Critics' Conversation: Overlooked Series and Performances That Deserve Emmy Nominations

As voting continues through Monday, The Hollywood Reporter's TV reviewers weigh in on the unsung gems they'd love to see rewarded with noms July 28.
Watchmen, Succession, Euphoria: COURTESY OF HBO. POSE: Michael Parmelee/FX. dave: Ray Mickshaw/FX. unbelievable: Beth Dubber/Netflix.
From left: 'Watchmen,' 'Pose,' 'Dave'

DANIEL FIENBERG: Deservedly or not, last year's Emmys were always destined to be a triumphant send-off for HBO's Game of Thrones. (It seemed like the same was going to be true for the network's departing Veep, until Amazon's Fleabag snuck in and stole the show.)

Now, the absence of those three shows leaves a lot of room, not just in the series categories, but in several acting fields as well. Also gone for the 2020 ceremony are major players like Barry, Russian Doll and Bodyguard.

That means this year could either be a chance for Emmy voters to embrace some edgy outsiders and right past wrongs — or to retreat to the comfort of familiar contenders.

Inkoo, let's start with the drama series category, where Better Call Saul and Succession are both returning nominees and, to me, feel like the clear favorites. With two shows — Game of Thrones and Bodyguard — gone but Stranger Things, Westworld, The Crown and Handmaid's Tale possibly returning, what are you going to be rooting for to break in?

INKOO KANG: Maybe I'm biased because I've found it personally challenging to keep up with Better Call Saul, but doesn't Succession feel like a lock at this point? The HBO series isn't exactly Game of Thrones-level popular — that fantasy favorite might be the last show ever to unite TV viewers in a monoculture — but Succession seems to have seized the zeitgeist, at least among the chatterati, a la Mad Men, on the strength of its performances and its extremely spot-on critiques of the media and the American aristocracy.

With the exception of Succession, I actually hope all of the dramas you mentioned clear out! The contenders I'd put in their place are Pose, Mindhunter and The Morning Show (with acting nods for Jennifer Aniston and especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Surely there's an alternate universe out there — one with much better tastes than this one — where the very good, very tragic third season of The Deuce is getting its due, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emily Meade as deserving frontrunners in their respective categories.

DF: The drama field is unquestionably a thinner pack, which is why we're even entertaining the inevitability of Westworld and Killing Eve getting return nominations after seasons that were met by harsh reviews and almost no buzz, respectively. On quality, I think Pose deserves to make the shortlist for sure, but it also feels like it came out a million years ago, along with the final season of Orange Is the New Black, which was terrific and has been completely forgotten.

If I'm going for dark horses, I'd mention The Good Fight, which gets overlooked because of the CBS All-Access factor, and also because the show is probably miscategorized as a drama. It's clearly a Trump-era satire; how you could watch that show's mid-season finale — heavily featuring Jeffrey Epstein's, um, "member" — and think it's being played straight is beyond me. Genre confusion is certainly going to cost Amazon's trippy, artistically ambitious Undone and OWN's David Makes Man, which is surely too delicate a coming-of-age story to get voter attention.

I'm surprised you didn't mention HBO's Euphoria, or were you saving that for a salute to Zendaya?

IK: Other than Succession, there was no hour-long series I enjoyed more in 2019 than Euphoria, which got billed — very stupidly, in my opinion — as a parent's worst nightmare about the crazy shit teens are up to these days. It can certainly be viewed in that mode if it must, but I think Euphoria gave its teenage characters a lot more interiority than that. The show should be seen as what it is: a drama about teenage girls who are taught to be sexually empowered, but very quickly run into real-life misogyny. They want to live up to the ideals of the current political moment and be just as proudly horny as the boys, but slut-shaming, abusive lovers and stranger danger are always around the corner. And yes, Zendaya is terrific in it, as is newcomer Hunter Schafer.

I echo all your thoughts on The Good Fight, a show that makes me deliriously happy with its outraged delirium. And as long as we're doing fantasy ballots, let me write in HBO's My Brilliant Friend, the second season of which marked a huge artistic leap from its debut year. Just about all of it was perfect — including the assured, subtle performances by Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco — as the two booksmart friends are forced to enter adulthood way too early in postwar Italy.

DF: Actress in a drama is a category where I like some of the presumptive frontrunners. Olivia Colman very capably stepped in for Claire Foy on The Crown, though I wonder if her take was too enigmatic and not showy enough for voters. Laura Linney will have no such problems. Not only was the third season of Ozark a big improvement over the second, but Linney's season-closing arc was emotional dynamite. And I never get tired of Elisabeth Moss, even if Handmaid's Tale always exhausts me. Kirsten Dunst, in Showtime's miscategorized comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida, feels like a good dark horse. And I wish Mj Rodriguez could lead a push of recognition for Pose performers not named Billy Porter.

