Critic's Notebook: The Emmy Nominations Bring New Blood, Diversity and Game of Thrones

Matt Roush
THE AMERICANS -- "Stingers" Episode 310 (Airs Wednesday, April 1, 10:00 PM e/p) Pictured (l-r): Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings & Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbon/FX
Patrick Harbon/FX

The Emmys so often feel like a closed shop, repeatedly welcoming back those who’ve won and been nominated before, that any new blood is always welcome. This is especially true in the most competitive arena: the TV drama.

So pardon a critic for loudly cheering when a longtime favorite, FX’s The Americans, finally gets its due in its fourth season of riveting intrigue, including nominations for best drama and its two chameleon lead actors, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

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Also breaking through in a big way: the provocative Mr. Robot, a game changer for USA that earned bids for best drama and its unconventional lead actor, Rami Malek. (Both series were also nominated for writing.)

With a best-in-field 23 nominations, HBO’s epic Game of Thrones is favored to repeat last year’s victory, but things get interesting when you dig into the supporting categories. Incumbent Peter Dinklage (the great Tyrion) faces a challenge from Kit Harington’s resurrected Jon Snow, the season’s buzziest comeback. And with Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black inexplicably shut out, along with two-time winner Uzo Aduba, this sets up a symbolic showdown between three Thrones power players: Lena Headey (evil Cersei), Emilia Clarke (majestic Daenarys) and first-time nominee Maisie Williams (spunky Arya).

Although if I had a vote, it would go to UnReal’s outrageous Constance Zimmer, another first-timer who burns up the screen as a fiendishly manipulative reality-show producer.

And while PBS’s Downton Abbey managed to find some love for its satisfyingly schmaltzy final season, including one last bow for Maggie Smith’s beloved Dowager Countess, CBS’s The Good Wife was largely ignored for its controversial end, including a snub of last year’s best actress winner, Julianna Margulies.

Comedy was more accepting toward broadcast networks, with the powerful second season of ABC’s black-ish joining perennial nominee Modern Family among the best-comedy contenders. Anthony Anderson, who helped announce the Emmys on Thursday morning, welcomed black-ish co-star Tracee Ellis Ross, a first-timer, to the lead acting categories. Also new to the list: Netflix’s exquisite Master of None and its star, Aziz Ansari, nominations that once again reflect the diversity so lacking at this year’s Oscars. (Although many had also hoped the hilarious Constance Wu of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat would make the cut.)

HBO’s top comedies, Veep (last year’s winner) and Silicon Valley (starring first-time nominee Thomas Middleditch), dominate the comedy field with 17 and 11 nominations respectively, while TV’s biggest hit comedy, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, was altogether missing from the top slots.

sarah paulson, american crime story, oj simpson, marcia clark

Ray Mickshaw/ FX Networks

The People v. O.J. Simpson’s Paulson and Brown were part of a big haul for the FX miniseries

The greatest battles this season may loom within the unusually robust limited-series and TV-movie categories, with two acclaimed FX powerhouses—The People v. O.J. Simpson, with 22 nominations, and the second season of Fargo, with 18—leading the way. Hard to imagine anyone besting Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson for the way they channeled courtroom combatants Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark. And how to choose among the supporting-actor ranks of Sterling K. Brown (as Christopher Darden), David Schwimmer (Robert Karadashian) and John Travolta’s bizarre take on Robert Shapiro. Fargo's Jean Smart, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Bokeem Woodbine are just as worthy.

We shouldn’t count out two strong HBO docudramas: All the Way (starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ) and Confirmation (with Scandal’s Kerry Washington as Anita Hill). There’s significant star power as well in AMC’s slick thriller The Night Manager, with heroic lead Tom Hiddleston and supporting villain Hugh Laurie. It’s also possible that Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest appearance as PBS’s mercurial Sherlock could upstage the field, as he did in 2014.

James Corden

Art Streiber/CBS

James Corden’s big year continues

Emmy saved its greatest shocks for the category known as Variety Talk, for the past decade owned by the Comedy Central combo of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Neither of those shows exist in that format anymore, and Emmy voters snubbed both the Trevor Noah version of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s new gig playing himself as host of CBS’s The Late Show. Instead, a nomination went to CBS's The Late Late Show With James Corden, which made joyful noise with its Carpool Karaoke viral videos. Similarly wheelbound, Crackle’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld was a surprise choice and a coup for the streaming service.

This race could boil down to a face-off of the Jimmys—neither NBC’s Fallon, who reinvented The Tonight Show, or ABC’s Kimmel, who’s hosting the Emmys, has won—but the prize is likely to go to another former Comedy Central personality in HBO’s roof-raising Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.