Since the first episode of the NBC tear-jerker, much of the character arc for Brown’s Randall was that he was the grown, adopted son desperate to have some kind of connection to his origins. Most of this culminated in the episode “Memphis,” in which Randall took his birth father, William (supporting actor in a drama nominee Ron Cephas Jones), on a final road trip that answered some of Randall’s questions.
Thanks, in part, to the casting of Hopkins, audiences went into this Wild West fantasy immediately believing that Dr. Robert Ford was the puppetmaster of his robot hosts in his futuristic theme park as well as of the people running it. In “Trompe L’Oeil,” that we see a vulnerable side to this previously Daedalian figure.
“Better Call Saul” (AMC)
In “Expenses,” the seventh episode of season three, the series continues to discuss Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill’s “slip” into “Breaking Bad’s” Saul Goodman as we see more clues as to how much of his natural instincts as a con artist will come at the expense of his relationships. Even his girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn), exhausted from work, seems legitimately horrified at how easily he can spot a mark when out for a casual night of drinking.
“The Americans” (FX)
The episode “Crossbreed” examines the sins of the father: Is Matthew Rhys’ Soviet spy Philip upset at the recollection that his father worked at a prison camp, taking from (presumably dead) inmates just so his family could survive? Or is this heartbreak over Frank Langella’s Gabriel, the father figure who breaks this news, announces his retirement and subsequently abandons Philip? And how much has Philip been lying to himself about his own life and career?
“Ray Donovan” (Showtime)
For all his faults, Schreiber’s titular celebrity fixer has always tried to keep his work and family lives separate. That rule went out the window with the fourth-season finale, “Rattus Rattus,” in which he enlisted everyone from his long-suffering wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), to abused brother, Bunchy (Dash Mihok), to take down the mob that stands in his way. The plan works, but is there any hope for the Donovans now that they’ve gotten a taste of blood?
“House of Cards” (Netflix)
Plenty of think pieces have debated what it means to show someone like Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian and nefarious Frank Underwood running the White House in the age of Donald Trump. And while it’s unlikely Emmy voters will be able to ignore the similarities — Russia! Voter turnout! Resignation? — it’s important to remember that this is fiction and, as much fun as it has been to see Frank succeed, it’s also fun to watch him fall.
“This Is Us” (NBC)
Throughout the flashbacks of NBC’s freshman drama, we have been told that Ventimiglia’s Jack Pearson was darn-near-perfect. He sacrificed his own career goals for a desk job that supported his wife and three kids and he could both do push-ups and read Vogue with the best of them. This nostalgia is easy because Jack is dead. But, as we learn in the season finale, “Moonshadow,” Jack had his demons and they may well cause his untimely demise.
It’s hard to encapsulate in 20-odd minutes all of the conflicting emotions that U.S. citizens have about Donald Trump’s election, but the episode “Lemons” might have come the closest. Airing in conjunction with the inauguration and focusing partly on Anderson’s Dre and his co-workers’ thoughts on patriotism, the climax is given to Anderson with a stirring monologue about our country’s systemic racism and how he, as a black man, is still able to love it.
“Master of None” (Netflix)
For all of the commentary Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix comedy gives us on race and gender issues, this Netflix comedy is still a story about a man who is looking for love in New York City. And this season, he can’t help but fall for a woman who is already taken. Empathetic montages such as a slow cab ride away from said beloved as Ansari’s character, Dev, ponders his predicament, remind us that he deserves happiness too.
Nothing sounds sadder than a broken, starving man trying to make do with a can of noodles for which he doesn’t even have a can opener — unless that man is Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets, an out-of-work rodeo clown who can’t even light a smoke without burning off his ponytail. In the second season’s opener “Freaks,” Chip meets a rogue band of performers who come to save him, but live too much on the fringe of society for him to join up full time. Bonus points for also playing Chip’s brother, Dale!