Porter, of course, deserves another nomination in a thin drama-actor field that reflects how female-dominated the quality-TV landscape is at the moment. Here, I'm hoping that Jeremy Strong isn't upstaged by his Succession daddy Brian Cox, but as long as Bob Odenkirk gets his annual nod for Better Call Saul (eventually he needs to win), I'll be fine.

Any drama-actor favorites or supporting performances you hope get recognized, now that Game of Thrones isn't clogging up those categories?

IK: You're definitely right in that the drama-actor field isn't the most interesting one right now. Holt McCallany's always been a helluva lot more compelling than Jonathan Groff on Mindhunter, but even with his character comprising the center of gravity of season two, I don't know that his role has been meaty enough for a nomination. Same goes for Delroy Lindo on The Good Fight; he had his smallest role yet this past season.

Succession might well become the new Game of Thrones in seemingly soaking up all the acting nominations. After all, it'd be wild for Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook not to be nominated as well.

Call it a counterintuitive choice, but I'd love to see Pose's Dominique Jackson join Porter (and hopefully Rodriguez) among the nominees. Her acting style is so affected, but season two threw a ton at Jackson's Elektra — particularly that closet corpse! — and the actress made Pose's resident Cruella a fully fleshed human being. But I'd be just as happy if that slot went to Jodie Comer for another fantastic year on Killing Eve. Meryl Streep for Big Little Lies, maybe less so.

Shall we get to the meat of this discussion — the comedy categories?

DF: Not before I sing the praises of Rhea Seehorn, the heart and soul of Better Call Saul; Cynthia Erivo, sometimes the only pulse in The Outsider; or Billy Crudup, the quirky centerpiece of an entirely different show that I often wished The Morning Show could become. I'm also prepared to get decidedly irked if Orange Is The New Black's Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks or Adrienne C. Moore don't get nominated. But I'm not going to be too upset if Succession picks up two or three nods in each supporting category. The cast is that good.

On the comedy side, it feels like a safe bet that Schitt's Creek will cap an improbable late-series Emmy run and that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will continue to ride its impeccable production values and performances to a dozen-plus nominations, but there are all sorts of intriguing contenders.

How will FX and FXX's Better Things, What We Do in the Shadows and Dave split the vote? The chances are better for the first two. Hulu's Ramy and The Great weren't always hilarious, but one merits recognition for its empathy and specificity, while the other deserves credit for bending history into a savvy commentary on the intersection of gender and power.

There should surely be room for The Good Place and the great recent season of HBO's Insecure. My own list would make room for long shots like the final seasons of Baskets and Brockmire and the first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay, but I'm not holding my breath. It's a deep field!

IK: Dave, Ramy, What We Do in the Shadows and Insecure are on my comedy Emmy wishlist as well. (Issa Rae deserves another Emmy nod for her performance, and Yvonne Orji is way overdue for her first.) The shows I'd love to see enter the race are all dark horses: High Maintenance, which has never been nominated for an Emmy despite being critically lauded as a franchise even before it relaunched on HBO; Showtime's Work in Progress, which unfortunately is probably too "niche" for the Emmys; and ABC's The Conners, which is probably the single best network sitcom on the air (give or take a Superstore). Sara Gilbert and Lecy Goranson have been doing phenomenal work as Darlene and Becky, Roseanne's downwardly mobile 40-something daughters, now each contending with her own brood, but always finding time to squabble with one another.

What We Do in the Shadows is hands-down the best comedy of the past year in my book, and its season two storyline of Harvey Guillén's vampire-hopeful discovering his true self as a reluctant vampire-slayer has been just aces. (Unfortunately, its ensemble is so cohesive that it's hard to pick out any single performer worthy of exceptional praise, though I'll cop to a soft spot for Mark Proksch, whose energy vampire Colin Robinson is unlike any other character on TV.) Dave's debut season also grew beautifully, as the titular rapper's initially absurd hyperconfidence became wholly understandable, then absurd again.

DF: Fortunately, I have an easy time figuring out which Shadows performer to praise: Matt Berry's work in the "Jackie Daytona" episode was a master class. Get him a nomination! I can pass on almost all of the big names sure to get comedy lead actor nominations — not that I mind Michael Douglas or Larry David or Ted Danson — in favor of Hank Azaria, balancing humor and futuristic pathos on Brockmire; or the ultra-versatile Bashir Salahuddin of Sherman's Showcase; or Ramy Youssef, who took his character down an unapologetically dark path in the second season of Ramy.

