This year’s Emmy nominations are almost upon us, and with the possibilities more scattered than usual, so are our opinions on who deserves to get a nod. So, with voting now underway, Variety’s TV critics got together to hash out their favorite contenders and — more importantly — point to some of the stellar performances that might not have enough support or clout to be recognized, but really ought to be.
OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
Daniel D’Addario: We seem to be looking at a field of all of last year’s most exciting new shows—as well as the comeback of “Game of Thrones” after a year off. (In an age where there’s little consensus, on TV or elsewhere, it’s nice to have a genuine smash in the mix.) But the category needs some new blood, and either Netflix’s “Mindhunter” or HBO’s “The Deuce”—or both!—would be a fine addition. Both series use the untidiness of recent American history to tell stories that grow in power as the first season wears on, building towards crescendos that signaled, in both cases, surprising ambition. Either show could, someday, be an heir to that other great period show about today, “The Americans,” which should also be nominated!
Caroline Framke: It’s definitely a weird year for this category; I won’t be surprised if it ends up looking almost exactly like last year’s. But that would mean that this truly excellent final season of “The Americans” would go ignored, and I won’t stand for that. That show stuck the landing like few others ever have; if it’s not recognized, it’d be a confusing shame. Otherwise, the only other horse I have in this race is BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” which burst out the gate fully formed and became my most addictive TV pleasure.
D’Addario: “Killing Eve”—despite its body count—almost seems too much fun for a category that’s been defined in recent years by Walter White’s descent into evil, Cersei Lannister’s machinations, and, last year, the suffering of handmaids. The last show with any sense of humor that won here was maybe “Mad Men”? Which makes me excited about the idea that “Eve” might make it in.
Framke: RIP “Mad Men,” a sneak farcical comedy of our time!
OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
Framke: As far as I’m concerned, this category should by all rights be the most competitive. The most deserving shoo-ins are Amazon’s screwball darling “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and FX’s genre-defying “Atlanta.” They couldn’t be more opposite from each other, but both prove the value of networks trusting creators with as singular voices as Amy Sherman-Palladino and Donald Glover.
But I’m hoping the Academy can recognize some of the sharp and weird comedy outside their usual borders. I’m talking about creative, boundary-pushing shows like NBC’s “The Good Place,” Netflix’s “American Vandal,” and even HBO’s “High Maintenance,” all of which I devoured this year and would love to see formally rewarded for their consistently smart work. I’d also be thrilled if the Netflix’s wonderful “One Day at a Time” snuck in here, as it by all rights should.
D’Addario: I feel so predictable looking at this field: I’d be thrilled, for instance, with either “Maisel” or “Atlanta” completing the phenomenal year each show had with a win. And while I agree with you that there’s great stuff outside of Emmy’s traditional sweet spot—what’s probably my favorite comedy series of the year, “Nathan for You,” has been submitted as a sketch comedy series and isn’t eligible here—the comedies I’m pulling for merge establishment pedigrees with ascendant new voices.
FX’s “Better Things,” a show that presents a single mother’s circuitous path towards happiness, and HBO’s “Insecure,” about dating and friendship in a Los Angeles so richly portrayed it’s almost tactile, don’t reinvent the sitcom. But both shows use conventional form to share stories TV viewers are not yet tired of. Both shows had good first seasons and, last year, terrific second outings; they’re learning how to stretch the boundaries of their format.
Framke: In that vein, I find myself rooting hard for The CW’s consistently great “Jane the Virgin” after its fourth season, even if I know the chances of it getting nominated are slim after the Academy’s ignored it for its entire run. (Only the narrator has ever been nominated; I weep for Gina Rodriguez.)
OUTSTANDING LIMITED SERIES
D’Addario: We’ve gotten spoiled in recent years—the era of “Big Little Lies,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” and “Fargo”—such that this year seems pretty widely considered “weak.” There are plenty of credible nominees that exist in a slightly older mode: The tony TV literary adaptation. I was pleasantly surprised by both Netflix’s “Alias Grace” and Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose,” series that assay widely-respected recent novels with elegance, but verve, too. They may not be quite as edgy as the limited series that have bloomed in recent years, but they weren’t “Masterpiece Theatre,” either.
