HBO aired the finales for its spring lineup this past Sunday, which means that the 2014-15 TV season has officially ended and the race for the Emmys is about to kick into full gear. While the actual nominations won’t be announced for another month, there’s no better time than the present to make the case for the shows and people I hope to see recognized come July 16. As I’ve mentioned in my previous Emmy wish-lists, these aren’t predictions, and given voters’ past tendencies, I imagine the majority of them have next-to-no chance of happening, but one must never despair when it comes to pop culture awards, not even in the face of inexplicable FX snubbing and Downton Abbey love. Until the final verdict comes out, possibilities for surprise abound, so if they know what’s good for them, voters should take a peek at this list:
The case: Mad Men for everything
The argument: It’s hard to think of Matthew Weiner’s iconic show about the ad industry in the 1960s as an underdog or long shot, but in recent years, its reputation as an awards darling hasn’t exactly matched with reality. Most awards bodies, like the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, seem to have forgotten about its existence, last recognizing Mad Men in 2013. Even the Emmys, which often seems to lavish the show with attention out of rote habit (see: the continued noms for Christina Hendricks and Robert Morse despite the lack of actual material for both actors in the latest seasons), only gave it four nominations, and no wins, for the stellar first half of its seventh and final season. Add in the fact that not a single member of its large, hugely talented ensemble cast has ever won an Emmy, and maybe you can understand why I’m a bit nervous about Mad Men’s prospects, though it will presumably benefit from not having to compete with Breaking Bad anymore.
It would be easy to argue that Mad Men deserves Emmy recognition simply because it’s Mad Men and it only seems proper to give such a seminal work of art one last hurrah. However, the show is too good, its merits too many, for me to resort to such a shallow, sentimental appeal. While the last seven episodes weren’t the strongest of its run, they still provided plenty of indelible moments, from Joan threatening to burn it all down to Peggy sauntering into the McCann-Erickson offices and Don driving off into the sunset, and a fitting conclusion to the saga of Don Draper and friends. As impeccably crafted as always, Mad Men stayed true to its ambiguous, elliptical nature, preferring hard-won, frequently temporary victories over immediate gratification. The dissolution of Sterling Cooper put all of the show’s major characters at crossroads and, as a result, proved to be the perfect storyline to drive home the series’ core themes of identity, change, expectations versus reality, and the unstoppable march of time. Layered performances by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and January Jones in particular ensured that Mad Men’s impending absence would be deeply felt.
The evidence: “Time and Life” (ep. 11), “Lost Horizon” (ep. 12), “Person to Person” (ep. 14)
Me to the Emmys, probably
The case: Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) for Best Lead Actor
The argument: Masters of Sex had an inconsistent sophomore season, attempting to navigate a mid-season time jump and disparate storylines that never fully coalesced into a coherent whole, but the central relationship between Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson remained a reliable, intriguing anchor. While Michael Sheen’s and Lizzy Caplan’s roles are so interdependent it seems silly to separate them, as demonstrated by the stand-out bottle episode “Fight”, Sheen especially stood out this round as the show stripped away Bill’s chilly exterior to reveal more of his insecurities and obsessions. Sheen’s seemingly effortless ability to shift from prickly, arrogant reticence to heart-tugging vulnerability, sometimes capturing both at the same time, distinguished Bill from the dozens of other difficult but brilliant men who populate TV. Take, for instance, the climax of “Below the Belt”, where he and his brother Frank confront each other over memories of their father and their family history of alcoholism. Thanks to Sheen’s no-holds-barred performance, a scene that could have come off as cheesy or histrionic instead becomes a gut punch as Bill exposes the frightened, complicated depths of his soul.
