Outstanding Drama Series
Game of Thrones (HBO)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Mad Men (AMC)
WINNER: Mad Men
One of the chief complaints about the Emmys is how often they get stuck in repetitive holding patterns and reward the same thing year after year. Normally I’d find it boring that a show has won four years in a row, but here I am hoping that Mad Men manages to extend its streak to become the most winning drama series in Emmy history. Although this was an excellent TV season, I felt that most of television’s shows took a slight step down in quality from the year before. The Good Wife (my pick last year) still bristled with clever plotlines and the best casting on television, but lost a little momentum without the advantage of a political campaign storyline to give the show a larger scope and context. Justified and Game of Thrones certainly didn’t disappoint considering how often each was able to deliver some of the most exciting scenes in television, but they both also might have been too sprawling in ambition to really establish a firm seasonal narrative. Two new series really impressed me this year, including HBO’s woefully unlucky Luck, which really did a fantastic job of developing its own language and distinct sense of place and character. With the show cancelled, this is Luck’s only shot at the category, even though one gets the sense it was on the path to becoming on of TV’s all-time great series. If anything challenged Mad Men this year it was Homeland, which took a seemingly played out concept of post-9/11 paranoia and turned it into something unbelievably involving and tense without coming at the expense of fully shaded characters. Still, it was Mad Men that kept its grip on my heart this year, delivering week after week of masterful (and at times, highly experimental) writing and beautifully rendered character work that sought to explore the mystique of human fulfillment. Never go away for that long again.
NOTE: If people are going to get mad at anything on this list, it’s that I left off Breaking Bad from this category. I get why people like the show (I honestly do too) but I’ve never been able to nail down the intention of its tone and this last season seemed packed with one too many implausible and goofy “fuck yeah” moments that made me feel like the show wasn’t really grounded in anything real anymore. Don’t worry, most disagree with me, including Emmy voters.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad (AMC)
Jon Hamm, Mad Men (AMC)
Jason Isaacs, Awake (NBC)
Damian Lewis, Homeland (SHO)
Timothy Olyphant, Justified (FX)
WINNER: Jon Hamm
Mad Men might have a firm grip on the drama category, but Jon Hamm has never been able to secure the Best Actor trophy that I feel is long overdue for him. It was fascinating and vaguely unsettling watching Don essentially start anew this season and gradually shift his focus from his work to his new wife who he discovered didn’t rely on him quite as much as he thought. I can’t really think of a scene more moving this year than the hand holding one between Don and Peggy. While I might not be Breaking Bad’s biggest champion, I certainly can’t argue with any Emmy voters who’s want to give Bryan Cranston a fourth trophy for the excellent work he’s done transforming Walter White from mild-mannered school teacher to frequently terrifying villain. Still, I’d like to see a new person at the podium, especially when there are this many excellent leading men out there. Timothy Olyphant added a very welcome extra dose of wry humor to his forever badass Raylan Givens on Justified, Damian Lewis expertly toyed with viewer’s expectations and sense of unease on Homeland, and Steve Buscemi continued to subvert genre by playing Nucky Thompson as a crime boss that often feels small and fragile. All of these actors are likely to hear their names being called out on Thursday morning, which is why I might be feeling a bit sentimental for Jason Isaacs (who doesn’t have much of a prayer) and his tender and graceful performance as a grieving father and husband on NBC’s criminally underwatched (and now-cancelled) Awake.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Claire Danes, Homeland (SHO)
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife (CBS)
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men (AMC)
Jessica Pare, Mad Men (AMC)
Emmy Rossum, Shameless (SHO)
Kerry Washington, Scandal (ABC)
WINNER: Claire Danes
Elisabeth Moss should have won last year (although I couldn’t really make myself mad about a Margulies win), but I have to admit that Peggy didn’t have quite enough to do this year (although, again I bring up that tear-inducing scene with Don) to really pose a formidable threat against Claire Danes. Danes put in what is arguably the television performance of the year on Homeland by making her CIA analyst character a fascinating mixture of frayed nerves, psychosis, and razor-sharp intelligence. I’m happy to see Jessica Pare have enough gumption to submit for lead her first go-round, and while many people aren’t Megan Draper fans, I’m not one of them, considering how well Pare parlayed her character into a worthy adversary for Don. I didn’t forget the Zous Bisou Bisou scene either. Julianna Margulies didn’t quite have the arch payoff of last season, but