Framke: I’ll freely admit that this category doesn’t excite me much this year, with a couple exceptions. One is “Alias Grace,” which crawled under my skin for days after I finished it. The other is “American Crime Story: Assassination of Gianni Versace,” which didn’t get nearly as much attention or adulation as “People vs. OJ,” but was slick and confrontational in a way that kept my attention.
D’Addario: I’m glad we agree on “Alias Grace”—its direction, by Mary Harron, was eerily discomfiting, expanding the question of just what accused murderess Grace does and doesn’t know about her own capacity for evil. But I’m going to diverge from you on “American Crime Story,” which troubled me and has stayed with me in not-good ways. While many found this the pinnacle of TV impresario Ryan Murphy’s achievements, I was dubious of its psychologizing of Andrew Cunanan, and the degree to which it seemed to paint all gay men as either villains or victims.
OUTSTANDING TV MOVIE
Framke: Another weird category full of a mishmash of contenders! (Seriously: the submissions range from “Doctor Who” to “Paterno” to “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.”) From where I’m sitting, though, the strongest is HBO’s “The Tale.” Jennifer Fox’s searing examination of her own childhood sexual abuse blends storytelling techniques to astonishing and appropriately disturbing effect.
D’Addario: This is a mixed bag—with few really credible nominees. “The Tale” is one, and should win, though I’ve been disappointed it didn’t spark quite as much conversation among TV fans as I’d suspected it might. (Surely some potential viewers were turned off by its earned reputation as especially wrenching.) I’d also nominate the “U.S.S. Callister” episode of “Black Mirror,” which shares with “The Tale” a brutally clear-eyed understanding of how men abuse their power. (That it’s not really a TV movie doesn’t make it less worthy!)
Framke: Hey, as long as TV keeps ballooning chapters into feature-length episodes, I’m all for shunting them off into another more fitting category.
LEAD ACTOR, DRAMA
D’Addario: At least three spots have opened up in this category—Bob Odenkirk isn’t eligible for “Better Call Saul” this year, neither is Anthony Hopkins for “Westworld,” and I think we can assume Kevin Spacey won’t be back. I’d throw a nomination Jonathan Groff’s way for his detailed work in “Mindhunter,” in which he summoned the dutifulness of a lawman from a bygone era without ever feeling too “period.” But my winner would be a return nominee; this is one of several places where “The Americans” deserves long-overdue recognition. Matthew Rhys’s work in the finale—an episodelong collapse of quiet resignation—was a new high for him.
Framke: 100% agreed. Rhys had an extraordinarily hard job this season as his character slowly deflated into a husk of himself, and he nailed it. Looking elsewhere, HBO’s bumped two actors up from the supporting categories where they were previously nominated to leading: “Game of Thrones'” Kit Harington and “Westworld’s” Jeffrey Wright. Of the two, it’s not even a contest for me: Wright’s work has been extraordinary from the get go.
D’Addario: I agree that Jeffrey Wright is doing something special—and I think the moment to have rewarded Harington would have been after season 6’s “Battle of the Bastards.” I worry, though, that “Westworld” is such an ensemble show that it’s difficult to justify giving any cast member a “lead” trophy; it’s hard to judge Wright’s work against Rhys’s given the difference in screen time. But he’ll be a very worthy nominee.
LEAD ACTRESS, DRAMA
Framke: This is, as ever, a very competitive category. The ever great Elisabeth Moss is guaranteed a slot for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as is “The Crown’s” Claire Foy in her last year of eligibility. But I’ll be blunt: Keri Russell deserves this. Her work in the final season of “The Americans” as one of TV’s most complex characters was nothing short of perfect. Just watch the series finale’s cold open and tell me your heart doesn’t twinge at That Gasp!
