Brutally Honest Emmy Ballot #2: Aziz Ansari Is "Unbearable," 'Better Call Saul' Is "A Small Show"

A member of the TV Academy's writers peer group makes the case for 'Atlanta' as best comedy and why his pick for best drama, 'This Is Us,' should be shown in schools.
Illustration by Andrew Colin Beck

Best Drama Series

This was a really tough category this year. The one that I took off right away was Better Call Saul — it’s what I call “a why show” because, even though they’ve had some good episodes, I do not understand why they’re doing it. Did the Breaking Bad universe really need to be expanded? No. This is a show about small people with small problems. I don’t mind one or the other, but both?

House of Cards is a show that has been good in the past, but it’s just not as fun as it once was — the performances are great, the production value is through the roof, but they just took the story too far. I loved Stranger Things, but I could never stop thinking that I was watching a Spielberg movie that had already been made. To its credit, I really believed that I was in the '80s, which is not an easy thing to pull off — The Americans does it, too — but ultimately it was a haunted house movie that was dragged out over 10 episodes. The parts were greater than the whole.

I think any of the others — The Crown, The Handmaid’s Tale, This Is Us or Westworld — would be a deserving winner. I eliminated Handmaid’s Tale because I felt that, as an adaptation of a book, the work that they had to do was less challenging than creating something out of whole cloth, even though they did it brilliantly and she [Elisabeth Moss] is amazing. I eliminated The Crown despite the fact that John Lithgow is off-the-charts good — in my view, any actor who can do Third Rock from the Sun and Dexter and Winston Churchill is a genius — because the problems of the monarchy just seem a bit insignificant compared to those explored in other shows.

I loved Westworld — I watched “The Bicameral Mind” episode three times because I really wanted to understand it — but I think they ended up getting a bit too clever by half, and it engaged my mind but never really engaged my heart as much as I wanted it to. In contrast, that’s precisely what This Is Us did do — I cried unabashedly at three-quarters of the episodes, and that’s not an easy thing to make me do, especially when the show is constantly being interrupted by stupid car commercials. How do you do that?! The cast is magnificent across the board and the writers aren’t playing on cheap sentiment; they’re dealing with deep stuff. How do we survive as a family? What is our identity in this society? Who are we? I never missed an episode. It’s the first network show that I’ve voted for since The Good Wife. I was so happy to vote for it.

My vote: This Is Us (NBC)

Best Comedy Series

I was shocked that Speechless did not get nominated — I think that it’s the most overlooked show. And I think that the young woman on The Middle, Eden something-or-other [Sher], is the most overlooked actress on television — she’s never even been nominated! Anyway, I immediately eliminated Modern Family — I have voted for it in the past, but at this point I don’t see anything new going on there, I just find that they’ve hit a wall. I don’t find it funny, and I’m surprised it even got a nomination. I next eliminated another show that I have voted for in the past, Silicon Valley, which is just covering the same old ground — the stories are repetitive, the characters are not that interesting anymore, I haven’t felt anything new at all and Thomas Middleditch is doing more acting in his Verizon commercials than on his show.

Black-ish? I don’t get it. Anthony Anderson [as the character Dre] is so needy that it just takes me completely out of the show, plus I’ve never liked “A very special episode of…” stunts, and they did more than their share of those this year, like the one, “I’m afraid to be an African-American in America,” which ABC literally promoted as “A very special episode of…”

Veep and Atlanta get their messages across even more effectively without trumpeting their own importance; just embrace the fact that you’re a comedy. I want to laugh. I laughed at Atlanta and still got the message about people of color being disenfranchised, in a very different economic bracket. I watched Master of None with great hope, but I just find him [Aziz Ansari] unbearable — maybe binge-watching is the problem, as it would have been if I could have binge-watched [The] Larry Sanders [Show], because you’re just so depressed after spending any amount of time with the guy. I just feel that he has so little charm as a performer that he cuts against his own material; as with, say, Will Arnett, a little bit of him goes a long way. Conversely, I think the actress from [Unbreakable] Kimmy Schmidt [Ellie Kemper] is so appealing, and so is her show’s whole supporting cast, with one exception — Carol Kane, who, outside of Hester Street [a 1975 film], has never struck me as a believable human being. She doesn’t ruin the show for me, but she comes close.