I’m still a huge fan of the way she lets warmth and vulnerability seep out of her stone-faced professionalism. It feels weird not nominating Glenn Close, but I’d rather welcome some new faces to the party. I went back and forth between Michelle Dockery who kept a very rickety second season of Downton Abbey grounded and full of the heartfelt romanticism the season had in too short of a supply and Kerry Washington. I ultimately went with Washington because it’s a good old-fashioned star performance on a major network and one that allowed her to command every scene she was a part of in a way I’ve long known she’s been capable of. But if there’s one performance on TV I wish people would take seriously, it’s Emmy Rossum’s on Shameless. I didn’t particularly care for Rossum before I watched both seasons this year but she has never failed to wow me the fierce, sexy, and frequently hilarious Fiona. Rossum carries almost all the show’s heart on her shoulders and the few moments her character is allowed to crumble under the weight of her responsibilities have been some of the most moving I’ve ever seen. It’s safe to say that if Fiona is crying, so am I. Just look at this gif.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Walton Goggins, Justified (FX)
John Goodman, Damages (Audience)
Nick Nolte, Luck (HBO)
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland (SHO)
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad (AMC)
John Slattery, Mad Men (AMC)
WINNER: Mandy Patinkin
This just goes to show how often a supporting performance is dependent on the material that it’s been given. I couldn’t find room for my personal winner from last year (Alan Cumming), who just didn’t have a fluid way to get into the main crux of The Good Wife’s season’s storyline despite some highly watchable verbal sparring with awesome guest stars like Parker Posey and Amy Sedaris. Likewise, I’m shocked that I’m leaving off last year’s actual winner (Game of Throne’s Peter Dinklage) who just didn’t have as many memorable scenes as he did last season, most likely because the show he’s on has to visit so many different people each week. Instead, I’m going with some odd choices. Mandy Patinkin, so long a charmingly hammy actor, went the complete opposite route on Homeland with a wonderfully subtle performance that felt more and more important to the overall success of the season the more you thought about it. John Goodman was amazing in a season of Damages no one saw because of a network shift to DirecTV’s exclusive channel, but he was mesmerizing as a crooked C.E.O. of a Blackwater-esque security firm who used scripture and religion to validate his own terrifying violence and hubris. Elsewhere, Aaron Paul continued to impress through Jessie Pinkman’s bouts with nihilism and misdirection, while John Slattery and Walton Goggins kept up their usual fantastic work on the respective series, each injecting their scenes with enough cool charisma and fiery determinism to nearly upstage their leading men. Finally, I had to give a nom to Nick Nolte who gave a soulful (and at times unintelligible) performance as a man in love who understood his horse and not much else. I’ll miss a whole lot about Luck, but nothing more than Nolte. This category was an embarrassment of riches; I came up with a dozen more viable candidates, including Fringe’s John Noble and Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Rose Byrne, Damages (Audience)
Lauren Graham, Parenthood (NBC)
Lena Heady, Game of Thrones (HBO)
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (AMC)
Kelly Macdonald, Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife (CBS)
WINNER: Christina Hendricks
With no Margo Martindale to speak of (I miss her too), the field finally seems open for Christina Hendricks to win this category (and surprisingly become the first Mad Men actor to win an Emmy… something doesn’t compute here), and it’s the perfect time considering the major changes Joan faced this year that Hendricks handled with aplomb. Past winner Panjabi really came alive again this year as she rebuilt her friendship with Alicia and sprung into self-preservation mode by the end of the season. I may be speaking to a personal bias, what with my Rose Byrne obsession, but I’ve always been drawn to steely female characters and I’m often challenged by the way Byrne portrays Ellen as if rage is always seething beneath the surface. Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret will always be the most involving character on Boardwalk Empire to me (and I’ll never get tired of hearing that accent), while Lena Heady on Game Of Thrones ended up being the show’s most improved in the second season, stealing practically every scene she was in, especially when she was drinking and even when she was up against Peter Dinklage. Finally, Parenthood has a total of 4 women I want to nominate here, but I’ll go with Graham, who has wisely submitted herself in supporting this year. Here’s hoping the eternally self-conscious Sarah will lead Graham to the Emmy nomination she’s been owed ever since Lorelei Gilmore said her first word. As for Maggie Smith…I know we all watched all of Downton this year, but I can guarantee you that every memorable Dowager Countess line you’re thinking of happened during the first season.