The evidence: “Fight” (ep. 3), “Asterion” (ep. 7), “Below the Belt” (ep. 10)
The case: Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) for Best Supporting Actress
The argument: There’s no denying that this season of Game of Thrones had its issues, namely with a side plot in Dorne that disappointingly never clicked and some narrative stagnation during the middle episodes, but it also put the show’s strengths – its thematic complexity, epic scope, and refusal to water down the brutality that fills its world and makes the mere act of survival both a victory and a curse – to excellent use. While the masterfully directed “Hardhome” may have been its single best hour, the backbone of season five turned out to be Lena Headey’s storyline as Cersei Lannister attempted to consolidate power only to experience her downfall at the hands of the very people she wanted to manipulate. Headey has always been one of the most impressive players in a ridiculously talented cast, lending depth to a character that occasionally devolved into cartoon villainy on paper, but she finally took the spotlight this season, benefiting from her most complete arc yet. In her hands, Cersei’s paranoia and smug ruthlessness became not just unfortunate personality traits, but weapons, a suit of armor she believes will shield her from both external enemies and the internal loneliness and bitterness that threaten to consume her. By the end of the season, Cersei was stripped of that armor. Headey was never been better than in the finale’s Walk of Shame sequence, her tear- and mud-streaked face subtly and wordlessly communicating angry pride giving way to humiliation and pain. With the help of body double Rebecca Van Cleave and smart direction by David Nutter, she transforms Cersei into something that not long ago seemed impossible: a sympathetic figure.
The evidence: “High Sparrow” (ep. 3), “The Gift” (ep. 7), “Mother’s Mercy” (ep. 10)
Consider yourselves warned, Emmy voters
The case: Joelle Carter (Justified) for Best Supporting Actress
The argument: Ending its six-season run on a definite high note, Justified always stood out for its vividly realized setting, memorably colorful characters and crisp, wickedly mesmerizing dialogue. Its final season had almost too many highlights to count (Walton Goggins deserves consideration for that final scene alone, and if neither Sam Elliot nor Mary Steenburgen receive guest nods, we’re going to have a major problem), but the emergence of Joelle Carter’s Ava Crowder as the story’s secret hero was perhaps the most unexpected and welcome move of the show. Introduced in season one as a love interest and damsel-in-distress, the kind of stock character found in a million Westerns, Ava became increasingly hardened and resourceful over the course of the show, eventually becoming loquacious criminal Boyd’s partner in crime (and in love) and winding up in prison. Her ultimate dilemma – snitch on Boyd for Raylan Givens and the Marshall’s office or risk going back to jail – formed the emotional crux of season six, returning the narrative focus to the three-pronged relationship that lay at Justified’s heart and adding a heightened sense of stakes and urgency to the characters’ scheming. Carter made us feel Ava’s desperation and fear, the toll of each of her decisions as she struggled to escape the dying world around her and the toxic men who had shaped it so that she might someday find some semblance of control and peace.
The evidence: “The Trash and the Snake” (ep. 4), “The Hunt” (ep. 7), “Trust” (ep. 10)
The case: Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) for Best Supporting Actress
The argument: It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Leftovers is unlike anything else on TV. Eschewing the more overtly satirical tone of its source material for a kind of grim sincerity, each episode of its first season unfolded less like a traditional narrative with clearly defined plots and arcs and more like a surreal, anxious dream. While the cast as a whole deserves a lot of credit for grounding the show’s particular brand of existential brooding, Carrie Coon, an actress previously best known for her theater work, was a revelation as Nora Durst. Spitting many of her lines with the same fiery, sardonic frankness that she later brought to the movie Gone Girl, Coon treated Nora’s confusion and pain as achingly, shockingly real, no matter how vague and absurd her actions – buying cereal for children she no longer has, asking a call girl to shoot her point-blank while wearing a bulletproof vest, humping a dummy as a party full of strangers looks on – might seem to an outside observer. Her performance helped elevate The Leftovers from the morose endurance test it could’ve been to the intimate, fascinating portrait of loss, trauma and spirituality it turned out to be.
The evidence: “Guest” (ep. 6), “Cairo” (ep. 8), “The Prodigal Son Returns” (ep. 10)
The case: The Americans for Best Direction
The argument: If you were to describe FX’s Soviet spy thriller in one word, “showy” would definitely not be your first choice. The Americans has always preferred a static camera that makes itself invisible to the swooping, aerobatic shots often praised in prestige shows like True Detective, and its cozy, drab settings contrast so sharply from the vast scale and elegance of Game of Thrones, for example, that you might get whiplash watching them back-to-back. Yet, the third season demonstrated that, despite – or maybe because of – their unassuming approach, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have stealthily developed the best directed show on TV right now. From perfectly calibrated performances by the entire cast (Keri Russell and Holly Taylor especially impressed this year) and stunningly precise work by cinematographer Richard Rutkowski to the characteristically on-point musical cues and killer sound design, nearly every aspect of The Americans is remarkable on its own, and each week, a cadre of ace directors, including regular Thomas Schlamme and actor Noah Emmerich, brings them together to create an even more exquisite whole.
