Emmy Nominations: Making the Case for This Year's Top Contenders

Matt Roush

In this era of "Peak TV," the members of the Television Academy's job of handing out Emmy nominations is harder than ever. We're here to help; scroll through the gallery to see who we think should get nods, from the favorites to shows and actors that might get overlooked.

Mr Robot

Peter Kramer/USA Network

Mr. Robot (USA)

The most unexpectedly exhilarating series of the past year, this surprise summer cult sleeper deserves to break through the always cluttered drama field, rewarding auteur Sam Esmail’s bizarre and hypnotic futuristic parable of cyber intrigue and socioeconomic anarchy.

The mesmerizing Rami Malek, as the morphine-addicted hacker hero Elliot, should be a shoo-in for his star-is-born breakthrough. And coming off a string of TV duds, Christian Slater could find Emmy redemption as the titular mystery man urging Elliot on.

Better Call Saul

Ursula Coyote/AMC

Micheal McKean, Better Call Saul (AMC)

Bob Odenkirk (left) has rightfully been lauded for his endearing work as Jimmy McGill, the shmuck who will become Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman. But Saul’s second season was an even greater triumph for McKean, another actor better known for comedy. He achieves tragic dimension as vengeful shut-in brother Chuck, who’ll do anything to block Jimmy’s ambitions.

Bates Motel

James Dittiger/A&E

Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel (A&E)

Tackling one of cinema’s most iconic roles, Highmore took his deepest dive yet into the twisted psyche of Norman Bates in Motel’s gripping fourth season, bringing poignant new shadings with chilling emotional rawness. He now embodies the spirit of mother Norma (Vera Farmiga, also worthy), and it’s creepier than ever.

The Americans

Patrick Harbron/FX

The Americans (FX)

Could the fourth season finally be the charm for this underappreciated spy saga? It has yet to receive Emmy bids for best drama or for its mercurial leads, Keri Russell (left) and Matthew Rhys. All were in top form, as tension within the family reached new highs while daughter Paige (the terrific Holly Taylor) struggled with Mom and Dad’s secret identities as Soviet agents.

Kudos to Alison Wright as the tragically duped Martha, Dylan Baker as a jaded scientist and Frank Langella as the couple’s mournful handler. They’re all fighting a losing game, but The Americans is a winner.

UnReal

Bettina Strauss/Lifetime

Constance Zimmer, UnREAL (Lifetime)

In the role of a lifetime, Zimmer’s raspy voice drips with cynicism, barking orders behind the scenes of a tawdry reality dating show with military zeal and icy authority. As queen bee manipulator Quinn King, Zimmer steals the show, as well as the fictional show within the show.

Black-ish

Richard Cartwright/ABC

Black-ish (ABC)

What’s the opposite of a sophomore slump? This provocative but never self-important family comedy tackled some big issues in its wildly entertaining second year: the N-word, guns in the home and economic and job uncertainty.

In its strongest episode, we watched the Johnsons experience the troubling TV coverage of a racially charged police-brutality incident. The jubilant season finale, an homage to Good Times, reminds us how black-ish honors the passionate, urgently relevant spirit of the great Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s. This modern classic deserves Emmy respect.

GRINDER

Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Rob Lowe and Fred Savage, The Grinder (FOX)

Oh, brothers, how we’ll miss you. Though it lasted only one season, this inspired sitcom, about a famous faux TV lawyer (Lowe, left) who regularly upstaged his earnest family-man brother (Savage), an actual lawyer, in and out of court, gave these TV veterans some memorably deranged material to play. Even if too few watched.

Master of None

K.C. Bailey/Netflix

Aziz Ansari, Master of None (Netflix)

The Parks and Recreation clown reveals a seriously funny side in this warmly observed quasi-autobiographical comedy. Ansari reinvents himself as Dev, a struggling actor taking stock of life, love, friendship and family as he turns 30. His misadventures in a TV and movie industry that marginalizes minorities should strike an Emmy nerve.

Baskets

Ben Cohen/FX

Louie Anderson, Baskets (FX)

Even those who resisted the bleak charms of Zach Galifianakis’s failed sad clown in this self-indulgent dark comedy couldn’t help but be wowed by how deeply Anderson immerses himself in the role of forlorn mother figure Christine Baskets. Eschewing affectation or camp, he creates a real character who’s anything but a drag.

