woman who plays Anne is truly a find.

Lesli Linka Glatter, “Homeland”

In this incredible Golden Age of Storytelling, I couldn’t pick just one series, so I picked two and that was difficult. I have loved watching “The Crown” beautifully realized, about a 25- year-old woman totally unprepared to be thrust into the seat of power and on to the world stage … a very different perspective of the history of the 20th Century. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was one of my favorite books, so I tuned in with great trepidation but was blown away by its continued relevance and by the austerely beautiful, moving, visually astounding translation of the material combined with a luminous performance by Elizabeth Moss.

Peter Gould, “Better Call Saul”

There’s so much great TV, it’s tough to single anything out.  I have a warm spot in my heart for “Vice Principals” which I had to watch peeking out between my fingers — so funny, so horrifying.  The writing is sharp as hell and that cast is truly outstanding; we were so happy to have the incredible Kimberly Hebert Gregory join us on “Better Call Saul.”  Another favorite was “Stranger Things” which hit exactly the right notes of nostalgia and intrigue.  Finally, I was lucky enough to share a writers’ room with Sam Catlin for five years on “Breaking Bad”; we miss him on “Saul” but now I’m digging his twisted and hilarious “Preacher.”  

Gloria Calderon Kellett, “One Day at a Time”

It is so exciting that all of my favorite comedies are about people of color. I love the work being done on “The Carmichael Show,” “Black-ish,” “Insecure” and “Master of None.” Fresh storytelling and fierce performances. For drama, I think “The Handmaid’s Tale” should win all of the awards. Artful, honest, raw and terrifying.

Courtney Kemp, “Power”

I think this season of “Master of None” truly elevated the art form. “I Love New York” was probably one of my favorite episodes of television that I saw this year — really wonderful storytelling. The depth of humanity in the relationships, the complexity of the characters, and the honesty of the writing … they deserve every award they can get.

Marlene King, “Pretty Little Liars”

I think that “This Is Us” should absolutely be nominated for some Emmys. I was obsessed with the first season and could not wait for Tuesday nights to watch it live! I think it is a refreshingly unique way to tell a family drama.

Robert and Michelle King, “The Good Fight”

“Fleabag” is an excellent series.  It was one of the few dramas we saw this last year that built on itself. You’re not aware of the devastating emotional impact until you get to the last episode. In fact, in earlier episodes, the show could seem frivolous, but do see it until the end. “The Handmaid’s Tale” — we love the way this show found gradations of gray in the villains and the heroes. We also thought it was fantastic how the writers and directors made it seem so current.  TV might be the best place to do true dystopian drama, because it can focus on the grueling need to hide your true face instead of the bursts of violence. And if we’re talking about specific episodes. The “Streets on Lock” episode of “Atlanta” is probably the best thing done this year, along with “The Book of Nora” episode of “The Leftovers.” And finally the “Assassins” episode of “The Crown.”

Andrew Kreisberg, “The Flash”

Give all the Emmys to “Big Little Lies.”  The actors, the kid actors, the director, the location manager, all of them.  And especially the writer.  As someone who got his start in drama from David Kelley, I knew he was a genius.  But still I was blown away by the writing and story structure of this series.

Damon Lindelof, “The Leftovers”

It’s a horse race between “Master of None” and “Twin Peaks,” which transcends quality. It’s a whole another experience that I’m having. It’s almost a meta-analysis of nostalgia in it of itself. So I’m going to disqualify it because I wouldn’t be allowed to serve on that jury. I think like I’ve only seen three episodes of it, but “I Love Dick” is the show that’s like just firing on all cylinders for me. I know that it’s not for everyone, but I think the performances are incredible — Kathryn Hahn, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Bacon, all the supporting cast. It’s also about art in a really interesting way and it’s the way that sex should be done on television where it’s not pornographic or exploitative, but it’s a little bit awkward and fascinating and beautiful. It’s just like they’re doing everything right. I’m loving everything about that show.

Marti Noxon, “Girlfriends Guide to Divorce,” “Sharp Objects”

Like almost everyone I know, I devoured “Handmaid’s Tale,” Ava DuVernay’s doc “13th” and “Westworld” this last season — but we all need a “heavy theme offset” program or two, and mine were British. I just loved “Fleabag” and this last season of “Catastrophe” so much. Both shows are very grounded and deal with tough issues, but they’re just so charming about it all. It’s like if Richard Curtis and Jill Soloway had a baby and it made half-hour romantic comedies, this is what you’d get. Plus, “Catastrophe” gave us one of Carrie Fisher’s final lovely performances, so it deserves an Emmy just for that.

Prentice Penny, “Insecure”

“Master of None” should be nominated. The way they balance comedy with heart, and how they’ve managed to do standalone episodes that still work within the series’ arc is amazing. Plus any show where you can put your parents in and it still works deserves a nomination just on that.

Julie Plec, “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Originals”

For me, nothing tops the power and beautiful intelligence of “The Leftovers” for the way it portrays the harrowing realities of loss and grief and the intricacies of conditional love.

Joe Pokaski, “Underground”

I’d love to see the “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror” do some damage in the TV movie category.  This was one of those TV experiences that you knew was special from the first five minutes in, and then the rest of the story only got better.  Plus Dig-Dug and Belinda Carlisle …

John Ridley, “American Crime”

My favorite other shows are “The Girlfriend Experience” on Starz and IFC’s “Documentary Now.”  “The GFE” is perhaps the most minimal show on television.  Scripts, performances, locations, camera work … everything is carved down to its most essential element.  The program is a small, finely crafted container of human nature which you may observe for 30 minutes, appreciate the art that went into making the refinement, but at times have no greater understanding of that which inhabits what’s contained. “The GFE” answers no question. It just brilliantly posits them.

