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Emmy nominations 2016: A critic’s wish list

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Doug Hyun/K.C. Bailey/Netflix

Emmy nominations arrive tomorrow. I don’t envy the Academy’s job of winnowing down the abundance of excellence in a Peak TV year to half a dozen selections (give or take a nod) in each category. Who not to pick from the huge, worthy cast of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson?

There will be many so-called snubs, too many to count, and they’ll all be even more egregious if Emmy sticks with tried and true contenders like Modern Family or House of Cards. As I prepare to be pleasantly surprised (because I’m sure there’ll be some bold choices) and unreasonably, ridiculously disappointed (how dare they not give Mr. Robot and Connor Jessup from American Crime all the Emmys right now and just call it a day!), here are some deserving performances and shows I hope to see nominated.

Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series

Lisa Kudrow, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

The whole daffy thing should be showered with Emmy nominations for its next-level second season. Kudrow was an extraordinary cherry on top of an extraordinary sundae. Appearing in the finale, the Friends star was perfectly cast as Kimmy’s flighty, rollercoaster-addicted mom, a rickety Phoebe gone off the rails. She performs the role even more perfectly, hitting notes of humor and pathos in her scenes with Ellie Kemper that elevate both the season and season capper to transcendent greatness. “I could have been White Snake’s Yoko Ono” is a hysterical line and line-reading. The way she explains why she loves rollercoasters just breaks your heart. “Sometimes you just wanna scream your head off. A coaster’s the only place no looks at you weird.”

Outstanding Guest actress in a Drama Series

Laurie Metcalf, Horace and Pete (LouisCK.net)

Louis C.K.’s filmed-theater tragedy about ragged barmen in their twilight was a spirited experiment, a daring throwback drama for a new medium. You should buy, collect, and watch all 10 episodes – five bucks each — at C.K.’s website, but the one that stands out most is the third, featuring a tour-de-force by Metcalf as Sarah, ex-wife to C.K.’s Horace. Metcalf holds a nine-minute close-up on her face with casual confidence as she relays Sarah’s tale of surprisingly hot infidelity with her new husband’s aged father, a handyman hunk even at the age of 84. It could be ridiculous, but the confession flows out of Metcalf with deeply felt authenticity, the feelings — shame, yearning, regret — both sell the details and make them beside the point. She’s discomforting and riveting at the same time. You want to look away, but you can’t, turning the scene into a powerful exercise for the viewer, as well, an opportunity to practice grace and give space for the strange and messy humanity in all of us.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy

Maria Bamford, Lady Dynamite (Netflix)

This aggressively surreal sitcom from Pam Brady (South Park, Team America: World Police) and Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) might be too weird for Emmy voters. It was sometimes too weird for me. I love meta, reality blur, and non-linear storytelling as much as he next pretentious nerd, but there was sometimes so much What The Hell Is Going On Here?! that it was hard to enjoy. But it always stayed winsome and essential thanks to Maria Bamford’s anchoring performance as “Maria Bamford,” a stand-up comic and actress back in Los Angeles and trying to rebuild career and life after seeking treatment for bipolar disorder. She’s spectacularly elastic, whether doing goofy voices, physical slapstick, or raunchy rom-com stuff, or bringing Maria to life in three specific time periods in three very different emotional states. She’s the perfect talent to push and play out the show’s bold, absurd comedy and embody mental illness with insight and dignity. In these ways, Bamford’s achievement is equal to Rachel Bloom, creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, who also deserves some insane Emmy love. Both ladies are dynamite.

Patrick Harbron/FX

 

Outstanding Direction in a Drama Series

Matthew Rhys, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” The Americans (FX)

Rhys also stars in The Americans as one half of the married undercover KGB agent team of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. He and Keri Russell have never been nominated for their amazing work, and it’s mandatory that this change this year: season 4 of The Americans is arguably the best thing TV has given us so far this year after the ESPN docuseries O.J.: Made in America. Rhys also deserves a nomination for his singular work helming the season’s linchpin eighth episode. In a story that dealt with the emotional fallout of Martha’s (Alison Wright, also Emmy deserving) shuffle-off to Moscow, Rhys found haunting images (Philip watching the night sky swallow up Martha’s plane) and guided Russell (and himself!) through a series of searing, well-staged scenes, an escalating arc of breakdown. He even made the act of family watching TV – the show referenced in the title – totally compelling.

Outstanding Comedy Series

Master of None (Netflix)

Released last October, Aziz Ansari’s work with co-creator Alan Yang seems to have faded from most critical discussion, not out of re-evaluation, but because of the Peak TV glut. Hopefully Emmy voters haven’t forgotten. Starring Ansari as Dev, a single guy and struggling actor looking for love and career in New York, Master of None is superb as modern romance, observational comedy, and media satire – a gritty, grounded, more conventionally humane fraternal twin to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It advances the need for people of color both in front of and behind the camera. “Parents,” tracking the immigrant journey of Dev’s folks, and “Indians on TV,” summed up by its title, were gems worthy of writing nods.

Outstanding Drama Series

Hannibal (NBC)

Here’s another one I fear as vanished from memory and conversation. The third and final season of Bryan Fuller’s aesthetically audacious and gleefully transgressive adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter oeuvre aired last summer. Also, like, no one watched it. But it was important, boundary-pushing TV, in formal innovation and characterization, that paved the way for two other arty marvels that I hope Emmy remembers, HBO’s The Leftovers (in particular, the writing and directing in the surreal purgatorial episode “International Assassin”) and USA’s Mr. Robot (in particular, Rami Malek’s mesmerizing lead performance). The first half of Hannibal’s final course served up meaty nightmares about self-destructive obsession, enmeshment, and vengeance, sauced with op-art sex scenes, baroque violence, and disturbing, meaningful grotesque. The second half, a novel reworking of Red Dragon, gave us a vital and vigorous serial killer performance by Richard Armitage – no small thing, given our serial killer-saturated pop culture – and pushed the strangest ’ship in TV history — doomed psycho-seer Will (Hugh Dancy), damnable psycho aesthete Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) — over a cliff in a locked embrace and into the abyss. It was a sublime concluding statement about the dead-end fascination with abomination.

The 2016 Emmy Awards nominations will be announced Thursday, July 14 at 11:30 a.m. ET. You can stream the nomination ceremony, hosted by Anthony Anderson and Lauren Graham, live on Emmys.com.

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