It’s fitting that Donald Glover’s character in his FX series is named Earn because “Atlanta” seems to be about his attempts to attain something: respect, a relationship, and a reputation in the music business. And for all of those things to happen, he first must find a way to earn an income. In the series’ first episode, “The Big Bang,” he must convince his cousin, Brian Tyree Henry’s up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, to let him manage his career. But the ways Earn goes about them are not typical comedy fare allowing Glover to showcase a wide range of emotions.
William H. Macy
For Frank Gallagher, Macy’s con-artist patriarch on Showtime’s long-running dramedy, the struggle is real and can also be hysterical. The episode “You Sold Me the Laundromat, Remember?” finds him both proud that daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) has become a business owner and still a trickster who immediately figures out how he can benefit from that situation (by impersonating the dead husband of the store’s previous owner, guest star June Squibb’s slightly senile Etta). Macy somehow always manages to make Frank charming, making audiences understand just why his family hasn’t tried to kill him a second time yet.
Tambor’s Maura has long lamented that she’s raised some pretty selfish kids. But one of the best parts of this Amazon dramedy’s third season is that Maura finally realizes that maybe the apple doesn’t fall from the tree: be it a poorly thought-out plan to track down a troubled trans teen at the Slauson Super Mall (and judge other women she meets along the way) or getting an education on privilege and dating from others in her community. While the first season saw Maura transitioning physically, this season focused on internal progress for Maura — and Tambor, by default.
Courtesy of Amazon
“The Night Of” (HBO)
Through the course of this HBO miniseries about a man on trial for murder, we see Ahmed take Naz, a college student just trying to scrape by, from Bambi-eyed innocent to cold-blooded killer. What is disturbing, and what Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s story is saying about the criminal justice system, is that Ahmed makes you believe that either personality could be true of this character. Ahmed is also nominated for his guest turn on fellow HBO show “Girls,” a role that couldn’t be more different than Naz.
“Sherlock: The Lying Detective” (PBS)
Just because Cumberbatch’s drug-addled detective, Sherlock Holmes, may not be able to see that the stranger who shows up on his doorstep may be more than she seems doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to sniff out a killer. Even while going through withdrawal and putting himself at risk, he’s able to catch the egomaniacal crook and mend his friendship with the grieving Watson (Martin Freeman). When he was nominated for “The Last Vow” in 2014, Cumberbatch beat out some stiff competition for a surprise win. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.
Robert De Niro
“The Wizard of Lies” (HBO)
The two-time Oscar winner comes to TV with this biopic of Bernie Madoff. Part of the brilliance of De Niro’s depiction isn’t that he plays into the sensationalism that surrounds the fallen financier, although there is plenty of scene-chewing – especially when journalist Diana B. Henriques, who wrote the book that serves as this project’s basis, appears as herself to interview him. Rather, De Niro makes the role so believable by showing just how (relatively) average and everyday Madoff’s life was. And he particularly excels in scenes with his fellow nominee Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth, Bernie’s wife.
Think that the multi-layered richness of series creator Noah Hawley and his staff’s characters seems complicated for any actor to bring to life? Then remember that McGregor had to do it twice this season. As brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy, McGregor leaned into opportunities to play up absurd humor like watching a perfectly timed death by air conditioner or embracing Minnesota politeness while reacting to the fact that he’s been had.
“Genius” (National Geographic)
What is it with Rush and his habit of playing brilliant, but troubled and misunderstood minds? He has an Oscar for playing pianist David Helfgott in “Shine” and a nomination for playing the Marquis de Sade in “Quills.” With “Genius,” he gets to show Albert Einstein as more than just the quirky physicist with that theory of relativity — and thatch of impressive hair.
“The Night Of” (HBO)
It must be a truly heart-wrenching experience to know you’re cast in a part because of someone else’s sudden death. But Turturro embraces John Stone, dedicating himself to the role of the good-hearted subway lawyer in all his cat-loving, eczema-suffering glory. (Only Turturro could make a feast out of scenes with his feet.) He knows that the job will kill him one day, but he also finds he has the same nagging need for justice as any power attorney with respectable footwear would.