Outstanding Comedy Series
Happy Endings (ABC)
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Yes, it pains me that 30 Rock wasn’t able to join this party too, but I just can’t justify it passing up any of these this year. I had plans for 30 Rock (and probably Cougar Town) being here for most of the year, but then April came and HBO premiered Veep and Girls. Veep’s relentless mean streak and insult humor frequently had me howling with laughter, while it’s polar opposite – or should I say Poehler opposite – government series Parks and Recreation managed to pull off an ambitious season-long narrative and pack it full of sweetly worn character moments and grin-inducing sincerity. Girls seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it type of show but I found it incredibly refreshing and capable of dealing with situations in a way I haven’t really seen on TV before. The season finale was sublime. I didn’t see the first season of Happy Endings but I heard enough buzz over last summer to give it a try when it started this year and I couldn’t be gladder I did. Fast-paced manic humor is a favorite of mine (which is also why I have such a soft spot for Cougar Town) and Happy Endings’ super-stellar cast more than capably handles the show’s infectious brand of over-the-top zaniness. Louie is probably the single best looking show on TV as I’m constantly blown away by the skill Louis C.K. not only shows as a writer, but as an adept filmmaker as well. I admire the way Louie is essentially a different show each and every week and I continue to be impressed by the deft way Louie teases out mature observations on life from what are often very ludicrous settings. It’s that sense of fearlessness that makes me love Community, which is why I’m going to award the show with my pick for best comedy series this year. Community will likely be a very different show without Dan Harmon at the helm next year so I’m using this as an opportunity to thank Community for being unafraid to challenge sitcom convention (without ever losing its appreciation of the genre) and create some of the weirdest material to ever make it to network TV. The days of parallel universe pizza parties, faux-Ken Burns documentaries and video game episodes may be over but I’m really glad we had the chance to watch them at all.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock (NBC)
Louis C.K., Louie (FX)
Garret Dillahunt, Raising Hope (FOX)
Rob Lowe, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Joel McHale, Community (NBC)
Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
WINNER: Louis C.K.
This is usually the category with the least worth nominating, and with Steve Carell no longer a factor, I was expecting diminishing returns. Thankfully, a couple of guys (Adam Scott and Garret Dillahunt) decided to make like Rob Lowe and submit themselves in a category where competition is a lot less intense. The clear winner is Louis C.K., not only as compensation for being the auteur behind Louie, but for proving himself to be one hell of an actor that’s capable of infusing each scene with a strong sense of pathos and everyman desperation. Baldwin had a ton of fun playing off Mary Steenburgen this year and maybe had a career highlight during the St. Patrick’s Day episode, while Joel McHale managed to make the narcissistic Jeff a dense and complicated central figure. Garret Dillahunt is a ton of fun to watch on Raising Hope as he’s essentially the real-life version of Homer Simpson on it. His scenes with Martha Plimpton (who I’m afraid I didn’t have room to nominate this year thanks to a slew of newcomers) display some of the most natural comedic chemistry I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not often you have two leading men on the same show that weren’t even there when the show started, but Adam Scott and Rob Lowe have certainly improved Parks and Rec since they showed up, and while I wouldn’t really agree that Lowe’s is a leading performance, it’s hard to argue with Scott’s presence here considering how great of a straight man he was for Poehler to bounce right off of.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Courteney Cox, Cougar Town (ABC)
Laura Dern, Enlightened (HBO)
Lena Dunham, Girls (HBO)
Tina Fey, 30 Rock (NBC)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (HBO)
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
WINNER: Amy Poehler
Choosing between JLD, Poehler and Dern has been like a veritable Sophie’s Choice for me, but I think I’ve finally narrowed in on Amy Poehler as the rightful winner, mainly because I think it’s going to go down as one of the great comedic performances of all time and I’d really hate for her to not win an award for it. From the Model U.N. to her tearful scene in the voting booth, Leslie Knope made me laugh, cry, and basically became my personal hero. I would be equally happy if Laura Dern won the award for her terrific performance on the always-fascinating Enlightened. Enlightened isn’t really a comedy or a drama but Dern absolutely nails Amy’s daffy aloofness, which veers from cringe inducing to absolutely heartbreaking. There’s a scene in the 4th episode where she narrates the dissolution of her marriage that I’ve watched over a dozen times and never failed to tear up at. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an Emmy favorite, which is why I may have resigned her to my personal third place, although that’s no fault of her hilarious and wildly acidic star turn on Veep. It might be the finest role of her career and that’s really saying something. Down the ladder is Lena Dunham who has played a fictionalized version of herself with vulnerability, great comic timing and a distinct lack of vanity. Tina Fey has really developed as an actress as 30 Rock has gone along and it was a pleasure watching Liz finally gain the confidence to make mature life decisions in the most current season. Finally, I picked Courteney Cox because she makes me laugh and because the Emmys have historically hated her and that’s just not cool.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Adam Driver, Girls (HBO)