D’Addario: Agreed; Russell truly ought to win. (It’s a shame Foy is likely to go unrewarded for two seasons of great work, but becoming an international star isn’t such a bad bargain.) I’d also like to see “The Deuce’s” Maggie Gyllenhaal, fighting for—and winning—respect for her streetwise sex worker character, get a nomination.
Framke: I’ll also throw out Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer of “Killing Eve.” That they’re both submitting in the Leading category will probably mean that if either gets a nod, it’ll be Oh. And she’d deserve it! But Comer’s performance was so electric that it’d be cool to see her recognized, too.
LEAD ACTOR, COMEDY
D’Addario: It’s interesting, and telling, how much less rich this category feels than best actress in a comedy. Of course I’m rooting for returning champion Glover, who made a case for himself in the dazzling “Teddy Perkins” episode of “Atlanta,” in which he played a tormented, disfigured man destroyed by his own artistic ambitions. I’d also nominate “Nathan for You” star Nathan Fielder, summoning sympathy for all the scammers, and Eric McCormack, who did yeoman’s work on the iffy revival of “Will & Grace,” carrying much of the show’s emotional content as he came to terms with aging.
Framke: It’s bizarre to me that Ted Danson—TV royalty Ted Danson!—couldn’t get a nod for his awesome work on “The Good Place” last year, so I’d love to see that fixed this time around. But whew, did Bill Hader impress me with “Barry.” His HBO show was often incredibly dark, but Hader’s deft performance as a depressed hitman still made the most of his elastic comedy skills.
D’Addario: Agreed on Hader, who gave what is likely the best dramatic performance in a comedy of the past year.
LEAD ACTRESS, COMEDY
D’Addario: It’s a tough field, as so many people feel overdue after Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s incontestable streak with “Veep.” (She’s ineligible this year, and I’m looking forward to her return.) Here are three dream nominees who happen to sit at the center of Emmy-worthy shows: Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), and the seeming frontrunner, Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). And, though it’s an ensemble show, I would throw “Glow’s” Alison Brie a nomination just for her Audrey Hepburn impersonation. This category is crowded!
Framke: Agreed on every front! The only other person I’d legitimately flip tables for is Justina Machado, who anchors almost every “One Day at a Time” scene and makes it shine. The show generally deserves more notice, but if I had to pick a single nomination for it, it’d be this one.
LEAD ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
Framke: Given your ambivalence towards “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” I’ll stump here for Darren Criss, whose performance just about chilled my blood with every blink. And on the complete opposite of the spectrum (and in what I’ll admit is a “no way in hell” nomination dream), I’ll say that Jimmy Tatro‘s surprisingly grounded “American Vandal” role deserves more attention than it got.
D’Addario: I’ll admit I didn’t vibrate on “Vandal’s” frequency. I admired Kyle MacLachlan’s sheer commitment to his “Twin Peaks” role(s) enough to hope he lands a nomination, but find myself rooting for “Patrick Melrose’s” Benedict Cumberbatch. The actor’s no stranger to the Emmys thanks to “Sherlock,” but his compelling, painful, redemptive journey through addiction and self-loathing on “Melrose” deserves notice.
LEAD ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
D’Addario: The prize seems to be Laura Dern’s to lose, and given what she accomplishes in “The Tale,” I can’t argue with that. But I’d like to see Sarah Gadon at the Microsoft Theater for her work on “Alias Grace.” It was a performance that earns the description “otherworldly,” transporting us into a floating, indefinable psyche and transcending Grace’s obvious suffering with something like, well, grace. (Pardon the pun.)
Framke: I loved Gadon’s work; her reel could even just be the show’s opening three minutes, a stark closeup of her face to a slowly chilling voiceover. But Netflix has been pushing another actress in this category harder, and while I didn’t love “Godless,” it’s hard to argue with Michelle Dockery’s performance.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, DRAMA
Framke: My bet is that “Stranger Things” and “Game of Thrones” dominate this one. But man, I hope that Noah Emmerich can squeeze in here. His “Americans” role isn’t as overtly intense as Russell and Rhys’s, but as Emmerich showed during That Garage Scene in the finale, he’s always been solid as a rock.
