Critic's Notebook: 10 Emmy Nomination Wishes

Sex Education-Gillian Anderson-Publicity Still-H 2019
Sam Taylor/Netflix

Nominations for the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be announced Tuesday morning.

I'm already pre-annoyed at how many of my favorite shows are likely to be ignored and how many lesser shows will be lavished with praise.

What follows is a list of 10 nominations I'll be looking for beyond the main series and lead acting categories. I didn't repeat shows, because otherwise I'd just keep saying, "All the nominations for Succession and Fleabag!" None of them are guaranteed nominees, but I don't think any of them are impossibilities, either. It's just a group of nominees that would make me happy and stave off a modicum of my annoyance.

America to Me Outstanding documentary or nonfiction series — The best thing I saw at Sundance in 2018 was also 2018's best overall TV show, yet for some reason Steve James' Starz series didn't become the critical juggernaut it deserved to be. The year-in-the-life chronicle of a Chicago area public school caught in a day-by-day battle between its progressive aspirations and very real layers of inequality is provocative, heartbreaking, inspirational and funny. Someday there will be full high school and college classes built around America to Me, because every episode offers enough conversation points for near-endless discussion.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette Outstanding variety special (pre-recorded) — I must have watched 15 or 20 Netflix comedy specials this year, all of which are in the running in this overflowing category. You know the one I remember? Hannah Gadsby's raw stand-up special explaining why she's done with stand-up specials, a miraculous piece of writing and stage-holding presence that makes you laugh and then makes you interrogate your entire rainbow of emotions generated by specials like this. So maybe it isn't really a stand-up special at all. Maybe it's a one-woman show, or a staged confessional, or an hourlong rant into the void. No matter how you categorize it, it's remarkable and one of the best things to air in this programming window.

Ramy Youssef, Pamela Adlon and Natasha Lyonne – Acting, writing and directing — The comedy categories have, in recent years, become the home of triple-threats with Donald Glover, Bill Hader and Louis C.K. among those nominated simultaneously for writing, directing and acting (and usually as producers on their respective shows as well). Hader is very likely to repeat his nomination haul from last year, but I'd love to see him joined by this fresh trio. Youssef's work on the 9/11-centric "Strawberries" was sensitive and impressively assured, but his chances at an acting nod are probably hindered by not being in that flashback episode, not that he doesn't have a solid reel otherwise. Adlon, in contrast, is almost a lock to be nominated for acting on Better Things, but somehow Emmy voters have ignored her superlative work directing every episode of the past two seasons and writing or co-writing every episode. Perhaps seeking to give the voters clarity, Better Things has submitted only the third-season finale in the writing and directing categories. Russian Doll submitted a wider variety of episodes, but the finale, Lyonne's first behind-the-camera foray, could put her in this rarified air.

Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us – Outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie — Categorization for movies and miniseries are complicated and that's particularly true in Ava DuVernay's four-part Netflix scorcher recovering the identities of the real men known as the Central Park 5. I don't know, for example, why Niecy Nash is going for a lead actress nod for her excellent, but very supporting, performance as Delores Wise. Jerome, who plays Nash's onscreen son, is also a supporting player for the miniseries' first three hours, but the fourth is a stunning showcase for the Mr. Mercedes and Moonlight veteran, the only actor in the cast to play his character as both a child and a grown-up. Watching Jerome's work as the system tears Korey Wise apart and yet he never sacrifices his spirit becomes the punctuation for the entire series. The clash between the impact of incarceration and Korey's internal strength plays out across a decade and Jerome carries that transformation. This is a tough category, but one Jerome deserves recognition in.

Barry – Outstanding stunt coordination — I'm not sure why this one isn't a no-brainer, but somehow HBO's ambitious blend of hitman action and Hollywood satire didn't earn a nomination last year, when the recognized contenders included worthy offerings like Cobra Kai and GLOW, but also Shameless and Saturday Night Live. Here's hoping the Bill Hader-directed "ronny/lily," a Coen Brothers-style absurdist masterwork featuring a child ninja, a supermarket brawl and several one-shot martial arts battles, makes Barry impossible to deny for its second season.

Gillian Anderson, Sex Education – Outstanding supporting actress in a drama — Apparently an Emmy committee and not Netflix made the blatantly incorrect determination that Sex Education, presumably because of its hour-long running time, is a drama and not a comedy. This call, so tone-deaf it makes me wonder how or why to trust their discretion on anything at all, probably cost Gillian Anderson an Emmy nomination. Anderson's performance as therapist Jean Milburn, great at sex advice but bad at mothering, is a cringe-worthy delight and yet another showcase for a British accent that's close to the X-Files veteran's native tongue these days. It happens that the drama categories are uniformly weaker than the comedy categories this year, which would benefit the Sex Education team's chances except that most of those drama shows are doing uppercase DRAMA things, which makes it hard for a show that mostly wants to be funny, albeit with a ton of heart, to carve out a space. Emmy voters still owe Anderson for Hannibal, but this won't be the year they make good.

Michael Fimognari, The Haunting of Hill House – Outstanding cinematography in a limited series or movie — Look, sometimes we're all just suckers for an extended tracking shot and if you like your cinematography ambitious and attention-grabbing, it doesn't get much better than Fimognari's work in the "Two Storms" episode of this Netflix haunted house saga. Probably the movie/miniseries categories are too packed for The Haunting of Hill House to be a real player in the acting and overall categories, but below-the-line nominations for production design, editing, sound work and cinematography should be easy.

"Holiday Party (I Did a Little Cocaine Tonight),” Documentary Now! – Outstanding original music and lyrics — Written by John Mulaney and Seth Meyers, this ditty from the "Original Cast Album: Co-Op" episode functions as a rhythmically perfect takeoff on "Getting Married Today" from Company and a catchy, silly stand-alone sung by Alex Brightman. It's basically everything that Documentary Now! is at its best — insular, nerdy and kibble for the non-fiction-obsessed and yet capable of playing to a wider audience if only a wider audience knew the show existed. The show is also fully worthy of its third straight outstanding variety sketch series nomination, but this is the one I'm holding my breath for.

Hong Chau, Forever – Outstanding guest actress in a comedy — It's the blessing and curse of Amazon's Forever that after I watched and mostly quite enjoyed this eight-episode Fred Armisen/Maya Rudolph dramedy, the episode I've spent the most time thinking about subsequently is "Andre and Sarah," a stand-alone half-hour focused entirely on guest actors Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau. It was a hell of a year for Chau, who also guested excellently on Amazon's Homecoming and provided the voice for one of my favorite new characters, Pickles Aplenty, from Bojack Horseman. These guest acting categories tend to be inexplicably easy for Emmy voters to screw up, but Chau's performance on Forever made me say, "Man, I'd watch the show built completely around that character in a second," which is the highest of praise. If voters get it right, this category should also include Fleabag guest Kristin Scott Thomas, as well as Tilda Swinton, whose appearance on What We Do in the Shadows was merely the tip of the year's most remarkable one-episode guest acting cast.

Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan for "Janet(s)," The Good Place Outstanding writing for a comedy series — My favorite episode of the third Good Place season was probably "Jeremy Bearimy," but Megan Amram's script wasn't submitted in this category. Fortunately, my second favorite episode was "Janet(s)," a full episode spent in the void of D'Arcy Carden's character. The episode was a twisty, perspective-skewing tour de force that should also earn Carden a supporting actress nomination. Truly, network TV doesn't get more ambitious than this.