TV Critics Debate: Emmy Pleas for 'Succession,' 'PEN15' and 10-Nominee Categories

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critics make the case for their favorites in a year expected to be dominated by 'Game of Thrones' and 'Veep.'
Amazon Studios; HBO; Netflix
Amazon's 'Patriot,' HBO's 'Succession' and Netflix's 'Sex Education' are among shows THR critics hope get some Emmy love.

Daniel Fienberg: Much has been said and written, including by us, about the seeming inevitability of Game of Thrones and Veep as drama and comedy Emmy winners this year. Inevitability isn't always bad. We both love Veep, though you were more enthusiastic about the closing run of Game of Thrones than I ended up being after those last few episodes beat me into submission.

But let's stand as a last bulwark against that inevitability, Tim! Let's fight for some underdogs. With former nominees WestworldThe AmericansThe CrownThe Handmaid's Tale and Stranger Things all missing this cycle, what needs to make the drama series shortlist for you?

Tim Goodman: Well, let me start with the two that won't make it but should. Patriot on Amazon and Counterpart on Starz won't be there and that's annoying, but I'm just going to stew in it (again). I feel better for planting that flag and sticking up for them. I will add that I doubt, alas, there will be a nod for HBO’s The Deuce or Epix’s Get Shorty, either. That said, I think Succession is a hopeful candidate for both of us. Although we disagree on whether it's a comedy or a drama, it doesn't matter — the show is great. What are you looking for in the drama category?

Fienberg: There's a whole lot of miscategorizing going on. At this point, I'll be satisfied wherever voters put Succession, and this saga of debauchery, backstabbing and corporate malfeasance has a better chance of being nominated in the drama field anyway. I guess I feel the same way about The Good Fight, which functions far better as a satire on Trump era mental unraveling than as a legal drama. But what is Sex Education doing categorized as a drama? This isn't even contestable. Sex Education is an hourlong comedy and it isn't a tweener like Sorry for Your Loss or Vida, both half-hour dramedies that I would have accepted in either field. Better Call Saul definitely would make my drama series wish list, along with FX's boundary-breaking Pose, which is as good as it is representationally important, and maybe an oddball or two like a Lodge 49 (another show I'd probably have submitted as a comedy).

Things are better on the drama actress side, where I'd start with Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. I'd make room for Elizabeth Olsen's Sorry for Your Loss performance, which blends heartbreak and unexpectedly lightness; Mj Rodriguez as the soul of Pose; and Christine Baranski, who would be a sure-thing if CBS All Access could attract an iota of Emmy attention. I'd find a way to nominate one of the actresses from HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, though choosing would be hard. I'm also going to be ticked off when Suranne Jones, who turned in a marvelous, show-defining performance in HBO’s Gentleman Jack, is left out and Emilia Clarke, very good and very much supporting in Game of Thrones, is a lead lock.

GoodmanAgree wholeheartedly on Suranne Jones, an Emmy-worthy performance if ever there was one. Comer was left out last year and it was ridiculous. I think she won't be ignored this time. Julia Roberts is a lock (though I'll be interested to see if Homecoming itself gets nominated). For me the snub that's going to hurt the most is Toni Collette, so brilliant in Netflix's Wanderlust.

Fienberg: I'm pretty confident Billy Porter is going to be nominated for Pose, in a performance that evolves from scene-stealing comic relief into something far more powerful over the course of one masterful piece of karaoke. If he isn't, I'll be angry, since the drama acting field is so weak. Bob Odenkirk is a lock as he continues to transition his Better Call Saul character from well-intentioned Jimmy McGill to the soulless huckster we met on Breaking Bad. From there Emmy voters are choosing among a lot of performances that are more "supporting" than lead. Brian Cox? Spectacular, but how do you choose him over Succession co-star Jeremy Strong? Kit Harington? Fine, but compare his screen time and degree of performance difficulty to J.K. Simmons in Counterpart.

Asa Butterfield from Sex Education might be a good pick, except he's giving a comic performance in a comedy and it's so odd to measure his work against either of the guys from Billions, who seem to get snubbed each year.

GoodmanWell you named one of the two glaringly deserving contenders in Simmons. The second obvious choice for me is Michael Dorman from Patriot. We know neither of those are going to happen, but the point is not just that they should happen — it's that in a fair Emmy world, they could happen. If they moved to 10 nominations in every category, which I rant about every year and sometimes twice a year, then Simmons and Dorman would actually have a shot, as would dozens of other great actors in shows that aren’t currently in the awards conversation — like Wyatt Russell from Lodge 49 or Rufus Sewell in The Man in the High Castle.

FienbergHonestly, I don't think your "10 nomination" plan currently works on the drama side of the ledger, especially since we still wouldn't get a Michael Dorman or Toni Collette nominated. Off the radar is off the radar, and I don't think there are enough legitimate contenders for voters to know what to do with the space.

