Before the 2012 Emmy Nominations are officially announced (July 19th), I wanted to jump in and highlight some of what I believe to be some of the best underrated performances on television this year. Putting aside some of the perennial winners, the following discussion for each of the major categories is likely to mention plenty of names who won’t get Emmy mentions this year, but certainly should (and others who may get a nod, but likely won’t win). Hit the jump for the (spoiler-free!) list that is not meant to be exhaustive (after all, I do watch an unhealthy amount of TV but I’m not caught up on everything), but hopefully brings at least a few of those dark horses to light with the recognition they deserve.
Let me clear that I think Breaking Bad should win everything this year. Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll bring up a series that definitely won’t get nominated and that most everyone has already forgotten about. The competition is tough this year – we’re in a Second Golden Age of Dramatic Television, haven’t you heard? Maybe if it had continued, Luck would have gotten a chance, but HBO’s deep and luscious series only had one season to prove its point about life at the races, and even though I thought it did so bravely, the controversy surrounding it will certainly cause it to be shuffled under the rug. It’s a shame. As one of the roughly 12 people who tuned in to watch Luck during its run, I can confirm the show had fantastic writing and a stellar cast, and portrayed stunning equine performances alongside a dark side of the track, and those who frequent it, with a very personal beauty.
Though the award deserves to go in no other hands than those of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) for his chillingly complex portrayal of a Walter White who finally and completely “broke bad” with his morality this season, I want to offer the name Dustin Hoffman as a worthy runner-up. Though Luck had plenty of great performances, the core of the series and the performance that stood out the most was Hoffman’s, whose character was unique and unforgettable. There’s been a trend (that will be the most noticeable in the miniseries category this year) of Hollywood actors taking on television roles, and it will be interesting to see how they may start taking over the Emmys more and more in years to come. It also indicates that the writing and production quality of full series will escalate to attract them to the small screen. Never a bad thing.
As a whole, Downton Abbey‘s second season might not have lived up to the high expectations of its first, but the women of the series didn’t disappoint – particularly Michelle Dockery, who deserves far more praise than she received in her role as Lady Mary. Dockery practically single-handedly grounded the series from flying off into extreme melodrama, and deftly handled the transformation of her character from an intensely unlikable brat to a complicated young woman who finally earned her right to be the show’s foremost protagonist. She was never one-dimensional, as Dockery has the ability to let shadows of emotion flicker across her face in ways that make us feel her inner turmoil without having it explicitly expressed. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Dockery’s mother on the show, had a fine performance this year, but is it just because her character went through a difficult illness? It’s like an actor who gains or loses a ton of weight for a role – we always seem obliged to award them with something. And fanfare will always been made about the wonderful Maggie Smith, who supporting role is indeed a delight, but Dockery is the true star.
This looks to be an exceptionally competitive field this year, and I honestly can’t say at this point I have a favorite. So many worthy contenders - Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), John Slattery (Mad Men), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire). Each of these actors truly stood out in their roles and brought something special to their series. But on the less-discussed side I want to bring up Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones), who is unlikely to be nominated, but was certainly a standout. His complicated portrayal of Theon Greyjoy, hated by everyone (most of all by his own families – biological and adoptive!), was reminiscent of the Vincent Kartheiser’s performance as Pete Campbell. And, come to think of it, the performance of most of the actors in this group – making deeply flawed, often bad men oddly redeemable if not likable. That is true talent. (Which reminds me, another addition - David Oakes in The Borgias, who made viewers care about and like his crazed prodigal son character Juan in a way I still don’t fully understand, but loved).
This is another category packed with fantastic talent. Though in my heart I want the award to go to Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) for what was an emotionally difficult role as Joan Harris (she’ll be nominated, and certainly has a chance to win), I want to again throw out a few names that are more likely to get overlooked - Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) and Kristen Bauer (True Blood). These are three actresses who portray strong women (or in Cersei’s case, a woman who thinks she’s strong) in ways that truly steal their screen time. Let the Emmy committees weep to know I have snuck True Blood into their competition in any way, but fans of the series will know that Pam, and Bauer’s unique take on her, is one of the only reasons many of us stuck around for the series’ fifth season. Anna Gunn, too, gave a fantastically nuanced performance as the conflicted wife being constantly up-ended by her husband’s decisions. As for Lena Headey, book readers will know that Cersei has an extremely active inner life that could be difficult to put onscreen, but Headey does so in a way that – like many of the men in this category – makes us feel for a character who does so much to repel us.
