Emmys 2018: Critics Picks for What Will and Should Win

Handmaids Tale Game of Thrones
Courtesy of Hulu/HBO

As the 70th annual Emmy Awards draw ever closer, the temptation to read the tea leaves and divine what will win gets ever stronger … so we gave in. Variety’s TV critics came together to debate what will take home the night’s top prizes, what should and whether or not there may be some happy overlap between the two.

Daniel D’Addario The Emmys this year feel a bit more competitive than they usually do — both in terms of who will win the awards and who has this critic’s affections. Take drama series, in which the past two champions are competing against each other for the first time. I predict “The Handmaid’s Tale” will defeat “Game of Thrones”; even though many critics feel “Handmaid’s” has grown unwieldy and gratuitous, it remains closer to the heart of the zeitgeist at this precise moment than “Thrones,” whose last episode will have aired more than a year before the Emmys.

I have a different matchup in mind when it comes to who should win: “Westworld,” to my mind the show most potently addressing what it means to live through seismic change, gets narrowly edged by “The Americans.” I don’t usually love valedictory wins, but “The Americans,” pulling off a satisfying, painful final season, one that somehow outdid what came before, deserves recognition.

Caroline Framke I am absolutely Team “Americans” for exactly that reason. It put on a true masterclass in how to end a series with intricacy and guts, which is always tricky, but especially for a show as complex as “The Americans.” It unfortunately has a smaller chance of winning this year, but I do think the controversial ending of “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” second season — which left many wondering if the show’s lost the plot — will hurt it. (And to be frank: it should.)

As for comedy, we have a really interesting race, especially with “Veep” ineligible and “Modern Family” squeezed out for the first time. There are returning standbys (“Silicon Valley,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Black-ish,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), brand newbies (“GLOW,” “Barry,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), and as ever in a league of its own, “Atlanta.” No matter which show comes out on top, there will be a new winner.

While I loved “Barry” and think “GLOW” is a solid contender, my instinct is that this race comes down to “Maisel” and “Atlanta,” with “Maisel” ultimately prevailing. I wouldn’t be mad about that; the show’s so charming, and it would be great to see Amy Sherman-Palladino get such recognition. But it would also be a shame if “Atlanta” gets shut out when its “Robbin’ Season” made for some of the year’s most fantastically strange and smart TV.

D’Addario I completely agree with you about the way this race will turn. “Maisel” seems easy to reward, and — unlike “Atlanta,” which took home two top prizes last year — refreshingly new. It helps that it comes with a charismatic and eager-to-campaign lead, Rachel Brosnahan. I have no problem with “Maisel’s” ascendance and am generally an “Atlanta” booster, too, but surprise myself in wanting to see “Barry” recognized here. “Atlanta,” my runner-up for the prize, shifts tones wildly episode-to-episode in a manner that spotlights incredible achievements of acting and directing; “Barry,” by contrast, is a single unified piece of art, whose highs are not so high but whose story moves methodically and with perfect pacing towards an indelible conclusion. The only question I have is whether it’s really a comedy — but it’s certainly the most consistent, and consistently great, half-hour.

Framke My kingdom for awards shows (and everyone else) to realize that not every half-hour show is a comedy!

D’Addario Truly! “Maisel” rides the line of genre, too, and I think we agree that Brosnahan’s mastery of both tones — her lowest moments and her best laugh lines, often occurring near-simultaneously — will get her a trophy. Her performance is such a star-is-born moment (increasingly rare in an industry driven more and more by established celebrities headlining projects) that it feels undeniable. On the male side of the comedy field, I’m torn between Bill Hader and Donald Glover, the former of whom gave such a sustained and tense performance and the latter of whom, on top of fine work anchoring the series, hit such a resounding high note in a second role as a shut-in in the stand-alone “Teddy Perkins” episode. As I’ve given “Barry” my imaginary trophy for comedy series, I think this would be a worthy place to reward all Glover does for his show, including creating such a monstrous, human performance.

Framke I can’t argue with any of that. I have no doubt that Brosnahan will win, and she’ll deserve it, even in this tough category (though in a perfect world, Pamela Adlon and Issa Rae would also have a fighting chance). As for the men, I’ll stump for Ted Danson, whose alternately earnest and maniacal turn on “The Good Place” is one of my very favorite things on television right now, period.

Over on the drama side, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’m once again rooting for my beloved Soviet spies of “The Americans.” While I’d be fine with a Jeffrey Wright or Sterling K. Brown win (and in fact believe Brown will repeat his groundbreaking win this year), Matthew Rhys’ restrained work was consistently astonishing.
But I’ll admit that my preference for Rhys is somewhat, as you put it, valedictory for his overall work on “The Americans” — because that final season belonged to Keri Russell. She’s fighting a tough battle in the drama actress category — not least because “The Crown’s” great Claire Foy is up for her last turn as Queen Elizabeth II — but to my mind, Russell just turned in the kind of blazing, unforgettable performance that TV legends are made of. I hope she gets recognized for it sooner rather than later.

D’Addario It’d be fun to end on a more dissonant note, but I have to agree with you: Rhys and, especially, Russell deserve acting trophies. (I guess I’d push back a little on the idea that for Rhys, this is a lifetime-achievement award for the six-year-long performance: He had moments this season, especially in the alternately manipulative and painfully heartfelt showdown with FBI agent Stan in the series finale, that were as good as anything he’d previously done.)

Unfortunately, neither seems likely to win. Brown is a strong competitor for a show the Emmys are clearly still loving, but I’d bet on a Jason Bateman win. His presence in the best director field (as one of two representatives from “Ozark,” which was one of nomination morning’s bigger surprises) seems to indicate that the TV community is more impressed by his work on “Ozark” than I am — and though he was nominated twice for “Arrested Development,” he hasn’t yet won. With season two launching just before the ceremony, he’ll be on voters’ minds, and seems like a likely winner. Drama actress is less up in the air: Elisabeth Moss seems almost certain to pick up Emmy number two even despite the strong competition. Even viewers sceptical of “Handmaid’s” acknowledge that her performance works; criticism of the over-the-top cruelty the show inflicts upon its characters ends up, in a funny way, reinforcing the idea that Moss is doing great work. (Her suffering, after all, is so real that we suffer with her.) And, crucially, she’s a repeat winner: For all that speculating about fresh blood at the Emmys is a fun parlor game, the safest bet is often the one that’s won before.