For me, it was a very close call between Veep and Atlanta. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is as close to a genius as we have, Tony Hale is unbelievable on that show and that’s a show that has kept it fresh — I mean, I’m laughing just thinking about it! We are living in very challenging political times — that’s the understatement of the year — and while they are not directly addressing that, they are commenting on it. I just find the show refreshing, and not voting for it was tough.

I didn’t laugh as much at Atlanta, and I don’t generally like to vote for first-year shows, because I think shows usually take a little while to settle in and find their rhythms — I mean, [The] Dick Van Dyke [Show], Seinfeld, [Everybody Loves] Raymond, Big Bang [Theory], Mom and the list goes on. But I not only laughed at Atlanta, but was deeply moved by the world that he [Donald Glover] took me into. I don’t know if that world actually exists, but he took me to a place that I didn’t know about, introduced me to people I’d never met, showed me their motivations and hopes and dreams and fears and how they crash and burn, and made me care about them. He’s kind of a genius, I think, and I can’t wait to see where he takes these characters.

My vote: Atlanta (FX)

Best Writing for a Drama Series

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why This Is Us didn’t put its pilot on the ballot — that episode should be taught in schools. I felt that the Stranger Things pilot [“Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”] was a well made but laborious homage — there was nothing surprising about how all the pieces fell into place. The next one I eliminated was The Americans [“The Soviet Division”] — I know it’s the season closer and they had a lot of storylines coming together in it, but they’ve had much stronger episodes, and I’m a little baffled as to why that one was nominated.

Next out for me was The Handmaid’s Tale pilot [“Offred”] — again, beautifully executed, but adapted from a book, which makes things easier, it just does. As much as I don’t like Better Call Saul, that [“Chicanery”] was an excellent episode, when he [the titular character] had to put his brother on the stand; it was just a really nicely drawn courtroom drama.

But, for me, this was between two. Westworld [“The Bicameral Mind”] was adapted from a book, like The Handmaid’s Tale, but they [its writers] reimagined it in such a completely different way that I don’t really consider it an adaptation, and I loved watching all of those storylines and timelines coming together and really paying off. But, ultimately, that one felt a bit technical and didn’t push me over the edge in the way that “Assassins” [from The Crown] did. Peter Morgan’s writing on that episode is incredible. The scene with Stephen Dillane painting John Lithgow’s portrait? Writing for television does not get any better than that.

My vote: The Crown (Netflix)

Best Writing for a Comedy Series

The one that I eliminated first was Silicon Valley (“Success Failure”) — that episode is almost beat-for-beat the same as the episode when they went to the big announcement during the first or second season and did that whole thing about jerking everybody off, which was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I voted for Master of None last year for the “Parenting” script, which won, and I was sort of moved by this year’s nominated episode [“Thanksgiving”] about the African-American woman’s journey of discovery that she’s a lesbian, which is sweet and nice, but ultimately felt a little too writer-y for me. The two Veep episodes [“Georgia” and “Groundbreaking”] are just hysterical — they used her [Louis-Dreyfus’] venality so beautifully. And then there’s the Atlanta episodes. One, “Streets on Lock,” was not among their strongest, certainly in comparison to the other, “B.A.N.,” which just blew me out of the water. I thought that one was so funny! What Glover is doing there is he is sending up all media — the [fake] ads alone are laugh-out- loud, and the interview offered a nice look into Paperboi and how he reacts when the spotlight is really on him. It was brave and smart and funny. I just loved it.

My vote: Atlanta (FX)