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I recently had a marathon phone conversation with one of the most diligent of the 15,000 members of the TV Academy of Arts and Sciences — a young male who watches virtually every major drama and comedy series and attends their panels and receptions — who agreed to share with me the names of the shows and people he voted for on his nomination ballot for the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards. (Nomination ballots had to be turned in June 28 and the nominations will be announced July 18.)
His picks are not necessarily indicative of how the overall membership felt about these shows — nothing really is — but they are as carefully considered as any voter’s picks could be, and, as you can read below each of them, cogently defended.
Best Drama Series
1. Mad Men
Well-written and visually beautiful, as always, this season was particularly powerful and devastating to watch, as Don Draper’s problems finally came to a head.
2. Game of Thrones
Its ambition and writing are second to none, as demonstrated by the fact that they killed off several major characters and not only retained their audience but became the talk of the town.
3. Downton Abbey
With its intertwining and melodramatic storylines, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a period-piece soap opera — but it’s a soap opera that’s so smart that you can feel proud to watch it.
4. Breaking Bad
Watching the show is probably not unlike being on meth — once you start, you can’t stop. Vince Gilligan and his stars are winding down the series even better than they began it.
There’s no question that it has fallen off a bit since season one, but it still has breathtaking moments that will get your heart beating faster than just about anything else on the air.
6. House of Cards
At a time when real-world politics are as dirty and cutthroat as ever, it’s oddly cathartic to watch a show that revolves around a politician who is open and honest — at least to the audience — about being a scoundrel.
Best Actor (Drama Series)
1. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
He plays the most complex character on television and makes it look effortless. Plus he’s an incredibly nice guy who made a strong impression at this year’s TV Academy talkback.
2. Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Hamm always has played Don as totally in-control, which made the latter part of this season, when his emotions finally bubbled to the surface, all the more powerful. Getting caught wiped the smirk right off his face, possibly forever.
3. Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)
He’s an average-looking guy, but when he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off of him. I find the Shakespearean asides to the audience to be a little off-putting, but the overall performance to be masterfully nuanced. And a great Q&A and event at the TV Academy certainly didn’t hurt.
4. Damian Lewis (Homeland)
Has there ever been a better depiction of Stockholm Syndrome? And, like the lead characters on The Americans, you find yourself liking the guy in spite of his muddled ideology because you want to believe that he will eventually come around.
5. Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom)
Daniels rises above the inherent flaws of the show and gives a searing portrayal of a man in crisis. (I’m always fascinated by characters who present different private and public faces.) Plus he stayed at the TV Academy reception until there were only 10 people left, which really endeared him to a lot of people.
6. Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey)
I can’t imagine there’s anything harder than playing a stiff character and still keeping him interesting and likable, but Bonneville, in partnership with Julian Fellowes, does just that. He was particularly interesting this season as his morally upstanding character was caught in moral dilemma after moral dilemma.
Best Actress (Drama Series)
1. Claire Danes (Homeland)
Playing a person with a mental illness is challenging, but playing a person with a mental illness that sporadically surfaces and then fades away, and having to make the necessary adjustments to a performance, is off-the-charts, and yet she’s never less than totally believable.
2. Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey)
Not exactly a sympathetic character, she portrays a manipulative and needy woman (she’s clearly her grandmother’s granddaughter), but you still can’t help but root for her happiness, if only because you want to believe that it would enable her to be a better person.
3. Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife)
A truly groundbreaking character — a married working woman as the show’s one and only central character — played by a woman who can say more with a glance or a blink than most actresses can say in a full monologue. After all she’s been through, I so desperately want her to find happiness.
4. Keri Russell (The Americans)
It’s so interesting to watch this beautiful and obviously intelligent actress play a character who is torn between her two desires — continuing to work on behalf of the motherland and maintaining a happy home for her kids — particularly in the moments when you can see, from something as subtle as a glance or a twitch, that she has doubts about whether or not she’s doing the right thing.