Fresh Off The Boat

Eric McCandless/ABC

Constance Wu, Fresh Off The Boat (ABC)

Strictly speaking—and when doesn’t she?—Wu’s star-making turn as fierce but loving Asian-American tiger mother Jessica Huang should have been acknowledged a year ago. Emmy voters, wake up! This woman is hilarious, especially during those many moments when she’s not smiling.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Eddy Chen/The CW

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

Dark horses don’t come in a more unusual package than this daring hybrid of warped rom-com and over-the-top musical comedy. The fearless Rachel Bloom won a Golden Globe and critical hosannas for the unhinged ecstasy she brings to her creation of love-crazed Rebecca Bunch, a siren whose internal jukebox is always on brazen overdrive.

Handicapped by its irrepressibly offbeat style and its presence on a network that’s largely invisible at Emmy time, this is the year’s biggest underdog. It’s also among the most worthy.

Fargo

Chris Large/FX

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, Fargo (FX)

As bumbling innocents caught in the crossfire of a Midwest crime war in 1979, these fab actors were part of a brilliant ensemble including Jean Smart, Patrick Wilson, Bokeem Woodbine, Ted Danson and Jeffrey Donovan. Noah Hawley’s remarkable Emmy-winning anthology series was just as good in Season 2, but it faces incredibly stiff competition.

HBO (2)

All the Way and Confirmation (HBO)

Having won Emmys for the campaign dramas of Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012), HBO made noise again with two very different accounts of fortitude in a cutthroat capital city.

Bryan Cranston triumphantly reprised his Tony-winning role of the larger-than-life Lyndon B. Johnson in the tumultuous first year of his presidency, tenaciously pushing through civil-rights legislation. Scandal’s Kerry Washington (far right) exercised moving restraint in her portrayal of Anita Hill, standing up against congressional critics during Clarence Thomas’s bruising Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

The People vs OJ

Prashant Gupta/FX

The People V. O.J. Simpson (FX)

Acquitting itself with astonishing authenticity in its mostly spot-on casting—especially that of Courtney B. Vance (right) and Sarah Paulson as legal combatants Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark—this compulsively riveting docudrama re-creation of the O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) murder trial is the likely front-runner in this year’s unusually robust movie–limited series sweepstakes. The original trial held us spellbound, and with its masterful command of narrative, the debut installment of American Crime Story did the same.

Roots

Steve Dietl/History Channel

Roots (History)

Few classics cast as long and enduring a shadow as the groundbreaking Roots. History’s stirring remake presented a powerful case for a revival, with a strong ensemble led by Forest Whitaker (below left) as Fiddler and Malachi Kirby as a defiant Kunta Kinte bringing this story to a new generation.

Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Patti LuPone and Eva Green, Penny Dreadful (Showtime)

First seen as a doomed witch and now playing a dour therapist on this deluxe supernatural thriller, LuPone is a grim marvel in her scenes with the exotic Green (as tormented client Vanessa Ives, currently being stalked by Dracula). These Victorian-era heroines mean business.

Steve Dietl/Sony Pictures Television

Underground (WGN America)

The upstart network had a critical and commercial success with this bold, suspenseful historical drama about slaves on the run from a Georgia plantation. With fear and rage fueling their flight toward freedom, the series provided strong roles for Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Amirah Vann as the crafty housekeeper who stayed behind.

American Crime (ABC)

John Ridley’s emotionally explosive dissection of class conflict and sexuality starred a painfully sensitive Connor Jessup as a troubled teen whose allegations of male-on-male rape rocked an Indiana town, with Lili Taylor sensational as his overwrought mother. Who says all the most powerful dramas air on cable?

The Night Manager

Des Willie/The Ink Factory/AMC

Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager (AMC)

The star power was dazzling in this gloriously suspenseful and sumptuously produced miniseries version of John le Carré’s bestseller about a dashing ex-soldier (Hiddleston) who infiltrates the treacherous inner circle of a charismatic arms merchant (Laurie). Elegant escapism at its finest.

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