Awards are always a terribly flawed way of determining what makes for good popular culture. Limits on the number of nominees lock deserving contenders out of their categories. Differences between the people who watch television shows or movies and the people in the pool assigned to judge them can produce some truly baffling biases and decisions. And winning doesn’t automatically transform a show’s prospects of staying on the air or an actor’s chance of getting good work in the future. But all of those caveats aside, it can be hugely satisfying to see a small show get the recognition you assume it’ll be denied, or an actor break barriers. And if you want better television, here are the shows and performances you should root for get whatever boost it’s possible to wring out of the Emmys on Sunday.
The Big Bang Theory
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Who Should Win: Girls
Why: There are a lot of legacy shows on this list, and some very notable omissions, particularly Parks and Recreation, which had a much stronger season than its network counterpart 30 Rock. Given that, I have to root for Girls, one of the few comedies to arrive on television knowing exactly what it was and what its strengths were, even if during its run, creator Lena Dunham had to confront some of its more notable weaknesses and absences, particularly when it came to race. Flawed though it may be, those of us rooting for more personal, low-budget shows—and who would like to see folks of color get the opportunities Dunham and Louis C.K. have—should hope for Girls to take home the statuette over more commercial favorites like The Big Bang Theory.
Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory
Larry David as Himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm
Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan in House of Lies
Louis C.K. as Louie in Louie
Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock
Jon Cryer as Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men
Who Should Win: Louis C.K. or Don Cheadle
Why: It’s impossible to compare C.K.’s exploration of wounded and uncertain middle-aged masculinity and Cheadle’s turn as a hyped-up management consultant struggling to raise his potentially transgender son with tenderness and consideration. House of Lies is an inconsistent mess in comparison to the jewel-like Louie. But C.K. isn’t exactly lacking in recognition. And Cheadle’s playing a character who’s more distant from his real self than C.K. Plus, a black actor hasn’t won the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Emmy since Robert Guillaume for Benson in 1985.
Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in Girls
Melissa McCarthy as Molly Flynn in Mike and Molly
Zooey Deschanel as Jess Day in New Girl
Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton in Nurse Jackie
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep
Who Should Win: No question. My girl Amy Poehler.
Why: Poehler was great as Leslie Knope in a season when Parks and Recreation prepared for a major transition, moving Leslie from the Parks Department to City Council, Ben from Pawnee to Washington, and April from apathy to interest. It’s easy to fall into political cliches on television, but Poehler was alternately frazzled and inspiring, gaffe-prone and savvy. Parks and Recreation could be in its last season. A win for Poehler may not keep it alive. But it couldn’t hurt.
SUPPORTING COMEDY ACTOR
Ed O’Neill as Jay Pritchett in Modern Family
Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell Pritchett in Modern Family
Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy in Modern Family
Eric Stonestreet as Cameron Tucker in Modern Family
Max Greenfield as Schmidt in New Girl
Bill Hader as various characters in Saturday Night Life
Who Should Win: It’s embarrassing that after such a weak season, Modern Family’s dominated the Supporting Comedy Actor nominations the way it has. But even if there were other performers in the mix, I’d still be pulling for Max Greenfield.
Why: Greenfield was a critical part of New Girl figuring out what made the show work: once the show recognized that its men were as interesting as interesting as its titular Girl, and that the sitcom could explore new archetypes of masculinity as well as Zooey Deschanel’s cutesy quirks, it came together. And even more than that, as my critic friend Willa Paskin pointed out, Greenfield’s Schmidt represents a new kind of masculinity on television, a combination of aggressively heterosexual and hilariously fussy. I can’t wait to see what happens next week when Schmidt gets his penis cast off and gets turned loose on the world again.
SUPPORTING COMEDY ACTRESS
Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory
Kathryn Joosten as Karen McCluskey in Desperate Housewives
Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy in Modern Family
Sofia Vergara as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in Modern Family
Merritt Wever as Zoey Barkow in Nurse Jackie
Kristen Wiig as various characters in Saturday Night Live
Who Should Win:I don’t have as strong a dog in this race as I do elsewhere. But I’m voting for Mayim Bialik.
Why: Real, true, nerd girls for the win. And it would be a nice little rebuke to The Big Bang Theory, which ran Emmy ads featuring star Kaley Cuoco dressed in gold and shoved its actual lady nominee, Bialik, to the side.
Game of Thrones
Who Should Win: As much as I enjoy Game of Thrones, Homeland.
Why: I’d put money on Game of Thrones really taking off next season, once it stops doing a book per season and starts editing down George R.R. Martin’s sprawling narrative. But this year, Homeland, Showtime’s freshman drama about a bipolar CIA agent and the returned prisoner of war she suspects of being a terrorist, before she falls in love with him, was sleek, swervy, and sensual. A win for Homeland is a win for smart, sophisticated, policy-driven dramas, and for female characters who are allowed to be an aggressive, weird, brilliant mess.
Glenn Close as Patty Hewes in Damages
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife
Kathy Bates as Harriet Korn in Harry’s Law
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men
Who Should Win: Claire Danes
Why: Homeland is her show, and Danes is carrying it on Carrie Mathison’s skittery, undernourished shoulders. As a brilliant analyst who falls apart when everyone around her convinces her she’s wrong to believe that Nicholas Brody is a terrorist (even though, of course, she’s absolutely correct), Carrie is alternately tough and tender, someone who breaks everything around her and the person who sees more clearly than anyone else around her. And her relationship with Saul Berenson, Carrie’s mentor, is one of the best portraits of colleagues anywhere on television.
Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan in Dexter
Hugh Bonneville as Robert, Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey
Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody in Homeland
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men
Who Should Win: Bryan Cranston
Why: There are a lot of incredibly talented people on this list. But Walter White’s full transformation into an abusive monster (who needs Mr. Chips to turn into Scarface when he’s become this instead) is undeniably powerful. Breaking Bad sometimes can’t always resist its most cinematic moments—Gus Fring’s blown-apart face was much less compelling than the still, eerie sight of that Lily of the Valley. But it’s always deeply anchored by the show’s performances, and Cranston leads the way and lays down a marker.
SUPPORTING DRAMA ACTRESS
Anna Gunn as Skyler White in Breaking Bad
Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey
Joanne Froggatt as Anna in Downton Abbey
Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife
Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in The Good Wife
Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway Harris in Mad Men
Who Should Win: Anna Gunn
Why: As Skyler White, Gunn’s morphed from a nag—something a lot of viewers have never been able to get over particularly as Walt’s become a controlling badass—to a willing participant in her husband’s schemes, to an abused wife confronting Watl’s monstrosity and attempting to negotiate a livable arrangement that will protect her children. Along the way, she’s become a pivotal spotlight for how audiences react to the wives of prestige cable television. This is a role—and a performance—that’s going to matter as we figure out what’s next for cable drama, and for women on television..
SUPPORTING DRAMA ACTOR
Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad
Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring in Breaking Bad
Brendan Coyle as John Bates in Downton Abbey
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones
Jared Harris as Lane Pryce Mad Men
Who Should Win: This is another brutal category, and I’d be happy to see Aaron Paul or Peter Dinklage win. But by a slim margin, my heart says Giancarlo Esposito.
Why: As Gus Fring, Esposito was meticulous, sometimes icy with rage, and as we learned in last season’s flashbacks, nursing an old wound: the cartel he works for killed the man who may have been his lover. As Gus plotted—and achieved—his revenge, we saw a new side of him, and a new, low-key kind of gay male character on television. And if you got through my long rant on the subject yesterday, we need a lot more Gustavo Frings