5. Kerry Washington (Scandal)
This strong actress portrays a strong character who has a remarkable presence — and a bit of an edge, as we see in the scenes involving her personal life. I wonder if her appearance in Django Unchained improves her chances this year?
6. Emmy Rossum (Shameless)
What makes this performance so memorable is the 180-degree turn that the character has experienced over the course of the show — from enabling her alcoholic father to cracking down on him and even taking him to court.
Best Supporting Actor (Drama Series)
1. Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)
He’s believable — and actually immensely likable — as a troubled kid who’s in over his head, and you just hope that Walter doesn’t drag him down with him, and that he somehow finds a way out of this mess.
2. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones)
One of the wittiest characters on the show, but not just a comic foil. Every one of his wisecracks is driven by pain.
3. Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad)
This season really humanized Banks’ character, showing that he was not just a machine, but a man who, like most men, wound up in his profession in part because he had the necessary skill-set and in part because if offered him a way to provide for his loved ones.
4. Jeff Perry (Scandal)
Playing a loyal servant to the president, he offers one of the best examples of a new generation of characters for who homosexuality is basically incidental, and not the reason for their being or constantly reiterated through stereotypical behavior. That’s progress.
5. Mandy Patinkin (Homeland)
Saul is Carrie’s rock and the only thing keeping her operational, metaphorically and literally. And don’t be fooled by his calm exterior; Patinkin is understated, but one look into his eyes shows you that he has a burning inner-life that drives him to keep at his often demoralizing job.
6. Rob-James Collier (Downton Abbey)
Thomas is the least likable and most complex character on the show, making an art out of manipulating others, and then, this season, being manipulated by others.
Best Supporting Actress (Drama Series)
1. Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)
For bringing to life everyone’s favorite character on Downton, Smith certainly shares credit with Fellowes, who saves his best lines for her, but without her inimitable timing, delivery and facial expressions they wouldn’t be nearly as funny. The scene in which her character mourns a great loss is a mini-masterpiece.
2. Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad)
Skyler’s character has gone through an emotional roller coaster throughout the series, and particularly during the most recent season. Dealing with depression and even suicidal thoughts, she has to keep her fears to herself as she tries to protect her kids.
3. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men)
A strong woman who is not nearly as in-control as she leads most people to believe, it’s been particularly interesting to watch her this season, as she tried to prove that she is worthy of the senior position that she holds for reasons other than her talent at advertising — only to run up against resistance from others, including her biggest female ally.
4. Morena Baccarin (Homeland)
A woman who has been through the ringer and back again, it’s been captivating watching her begin to put together the pieces and realize that her idealized husband has not been telling her the truth.
5. Christine Baranski (The Good Wife)
A powerful woman who is caught between her professional ambitions and her desire to be with the person that she loves, she is admirable for her decency, good intentions and irrepressible drive — plus she always has an endearing twinkle in her eye.
6. Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones)
Don’t be distracted by her youth and beauty — she knows exactly what she’s doing in order to get what she wants, the throne, which she feels is rightfully hers, and which I want to be hers, since she has had to go through so much and has come so far.
Best Comedy Series
1. Modern Family
It delivers more consistently than any other comedy on the air.
2. 30 Rock
I’m going to miss the show, which has the flow and tempo of a musical, complete with a score in the background.
3. The Big Bang Theory
It’s incredibly smart and often very funny — but, with all its jargon and nerdiness, I must admit that it can get a bit grating. (Is it taped in front of a live audience or with a laugh track? Because sometimes I find myself asking, “Why is the audience laughing?”)
Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s a brilliant study of a certain emotional state, which leads to the laugh-out-loud humor.
Despite being slightly depressing, everyone who sees it likes it.
5. New Girl
Zooey Deschanel was always funny, but lately her co-stars have risen to her level, which has made the show considerably more enjoyable. Plus the cast’s Q&A at the TV Academy was one of the funniest I’ve ever attended.