Everyone is going to be talking about Modern Family (still a great show but has proved itself overly repetitive), Louie (which I haven’t seen but I’ve heard great things about), 30 Rock and Girls, but I’d like to cast some light on three series that I think truly excelled themselves this year - Happy Endings, Veep and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s Always Sunny had some rocky seasons, but it really came back into form this year and provided some of the best of its strange brand of entertainment (especially with the increasingly dark take it has started giving a few of the characters). Veep has proven to be a polarizing show like Curb Your Enthusiasm (love it or loathe it), but as someone who loved it I thought it was absolutely one of the best. The perpetually under-appreciated Happy Endings always deserves a mention as well, and hopefully with a new time-slot this fall, it will start getting some more recognition.
Forget the guys who are nominated and win this category every year, let’s talk about Chris Lilley (Angry Boys). Maybe you liked Angry Boys, maybe you hated it. Maybe you didn’t even realize it was a series. The Australian show was not as sly and perceptive or even as engaging as Lilley’s earlier work which also aired on HBO, Summer Heights High, but it had elements of greatness. Mostly, it expanded Lilley’s cast of characters – all of whom he plays himself – to a total of six. And the way Lilley is able to become, truly become, a set of twins, a Japanese tiger mother, a surfer dude, an African-American rapper, and a grandmother-figured who works in a corrections institute is spellbinding. There are still people who are confused into thinking that an early character of Lilley’s, the teenager Ja’mie, was actually played by a female instead of Lilley himself. He’s a largely misunderstood auteur who is consumed by his roles, and his being overlooked so consistently in the United States is a mystery.
I start getting a little confused, particularly in regards to ensemble casts, the distinctions between Lead and Supporting roles (and it is usually pretty arbitrary). But someone who really made a lead role a leading role in comedy this year was Julia Louis-Dreyfus as befuddled Vice President Selina Meyer (Veep). Louis-Dreyfus is no stranger to the Emmys but the aforementioned polarizing nature of Veep may have her overlooked this year. With the show renewed for (at least) a second season, she has plenty of time. Also, come at me bros, but Courteney Cox deserves a mention for Cougar Town (::drops mic, walks off stage::).
Just like the supporting categories in drama, the comedy actors and actresses are overflowing with talent. Yes there are a bunch of dudes on Community and Parks and Rec who deserve mentions, and you can bet they will get them. Ty Burrell for Modern Family, too, and he has a good chance to win (he’s is definitely one of the best parts of that show). But what about someone who has completely taken over and overshadowed his series? I think that honor goes to Max Greenfield as Schmidt on the New Girl. The man has created an entire fanbase devoted solely to his character (and himself!) Genius. Other deserving mentions: Adam Pally (Happy Endings) who has some of the best comedic timing as well as an amazing ability to contort himself and his face in fantastically amusing ways, and Timothy Simons (Veep) as the biggest (literally?) douchebag on TV. Simons has no chance at a nomination, but he is the actor (other than Louis-Dreyfus) who really stood out for most viewers, stealing every scene he was in.
I don’t think Julie Bowen (Modern Family) deserves to rule this category. When was the last time you laughed at Claire? When has she surprised you? Sofia Vegara as Gloria (Modern Family), however, is another matter. She is her character, throwing her whole body (in both funny and sexy ways) into every scene. She knows when to dial back and she knows when to explode, and you can never predict exactly when either will happen. Speaking of other over-the-top (but beloved) characters, Casey Wilson is the heart and soul of Happy Endings, and deserves notice. Busy Philipps (Cougar Town), Cheryl Hines (Suburgatory) and Naya Rivera (Glee) are three others who might fly under the radar but are equally deserving of nominations, and are the brightest spots (or in Naya’s case, arguably the only bright spot) in their series. But my favorite, who will probably be utterly and completely overlooked this awards season: Zosia Mamet as Shoshana Shapiro (Girls). Gold. Pure. Gold. She had the least amount of screen time by far of the four leading ladies on Girls, but she did the most with it. Even those who weren’t fans of the series, or who remained on the fence, can unite over the greatness of Shosh.
Check back after the official Emmy nominations are released — when I get a reality check on the actual nominees — for predictions on the winners.