All of this was best demonstrated in one of the season’s biggest, most anticipated turning points: the moment when Elizabeth and Philip Jennings revealed their true profession to daughter Paige. Staged with brutal economy and paced deliberately to build suspense to an almost unbearable pitch, the sequence in question looked like a simple family chat around the dinner table, but it packed the wallop of a high-octane action scene. Silence and a dial tone have never been used to such devastating effect.
The evidence: “Open House” (ep. 3), “Stingers” (ep. 10), “March 8, 1983” (ep. 13)
Can the best sex scene of the year be a scene without any actual sex?
If so, I’ve got your winner right here.
The case: Looking for Best Comedic Series
The argument: As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Looking, particularly its fantastic fifth episode “Looking for the Future”, but basically forgot about it the moment it ended, I wasn’t at all prepared for the huge leap in quality that came with season two, which was as close to flawless as I’ve ever seen a season of TV get. The HBO dramedy has frequently been dismissed as slight or not representative enough of the wildly diverse LGBT community, yet those criticisms, in fact, highlight what made the show work: the specificity of its point of view and its keen eye for finding humor and poignancy in the mundanity of everyday life. Whether the focus was on the melodramatic complications of Patrick’s love life or Doris returning to her hometown for her father’s funeral, showrunner Michael Lannan kept his characters’ awkwardness and flaws front and center, but the dialogue, which often felt improvised, and the camerawork, which took a handheld, naturalistic approach, never allowed viewers the distance necessary to breed contempt. Though the series’ cancellation by HBO was disappointing, the proposed wrap-up movie hardly seems necessary. The open-ended conclusion of season two encapsulated the show at its best: sweet, emotionally raw, a little cringe-worthy, dorky and uncertain but ultimately hopeful about the future and humanity.
The evidence: “Looking for the Promised Land” (ep. 1), “Looking for a Plot” (ep. 7), “Looking for Home” (ep. 10)
The case: Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) for Best Lead Actress
The argument: Constance Wu stole the show as the Huang family matriarch in nearly every episode of the new ABC sitcom’s amusing but otherwise unremarkable first season. As the rare comedic female lead who was gifted with her show’s best bits and punchlines rather than relegated to the thankless role of straight man to the men’s antics, she delivered cutting one-liners with spot-on timing and expressed more in a single pointed look than some people could with an entire monologue. Wu defied tiresome stereotypes of Asian women as meek and deferential and gave Fresh Off the Boat the unapologetically brash, clever edge it needed to avoid the syrupy earnestness that plagues many family sitcoms.
The evidence: “Home Sweet Home-School” (ep. 2), “Fajita Man” (ep. 6), “License to Sell” (ep. 9)
The case: Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) for Best Supporting Actor
The argument: As someone who only started watching Parks and Rec after it had passed its prime, I imagine my love for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, also created by Mike Schur and Dan Goor, rivals what hardcore Parks fans feel. Boasting sharp writing that blends wit, physical comedy and pathos without ever letting one overwhelm the others, the FOX cop show succeeds primarily because of the energy and chemistry of its perfectly chosen ensemble cast, all of whom excel both individually and as part of the larger group. The clear standout over the course of two seasons, however, has been Andre Braugher as the precinct’s demanding, openly gay captain. Managing to convey a vast range of emotional nuances through a character that’s deliberately, hilariously stoic, Braugher tackles every goofy situation and ridiculous phrase the show throws at him with aplomb; the words “hot damn!” have never been so surprising or delightful. Yet, as funny as he is, the full genius of the performance only becomes apparent during his more serious scenes. Holt’s farewell in the season two finale was touching because of its sincerity, but also because it wasn’t just the precinct that was losing a great captain – it felt like we as viewers were too. Luckily, the showrunners have confirmed that Braugher will still be returning next season, but whoever the new captain of the 99 ends up being, they’ll have a lot to live up to.
The evidence: “The Mole” (ep. 5), “Beach House” (ep. 12), “Johnny and Dora” (ep. 23)
All of the awards