For actress, I'm here for Elle Fanning's tricky blend of idealism and cunning in The Great, the perennially overlooked Justina Machado for One Day at a Time and Linda Cardellini, who unfairly has been treated as Christina Applegate's Dead to Me second banana. And Jane Levy should get a nomination for NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. Her showcase episode, "Zoey's Extraordinary Glitch," could make her a sleeper to win.

IK: I'm so glad you mentioned Justina Machado. One Day at a Time's fourth season — its first on Pop TV — wasn't its strongest, but Machado is completely overdue.

I actually have a lot of sentimental favorites like that — actresses who probably should've won for previous seasons of their respective shows, many for whom this would be their final eligible year: Gina Rodriguez and Yael Grobglas on Jane the Virgin, America Ferrera on Superstore, D'Arcy Carden on The Good Place, Annie Murphy on Schitt's Creek, Jen Richards on Mrs. Fletcher and Melissa Barrera on Vida. And I'd love to see nominations for Nicholas Hoult for The Great and Dave Burdick and GaTa for Dave.

DF: GaTA's work in that fifth episode of Dave is just wonderful. I wish we could recategorize the Saturday Night Live performers to create a lot more space in the supporting categories. On the supporting actress side, I'd want to see Hiam Abbass get a nomination for Ramy, since her Succession work is probably being upstaged by too many other contenders. And if expanding to seven or eight nominees doesn't help Rita Moreno make it for One Day at a Time, what's even the point? And it's sad that High Fidelity got so little buzz, because otherwise Da'Vine Joy Randolph would cruise to a nomination.

Among supporting actors, Schitt's Creek's Dan Levy should be a lead, but it'd be ridiculous if the rest of the cast got nominated and he didn't. Mahershala Ali brought spiritual cool to Ramy, Sterling K. Brown offered a bracing change of pace on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and any time you have the chance to nominate Louie Anderson for Baskets, you should take it.

Let's hop over to the limited series field, which has somehow become one of the most competitive for Emmy voters. Netflix's Unbelievable, HBO's Watchmen and FX on Hulu's Mrs. America are probably sure things, and I don't have a problem with that. I'd love to see FX on Hulu's dense and atmospheric Devs and AMC's shockingly fun Quiz break in.

What are your favorites on the limited series side?

IK: You mean this year's Actress Thunderdome?

I'd only add Netflix's Unorthodox to that list, which would pit star Shira Haas against Watchmen's Regina King; Unbelievable's Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever and in any other year probably Danielle Macdonald (however those shake out between lead and supporting); and the many actresses in Mrs. America (my favorites being Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Tracey Ullman, though Margo Martindale is a perennial Emmy favorite). And don't count out Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington for Hulu's buzzy (but ultimately fizzled) Little Fires Everywhere.

Mrs. America, Watchmen and, to a lesser degree, Unbelievable arrived with remarkable social resonance while significantly remaking their respective genres (the period drama, the superhero tale and the rape procedural). Unorthodox, too, tells a powerful, based-on-true-events story about a woman on an extraordinary escape from an oppressive marriage and community. If those were four of the five nominees, it feels like a category where you basically couldn't go wrong.

That does leave me, though, a little hard up in identifying more than a handful of compelling male nominees from the combined limited series/TV movie acting pool. Certainly Hugh Jackman in HBO's Bad Education. I wouldn't be mad at a Jon Hamm nod for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend. And one could certainly make a case for the delightfully despicable Jim Parsons in Hollywood.

DF: I worry about Shira Haas on a ballot that could feature between five and 10 Oscar winners, but she's a remarkable discovery in Unorthodox. I feel like she and Kaitlyn Dever might "need" Emmy recognition more than a Reese Witherspoon or Helen Mirren (for Catherine the Great). And speaking of Dever, I remain perplexed by whoever ordained that she and Wever are leads and Collette is supporting in Unbelievable. I'm holding out hope here for Zoe Kazan in The Plot Against America and Kathryn Hahn for Mrs. Fletcher (and I Know This Much Is True). Eve Lindley kept me watching Dispatches From Elsewhere for a while, and in the orgy of latex that was Showtime's The Loudest Voice, Sienna Miller was, for me, the only actor who truly disappeared into her role.

On the actor side, Jeremy Pope and Joe Mantello were my favorite parts of Ryan Murphy's otherwise forgettable Hollywood. Jesse Plemons was great in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Tim Blake Nelson's showcase Watchmen episode was one of my favorites.

With the corona work stoppages, there might not be a lot more great TV for a while. But the past year, at least, gave us more than enough small-screen excellence.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.