Max Greenfield, New Girl (FOX)
Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Danny Pudi, Community (NBC)
Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Damon Wayans Jr., Happy Endings (ABC)
WINNER: Nick Offerman
In these supporting categories it’s tempting to want to nominate the entire casts of Parks and Recreation and Community (well, not really Chevy Chase), but there are so many other great comedic performances out there that I had to share the wealth a bit. That’s a bummer for Aziz Ansari, Jim Rash, and Donald Glover, but they can at least take solace (because they’re sooo worried about my picks) in the fact that they did hilarious work as usual this year. Instead I went with Nick Offerman who is indisputably one of the funniest people to ever be on TV, even if I think he didn’t get quite as many showcases for his gifts as he did during season 3. Offerman’s co-star Chris Pratt almost pulled off the impossible task of usurping Ron Swanson, but I generally think a great supporting performance should be about making the rest of the cast look good just as much as it is about scene-stealing, which is why I have to give the edge to Offerman. Community made great strides going into the psyche of its most complicated character, and I think Danny Pudi handled the late season detachment of Abed with precision and a sneakily resonant amount of heart. As for the newcomers, I don’t think people are quite aware of how fantastic Adam Driver is on Girls. Initially grotesque and unlikable, Driver managed to make his character someone worth rooting for over the span of just 10 episodes. Both Driver and Lena Dunham were willing to be depicted in an unflattering light over the show’s first season, and I hope they’re each rewarded for it. Max Greenfield ended up being the breakout star on a show that was supposed to be a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel and he was never short of wonderfully pathetic as a guy trying to overcome his overwhelming douchebag tendencies. Finally, Happy Endings may be an ensemble show in the truest sense of the term, but Damon Wayans Jr. is incredibly charming as Brad and has quite the knack for physical comedy. Watch him twirl in the second season premiere.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Alison Brie, Community (NBC)
Eliza Coupe, Happy Endings (ABC)
Gillian Jacobs, Community (NBC)
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock (NBC)
Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Eden Sher, The Middle (ABC)
WINNER: Eliza Coupe
Hey look, a category where only one of my six theoretical picks has a snowball’s chance in hell of actually being nominated! I always feel bad leaving off Yvette Nicole Brown, but if there’s one character Community writers have continued to short change, it’s Shirley. However, Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie were given great material this year and I continue to marvel at the way Jacobs has played Britta as someone whose sadness and stunning lack of self-confidence boil under the surface of everything she does. As for Alison Brie, I just adore her character and she does an excellent job balancing the cuteness with her more severely manic qualities. Still, as much as I’ve gone to bat for Jacobs since the beginning of the series, if I’m being honest I’d have to say nobody made me laugh more than Coupe on Happy Endings this year. Coupe’s hilarious reaction shots bring to mind Amy Sedaris and it’s a riot watching her eyes bug out when she’s delivering fast-paced monologues. If Emmys are about submitting individual moments, I can’t think of a better Emmy clip than the fake fight she had with Brad during “The Butterfly Effect Effect” episode. After this many years, I might consider shepherding out Jane Krakowski in favor of fresher faces but Jenna was given the best material she’s ever had during this season thanks to her character’s growing fame and “sexual walkabout.” As for Aubrey Plaza, April got plenty of her usual deadpan insults and displays of idle mayhem this year, but she also had a quiet and affecting arch where her character eventually came to accept adult responsibility and found herself truly caring about the people and things around her. For the last spot, I considered Cougar Town’s Busy Phillips and How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders (who pulled off and grounded what some could consider a rather manipulative infertility subplot), but in the end I had to go with Eden Sher of The Middle for a creating an instantly likable and refreshingly cynicism-free character that operates in a very effective classic sitcom-style. The Middle is incredibly underrated (it’s light years ahead of Modern Family at this point) and she’s a huge part of the show’s quiet growth.
– Marcus Michalik knows you quit reading after he snubbed Breaking Bad.