“Documentary Now” is a show for a select few diehard fans of both documentaries and mockumentaries.  You don’t have to have seen “Thin Blue Line,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Stop Making Sense” among other seminal docs to enjoy the show.  But if you have, the attention to detail, the artful rendering of everything from film stock to hand props along with brilliant recreations make this show a giant Easter egg for fans of nonfiction film.

Phil Rosenthal, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”

“The Americans” is incredible — the acting, the writing. I’m always on the edge of my seat. I’m enthralled. I also really like “The Crown.”

Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, “The Carmichael Show”

I loved “Fleabag” for its wonderful mixture of darkness and heart. We’re often warned against creating extremely flawed characters for fear of them being unlikable, but this is a great example of how flawed characters can be endearing while allowing us to explore our own humanity.

Thomas Schlamme, “Snowfall”

“Catastrophe” is brilliantly written. I have a TV crush on [co-creator and star] Sharon Horgan, she’s a brilliant writer. Together she and [co-creator and star] Rob Delaney are really wonderful. I sometimes say, if Sydney Pollack were going to do a television series, he would have made “Catastrophe.” It’s such a smart, smart show. It just speaks to me, and especially when I look back to when we had three little kids. 

Thomas Schnauz, “Better Call Saul”

I don’t know how close Wagner Moura’s portrayal was to the real Pablo Escobar, but it doesn’t matter because I couldn’t take my eyes off of him whenever he was on screen in his commanding “Narcos” performance.

Scott Silveri, “Speechless”

Most of the TV I’ve seen this busy year is geared toward my 8-, 6-and 4-year-olds.  If there’s a piece on what things should not be getting Emmys, I have a list I will happily provide. I’m the person on the planet least qualified to answer this question.  With a show in production and three young kids, I’ll watch a new show only if forced by the pressure of no fewer than a hundred conversations with people yelling, “You’ve never seen blank?!  How can you show your face at this birthday party/supermarket/funeral?!  We hate you!” So here are my curated, dark horse picks: “Silicon Valley,” “Veep” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Hopefully I can finally help bring some attention to these hidden gems. If you like “Kimmy Schmidt,” another tip is a little-recognized show called “30 Rock” by the same producers.  That should win something too. For lighter fare: “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Janine Sherman Barrois, “Claws”

I love “Atlanta.” It’s fresh. It’s cool, as an African-American woman, to see the narrative changing. Here we are, showing this guy in Atlanta — this aspirational guy who wants to manage. And then it has this surreal craziness that you saw in “Twin Peaks.” And the narrative! It changes every week. It’s not expected. they’re playing with the genre. I think Donald Glover is showing people that you can’t put us in a box — it breaks open a box. And it’s cool being able to talk about culture, and race and class and all of that — in a very cool way.

Joshua Michael Stern, “Graves”

“Twin Peaks.” It’s not just because I am being nostalgic for the previous seasons, but on some level the craft it takes to revive a series so many years later, this successfully, is laudable in and of itself. As writers, regardless of genre, we all strive to find the truth that grounds any world or character but to do it with such effortlessness bestriding character, mystery and pure art film hallucination and make it work? And as a director, the fact that he is directing every single episode, applying a singular vision to the series is unbelievable.

Liz Tigelaar,  “Casual”

For me, it’s a tie. “Big Little Lies” is the obvious — it was epic and cinematic, and Nicole Kidman’s haunting, honest, conflicted depiction of domestic violence should win her the Emmy. And I walked away wanting both Reese Witherspoon and Zoe Kravitz to be my mom. And then there’s “Homeland,” TV’s unsung hero. It bounced back after its third season to become even more timely. It reinvents itself admirably and compellingly — year after year — and in light of this year’s election, couldn’t have been more terrifyingly relevant. Rupert Friend also deserves an Emmy for playing an entirely new version of the character he’s embodied for years and opening our eyes to the struggle of veterans with emotional and physical trauma. And even though his death was controversial, in many ways it was the fitting end to his story. And kudos to “Homeland” this season for keeping the action all the way up to the last second of the finale.

Sarah Treem, “The Affair”

I would give “The Leftovers” all the awards for maintaining such an extraordinary, uncompromising vision the whole way through. Watching the characters “explain” what happened to each other at the end reminded me that this is how myths are created, by people trying to explain the unexplainable. And the fact that it was ultimately a love story — where love is accepting the stories another person tells themselves in order to live — just breathtaking.

Greg Yaitanes, “Quarry”

“Catastrophe” is my favorite half-hour and I root for Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney every Emmy season for their work on the series. The show is so honest about marriage with kids while always protecting the spine of the show, that these two people are partners and love each other. I cried at the end of all three season finales.  In drama, “The Leftovers” is the best acted and written series on TV.  I grieve for their characters and every move that show makes is original.  I respect HBO for giving them the room to make bold choices.

Alan Yang, “Master of None”

Black Mirror did some good stuff this year, particularly the San Junipero episode. That one showed that they could do warmth and optimism as well as the dystopian tone they usually take on. I hope next year they don’t do an episode about an Indian guy dating and eating good food, because they’d probably somehow kick our ass at that, too.

Graham Yost, “Sneaky Pete”

“Fleabag” was the best show I saw last year. You think it’s just going to be funny and goofy, and she’s kind of quirky, but by the end it had such weight to it. I was incredibly moved. I think [creator] Phoebe Waller-Bridge is not only a great performer, she’s one of the best writers working today.

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