D’Addario: Yeah, between those two shows and “Westworld,” there are plenty of credible nominees in the world of genre. I’d be delighted with a nomination for Emmerich, as well as for a performer with a more obviously showy role; though not all of “The Crown” works, the backstory we get for Matt Smith’s Prince Philip in season 2 makes him all the more compelling, and Smith sells his cruelty and his scars beautifully.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, DRAMA
D’Addario: “Game of Thrones,” the winningest prime-time series ever at the Emmys, has only gotten a prize for one performer, Peter Dinklage. If its golden streak continues this year, I hope Lena Headey, so good in the “Queen’s Justice” episode, gets carried along. I’d also make room for Yvonne Strahovski, who’s become such a valuable part of how “The Handmaid’s Tale” depicts complicity.
Framke: Agreed on Strahovski, who’s done some great (not to mention very tricky) work this season. But the field is crowded for “Handmaid’s Tale” actresses; Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel are also very solid contenders. I also won’t be mad if Vanessa Kirby gets a nod for her last year as “The Crown’s” restless Princess Margaret, and even though I know Margo Martindale’s Guest Actress win for five minutes of “The Americans” became something of a joke, she really did crush it in the final season when she finally got to be a series regular.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, COMEDY
Framke: At least a couple of this category’s shoo-ins really deserve it; “Will & Grace’s” Sean Hayes and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” Tituss Burgess bring life and sharp physical comedy to every scene lucky enough to have them. I’d also throw in Tony Shalhoub for “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Jaime Camil for “Jane the Virgin,” Lamorne Morris for “New Girl,” and fight anyone who made me pick between “The Good Place’s” William Jackson Harper and Manny Jacinto.
D’Addario: I share your enthusiasm for Hayes (as agile as ever) and Shalhoub, but my affections may be less divided; to me, the category’s clear standout is “Atlanta’s” Brian Tyree Henry, as a rising rap star simmering with ambition that even of his intimates seem barely to understand.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, COMEDY
D’Addario: I’ll restrain myself from commenting on how unfair it is to pit “Saturday Night Live” cast members against stars constrained to one role and stump for “Atlanta’s” Zazie Beetz, who looks more and more like a breakout, and Betty Gilpin, without whose righteous anger “GLOW” doesn’t work.
Framke: God, I love Gilpin. (And having already seen season 2, I’ll just say that she only gets better.) I’m also obsessed with Annie Murphy as a socialite with a heart of gold in “Schitt’s Creek,” since she manages the incredible feat of stealing scenes from Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. And I’ll stump once again for “One Day at a Time,” because just as with my Danson confusion, I can’t believe the Academy won’t find it in its heart to reward Rita “EGOT” Moreno.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
Framke: If the FYC campaigns are any indication, this might be Jeff Daniels’ race to lose, but his consciously hammy performance in “Godless” left me pretty cold. Instead, I find myself in a somewhat hilarious position that my middle school self would find perfectly appropriate: rooting for Ricky Martin’s heartbreaking performance in “ACS: Versace.” I will also happily accept Cody Fern’s.
D’Addario: Cody Fern was a genuine discovery in “Versace.” My vote, though, would go to Jason Ritter, putting his considerable charm towards risky and, eventually, genuinely scary use as a predator in “The Tale.” It’s a performance that walks close to the edge without losing balance.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
D’Addario: If anyone onscreen in “Versace” earned a prize, it’s Penelope Cruz’s uncanny Donatella, balancing feral pain with the need to save face. In my dream world, Riley Keough’s sharp, dogged work in “Paterno” pays off, and Frances Conroy gets in for an eerie, brief appearance in “The Tale,” one that leaves a painful afterburn.
Framke: I see your Penelope Cruz and raise you a Judith Light — which might be one of my favorite sentences I’ve ever written. Bless TV forever and ever, amen.