6. Parks and Recreation
Whether or not things are actually being improvised on the spot, it feels as alive and electric as any show. That’s a rare thing, and for it to happen, everyone has to be on their game and clicking together, as this show’s cast certainly is.
Best Actor (Comedy Series)
1. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory)
He is a comedic genius with impeccable timing that makes the show worth watching. It can’t be easy to make highfalutin language funny!
2. Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)
Jack is such an unabashedly vain and selfish prick — not unlike Baldwin himself, according to his critics — that you can’t help but get a kick out of him.
3. Louis C.K. (Louie)
He has an amazing ability to keep his crazy character — maybe the most average and real and depressing character on TV, save for Larry David — grounded in reality.
4. Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation)
Some people come with a track record that makes you predisposed to laugh at them the moment you see them, even before they crack a joke. He’s one of those guys.
5. Jason Bateman (Arrested Development)
It’s great to have the show back on the air, even if it’s not what it was. Good luck finding a better straight man to anchor a series full of whacky characters.
6. Jake Johnson (New Girl)
He and Deschanel are great together and their relationship made the show’s second season worth watching.
Best Actress (Comedy Series)
1. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (Veep)
She has a presence about her, on- and offscreen, and it’s been amazing to watch her go from Seinfeld to The New Adventures of Old Christine to this show, each of which demanded totally different comedic skills from her, which she seemed to have no problem furnishing.
2. Tina Fey (30 Rock)
She’s not the underdog anymore, but she’s had to fight hard for everything she’s got, and I admire the heck out of her for it. She gets bonus points from me for not only performing but also writing her character.
3. Lena Dunham (Girls)
Maybe even more than with Fey, I am in awe of the fact that this youngster, through sheer smarts and force of nature, dreamed up an idea unlike anything else out there and then wrote and willed it into being, giving herself a pedestal that someone else might never have given to her.
4. Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation)
One of the most gifted and totally unique women in comedy, she is always willing to “go there” — as in, anywhere! — for a laugh. My favorite part of her performance are the little asides that she mumbles to herself.
5. Zooey Deschanel (New Girl)
She is weird and proud of it, onscreen and off, and I like that.
6. Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory)
I’ve liked and believed in her since Charmed, and she’s a perfect counterpart for Jim Parsons. His character may be a genius, but hers has got common sense.
Best Supporting Actor (Comedy Series)
1. Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family)
He’s super funny — and you’d never know that he’s actually straight!
2. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family)
He and Stonestreet perfectly complement each other; I’m not sure that one would be funny without the other, and it’s a shame that one can’t vote for them together.
3. Ty Burrell (Modern Family)
Playing a guy who tries too hard, but still retains the audience’s sympathies, he displays great comedic timing.
4. Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live)
He trots out an incredibly wide array of characters — everyone loves Stefon! — and is almost always the source of the show’s biggest laughs.
5. Ed O’Neill (Modern Family)
The perfect straight man.
6. Will Arnett (Arrested Development)
A selfish, ignorant and stupid character, and probably the funniest element of the show.
Best Supporting Actress (Comedy Series)
1. Sofia Vergara (Modern Family)
She can go more over-the-top without becoming annoying than anyone out there. Her character is immensely likable, and so is she.
2. Jane Krakowski (30 Rock)
She’s the female version of Alec Baldwin’s character, and I really get a kick out of those buffoon types.
3. Julie Bowen (Modern Family)
She’s a great straight (wo)man, bouncing off of everyone else’s broader performances, while still managing to generate big laughs of her own.
4. Betty White (Hot in Cleveland)
She’s a completely hilarious woman, on camera and off. She doesn’t even need the show’s writers to be funny — her visit to the TV Academy a few months ago had people rolling in the aisles!
5. Jessica Walter (Arrested Development)
I love her on Archer and this, and I want her to get nominated for this as a thank you to Netflix for bringing back the show, even if it’s not as great as it used to be.
6. Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation)
She’s a natural who is clearly terrific at improvisation.
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