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Why Best Actress in a Comedy Is Emmy’s Most Exciting Category (Column)

Last year, the best actress in an Emmy field expanded from six to seven nominees, encompassing talent from winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”) to the loopy, show-anchoring, no-typical-sitcom-mom charms of Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) and the crackling chemistry of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (“Grace and Frankie”). This year, it seems the category could be expanded to 10, and few would complain. The heat at the Emmys, at least among comedies, is squarely with female performers, proof of a shift happening across genres in TV that seems most pronounced among the shows that make us laugh.

Potential nominees this year include, returning from last year, Ross, Fonda, Tomlin, Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”), newly minted Oscar winner Allison Janney (“Mom”), and Ellie Kemper (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), as well as Debra Messing, an Emmy winner returning to her signature role on the “Will & Grace” revival. The field is further crowded by heavily-touted Emmy newcomers like Rachel Brosnahan, already a Golden Globe winner for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Alison Brie in “Glow,” Issa Rae in the breakthrough second season of “Insecure,” and Frankie Shaw in “SMILF.” Add in the not-yet-nominated stars of fan-favorite shows from Justina Machado (“One Day at a Time”) to Kristen Bell (“The Good Place”) and the field begins to look like a logjam.

Which is great news. The eminently deserved and impossible-to-argue-with Julia Louis-Dreyfus victory streak — was it ever easier to embrace a totally predictable outcome, as Louis-Dreyfus outdid herself, growing darker and stranger in her role each year? — tended to obscure quite how strong the field had become in the years since she began winning. For years now, the category has been crowded with stars who aren’t just uproarious but are their show’s defining creative forces, even as their male counterparts haven’t quite kept pace.

Of last year’s six best actor in a comedy nominees, two are ineligible — Aziz Ansari because “Master of None” did not release new episodes and Jeffrey Tambor because Amazon is not submitting his “Transparent” performance for awards consideration. It’s hard to imagine any of the other four nominees falling out, even as William H. Macy’s “Shameless” seems to have fallen out of the conversation and as Anthony Anderson got the bulk of the impossible-to-play material in “Black-ish”’s strange divorce arc, as the competition is less stiff. Three stars of revivals — Jason Bateman in “Arrested Development,” Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and Eric McCormack in “Will & Grace”—could hop in, but aside from Bill Hader in “Barry,” there seems precious little in the way of new energy for the category, the sort that Brosnahan, Brie, Rae, Shaw, and others could provide in the actress field. (With my dream nominee, “Nathan for You” star Nathan Fielder, a very long shot, I’m assuming Bateman and Hader make it in.)

Hader and returning best actor champion Donald Glover are rare examples among actors of what’s become commonplace among actresses — Emmy-worthy forces of nature who define shows that speak to our moment. It may be that so many shows led by women seem to speak to a moment at which women are being heard more clearly than any time in recent memory; from “Glow”’s vision of a utopian troupe of collaborative artists to “Insecure”’s frankness about both sex and complicated friendships to “Maisel”’s vision of a woman coming into her own post-divorce, shows led by powerfully creative moment seem of the moment. But, crucially, those shows also exist; at a time where much of TV, from dramas like the upcoming “Sharp Objects” to the newly female-led “Today” show (and excluding late night, naturally) is doing a better job of reflecting the subjectivity and experience of half the population, comedies centered around women are rising to the top, more inherently interesting, perhaps, for quite how long we were denied stories like these.

Which is why, in a very crowded field, I’m rooting for Pamela Adlon, a nominee last year, to take the actress prize in this anything-could-happen year. She’s the creative force behind a show whose perspective is earth-shattering in its mundanity. Adlon’s Sam Fox is a single mom struggling to muddle through her career and the challenges of her personal life; that none of those challenges are operatically conveyed but rather shown through shifts in bearing, exhalations, moments in which Adlon just carries on, is the point.

It’s the kind of story that, when told by and about a man — as in the case of Adlon’s former creative partner, Louis C.K., and his show “Louie”—takes on self-dramatizingly epic, heroic qualities. Even before C.K. was cut loose, though, Adlon had made a project that looked like her sensibility. It was a show whose quicksilver shifts through emotions land — as in a bravura sequence during which Sam throws herself a fake funeral to finally get some attention from her kids — on a moment of real reflection, evaluation that’s as likely to reveal something Sam would change about herself than something she’s doing right. She’s a creator whose achievement stands apart from the predations of C.K., as the differences in outlook between “Better Things” and “Louie” make clear, and one who, like so many other potential nominees in the field, is making art on her own terms. That the art she made was so big-hearted and empathetic even in its hardest moments elevated it to among TV’s best shows and performances.

“Better Things” is among a wave of comedies coming from perspectives we’ve too long been denied — and that so many of them exist creates a very happy problem, with a crowded category worth closely watching as much as any come Emmy night.

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