When it comes to comedy, on the other hand, you could almost go 15-deep in every category. There were eight comedy series nominees last year and even with AtlantaSilicon Valley and Curb Your Enthusiasm out of the running, there are too many choices. So many that nominating some of my absolute favorite shows — The Good Place and Barry — feel less urgent to me than giving a platform to new loves like Netflix’s ambitiously time-bending Russian Doll or Hulu’s confident and empathetic Ramy. I don't think there's a show on TV that makes me laugh more and harder than Brockmire with its ultra-raunchy, baseball-driven verbosity. And I haven't even gotten to perhaps my favorite comedy of the year, the rich, complicated, fourth-wall-breaking second (and final?) season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag (Amazon) or perhaps my favorite show on TV of any kind, which I'm trusting you to mention right now! 

GoodmanI’m assuming it's Better Things. But maybe you meant PEN15. Or Kidding. Perhaps it’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is where we part ways. Brooklyn Nine-Nine? Catastrophe? What We Do in the ShadowsChernobyl? (I kid!) Look, I just proved your point about how deep the comedy field is. But I reject your notion that the Academy couldn't fill 10 drama slots. Would they have to watch more TV? Sure. But that's their job as voters, and quality is out there to be found. OK, so which comedy was it?

FienbergI was definitely talking about FX’s Better Things, which maintained its mixture of potent family-driven melodramedy in its third season and has now put its Louis C.K. pedigree far enough in the rearview that Emmy voters should be able to reflect on all of the things Pamela Adlon does so spectacularly. Men like Bill Hader and Donald Glover have gotten writing-directing-acting nominations in recent years and Adlon deserves the same.

The comedy actress field could, in fact, be dominated by multihyphenates like Natasha Lyonne of Russian Doll, Aidy Bryant of Hulu’s Shrill and Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag. I wish PEN15 co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle could both be nominated or even share a nomination (ditto with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City). There just isn't room, since even though I'm neither the biggest fan nor detractor of the second The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season, Rachel Brosnahan's work on that Amazon show remains, well, marvelous, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. My fantasy ballot would find space for at least one of the stars of Netflix’s Dead to Me star (probably Christina Applegate), the never-better Minnie Driver of ABC’s Speechless and, a bit out-of-left-field, Brigette Lundy-Paine, who grounds Netflix's Atypical. Care to make cases for a few faves, Tim?

GoodmanI really like what Bryant is doing in Shrill and the strong work of Natasia Demetriou in FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, but really the two best performances might be Erskine and Konkle, who, as you noted, are likely to be forgotten. 

FienbergWe're here to remind! On the comedy actor side, I feel like the leading contenders are all veterans from Don Cheadle in Black Monday to Ted Danson in The Good Place to Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method to last year's winner, Bill Hader, who may have been even better on Barry this season, with the show's added commitment to dramatic moments. I'm planting my flag for Ramy Youssef, who also deserves writing and directing nominations for Ramy, and for Hank Azaria, who suffers from how little people talk about Brockmire, one of several IFC offerings in need of more love.

GoodmanI think Jim Carrey will get nominated for Showtime’s Kidding, but I'd also like to see Kayvan Novak from What We Do in the Shadows get noticed, and I always light a candle for the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia folks just to keep the world aware of Emmy injustice. 

FienbergI completely agree that Rob McElhenney's work in the most recent Always Sunny finale is recognition-worthy, but if voters didn't notice him in the Fat Mac season, they probably won't notice the Ripped Modern Dancing Mac season. 

Speaking of dancing, the notorious hoofers of Fosse/Verdon are probably the leading contenders on the limited series side, which in many ways is stronger this year than drama series. In the actress in a limited series category, we practically gave the trophy to Amy Adams last summer when HBO’s Sharp Objects premiered, then we took it away and gave it to Patricia Arquette when Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora premiered, then we saw what Michelle Williams did in the later episodes of FX’s Fosse/Verdon and now it's all anarchy. I'm not even sure those three are better than Joey King in The Act or Florence Pugh in The Little Drummer Girl. Meanwhile, I wonder if recency bias might give a big boost to HBO's harrowing, brilliantly directed Chernobyl, which ought to make Jared Harris a contender as well. What are some of your favorites in this field?

Goodman: These are going to be very, very packed categories. Boy, 10 nominees would … never mind. Yes, Jared Harris for sure, plus Paul Dano from Escape at Dannemora. I love Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw from Amazon’s A Very English Scandal, and you can't sleep on Mahershala Ali (True Detective), Benedict Cumberbatch (Brexit), Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgard (The Little Drummer Girl) and the Maniac cast. Or Bradley Whitford and Steve Zahn from Valley of the Boom. Seriously, even 10 slots wouldn't be enough. And that's a good thing. 

A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.