10 Worst Emmy Winners of the Past 10 Years

9:00 AM 9/18/2015

by Daniel Fienberg

Margo Martindale's 'The Americans' win starts a new decade of bad Emmy decisions.

Jeff Daniels Patricia Arquette and Kevin Costner Worst Emmy Split - 2015

Emmy nit-picking season began last weekend with the Creative Arts ceremony. The early acting results including Joan Cusack winning for a role the Shameless writers have consistently struggled to service, Reg E. Cathey winning for a character who barely featured in the latest House of Cards season and Jon Hamm losing yet another shot at Emmy glory.

Perhaps the most quibbled-with win was character actress Margo Martindale's triumph for fitting The Americans into her extreme busy schedule for a couple scenes. The Justified veteran had already been a surprise nominee in this category, beating out Lois Smith, whose one-episode Americans turn was perhaps the highlight of a strong season. Still, nobody expected her to win over Cicely Tyson's powerhouse work on How To Get Away With Murder or Allison Janney following up on last year's Masters of Sex victory in this category.

Some time will have to pass before we can decide if Martindale triumph ranks as an all-time oddity, but here are my picks for the 10 Worst Emmy Wins of the Past 10 Years. Some suffer from the competition they beat. Some suffer from their own high standards. And some just made viewers suffer.

  • Jeff Daniels

    In a field that pit perennials Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm against defending champion Damian Lewis, who boasted a superlative submission episode in "Q&A," the logical spoiler was expected to be Kevin Spacey. A two-time Oscar winner sporting a hammy Southern accent and single-handedly legitimizing programming for an entirely new distribution method? Who could begrudge Spacey his expected coronation? Everybody, it turned out, could be begrudge Daniels for sneaking in and snagging the Emmy for his expert bloviating in Aaron Sorkin's less-than-universally-adored return to TV.

  • The Amazing Race

    Technically, the Amazing Race win that year was for Season 9, a so-so installment won by buddies BJ & Tyler, but if you're going to look for one opportunity to ding the TV Academy for the embarrassing complacency in the reality-competition category, I think that even the most passionate fans of The Amazing Race would agree that the show should have been disqualified in the year of "Family Edition." Ick. With 10 wins out of 12 years, the Amazing Race domination of this category is an Emmy black mark. Why bother with the category at all if reality-hating voters are just going to check the same box every year? In conclusion: Five or six wins for Amazing Race? Acceptable. This many? Out of control.

  • Modern Family

    Like many of the worst Emmy decisions of all-time, it's the complacency of Modern Family winning five consecutive years that makes it hurt, not the quality of the show in isolation. Were outstanding comedy series a fallow category, you could shrug and say, "Emmy voters gonna Emmy vote," but last year's field included boundary-breaking work from Louie, genre-bending work from Orange Is The New Black and straight-up hilarious work from Veep and Silicon Valley. Even if you're a supporter of network TV and populism, The Big Bang Theory would have been a better choice and it's not like The Big Bang Theory hasn't benefitted from Emmy complacency in the past.

  • Kevin Costner

    Costner is just fine in Hatfields & McCoys and you can understand why Emmy voters would want to recognize the miniseries for its popularity and its star for being a movie star slumming on TV. But one could easily argue that Costner's History Channel co-star Bill Paxton gave a more interesting performance in the same miniseries and just wasn't lucky enough to have Costner's Hollywood wattage. And that's before you get to Woody Harrelson giving the best performance in HBO's Game Change, Idris Elba tearing stuff up in Luther and Benedict Cumberbatch's first Sherlock nomination. If the Movie and Miniseries categories had been separate, perhaps Costner would have gotten his more deserved Emmy as a Hatfields & McCoys producer, but Game Change pulled off a minor upset in the joined category. 

  • Paul McCrane

    It's great when a veteran character actor finally breaks through and gets a minute in the spotlight with a shiny trophy, but when honoring said veteran character with an Emmy forces us to permanently refer to Harry's Law as an Emmy winner -- in your face, The Wire -- it becomes less great. And speaking of beloved veteran character actors, McCrane beat Robert Morse of Mad Men and Bruce Dern of Big Love, as well as Jeremy Davies, who won his Justified Emmy the next year when he wasn't nearly as deserving. [The other two nominees that year were Beau Bridges and Michael J. Fox. One need never cry for Bridges or Fox when it comes to Emmys.]

  • Jim Parsons

    Of Parsons' four Emmy wins for The Big Bang Theory, this is the one that seems easiest to quibble with. It's one of a couple Parsons wins for playing intoxicated and it knocked off series-best work from Matt LeBlanc on Episodes and strong submissions from Louis C.K. and Alec Baldwin. But Baldwin and C.K. have Emmys galore and Episodes is still Episodes, so the travesty here was Steve Carell losing for Michael Scott's emotional The Office send-off. Carell ending up with zero Emmys for The Office goes next to Hugh Laurie's House shut-out among the great long-term acting snubs of recent years. [Hamm will join that group if he doesn't win an Emmy for the last Mad Men season.]

  • Greg Yaitanes

    Yaitanes is one of the small screen's most versatile directors, as capable of delivering a smooth and easily repeatable network procedural pilot or doing something far trickier and more innovative for cable. And his win here was for "House's Head," one of the FOX hit's better boundary-pushing episodes and proof that a network show could compete in a category usually dominated by cable. But then you look at what Yaitanes beat: Vince Gilligan for the Breaking Bad pilot. Alan Taylor for the Mad Men pilot. And Allen Coulter for the Damages pilot. Yes, this category tends to over-favor pilots, but... Sometimes you have to.

  • Patricia Arquette

    Frances Conroy never won an Emmy for Six Feet Under. Jennifer Garner never won an Emmy for Alias. And although Glenn Close won two Emmys for Damages, she didn't win for effectively going head-to-head with Michael Chiklis for a tense season on The Shield. How exactly did Arquette manage to win, then, for Medium, a network midseason drama with a genre twist? In our age of cable domination of the Emmy drama categories, this stands as one of the odder upsets.

  • James Spader

    A lot of those later-years wins for The Practice and then Boston Legal weren't really necessary and William Shatner's Supporting Actor win in 2005 was probably even more egregious, except that the field he beat was a bit of a mixed bag. When it comes to Spader, nobody's asking to take away all three of his awards for doing the same thing over and over and over again as Alan Shore, but maybe that 2007 win over Kiefer Sutherland, James Gandolfini and never-winners Denis Leary and Hugh Laurie took things one year too far.

  • Doris Roberts

    For the purposes of this exercise, Roberts is allowed to keep her three previous Everybody Loves Raymond Emmy wins without any disagreement and we can even acknowledge that probably nobody else could possibly have won for what was the final season of the CBS smash, which also won for outstanding comedy series. But Roberts didn't really need another Emmy and Jessica Walter only received one nomination for playing Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, so this was her one chance and darnit, she should have taken home the hardware.