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Beyond the Usual Suspects: 5 Emmy Races to Watch Out For

TIME's TV critic shares his preferences in a few categories he finds noteworthy or intriguing

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On Sunday night, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will give out the 2013 Emmy Awards. A whole hell of a lot of them; even with some hardware handed out last week, that still leaves a sizable number of statuettes—and a whole lot of usual suspects fighting for them. (No offense, Bryan Cranston.) Rather than preview them all, I’m taking a look at a few of of the more interesting (to me) races and who should win. (Note: this is subjective critical opinion, not a prediction. I couldn’t bear the thought of the millions people would lose following my Emmy ballot picks.)

It should be an exciting night. Not so exciting, though, that I’m going to watch the awards instead of the second-to-last episode of Breaking Bad; that’s one competition on Sunday night in which there is truly no contest.

In the meantime, here are my off-the-beaten-path picks in several Emmy categories:

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES

Boardwalk Empire, HBO
Breaking Bad, AMC 
Downton Abbey, PBS
Homeland, Showtime
House of Cards, Netflix

TV is still largely a producers’ and writers’ medium, but the contributions of directors has gotten more critical and fan attention lately, and you can credit much of this group for that. But if there’s a single show among TV’s current crop that has made directing one of the stars of the show, it’s Breaking Bad, thoughtfully composed and visually imaginative, like a one-hour Coen Brothers Western aired once a week. And a star among its stars–even in a category that includes Hollywood heavyweight David Fincher for House of Cards–is Michelle MacLaren (who has also shot some of the most arresting episodes of the strangely un-nominated Game of Thrones).

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LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Lena Dunham, Girls, HBO
Laura Dern, Enlightened, HBO 
Tiny Fey, 30 Rock, NBC
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation, NBC
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep, HBO
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie, Showtime

As the already arbitrary boundary between comedy and drama becomes more porous, we hear the complaint every year: “Why is she nominated? That show’s not even that funny!” (Edie Falco herself made a similar self-effacing comment upon winning for Nurse Jackie.) I don’t care. This isn’t an award for Most Belly Laughs; it’s for the best acting performance among those nominated. And even in a strong group of nominees, that I clearly have to give to Dern, whose simultaneously deluded and heroic, idealistic and self-centered Amy Jellicoe is one of the great TV creations of the past few years.

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SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Adam Driver, Girls, HBO 
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family, ABC
Ed O’Neill, Modern Family, ABC
Ty Burrell, Modern Family, ABC
Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live, NBC
Tony Hale, Veep, HBO

It is starting to look like Emmy should just call this category Best Supporting Actor in Modern Family. Well, the madness stops here: no insult intended to the show’s talented ensemble, but ModFam didn’t provide any best-worthy material in its mediocre season. Driver, on the other hand, continues to turn in one of TV’s most compelling (if divisive) performances as Girls’ tempestuous artist. Note: the same this-comedy-is-really-a-drama from above still applies; Driver’s performance is great no matter what you call the show. (Though if you doubt his comic delivery, look back at the awkward-hilarious season 2 scene in which Hannah calls 911 on Adam: “You called the po-po?!”)

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LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE

Jessica Lange, American Horror Story, FX
Laura Linney, The Big C: Hereafter, Showtime
Helen Mirren, Phil Spector, HBO
Sigourney Weaver, Political Animals, USA
Elisabeth Moss, Top of the Lake, Sundance Channel 

Though Lead Actress in a Drama is 2013′s big category—literally, with seven, count ‘em, seven nominees—this one is really the Murderer’s Row. (And just wait until next year. We’ll have to see if American Horror Story: Coven is any good, but simply looking down its femme-centric cast list suggests you could fill this category from that show alone.) Lange sang “The Name Game” in the brilliantly loopy AHS and Linney’s character died—always an awards boost—but it’s Moss, also nominated as drama actress, who was mesmerizing as a dogged investigator uncovering a community’s ugly secrets on the trail of a young girl’s disappearance.

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REALITY-COMPETITION PROGRAM

The Amazing Race, CBS
Dancing With the Stars, ABC
Project Runway, Lifetime
So You Think You Can Dance, Fox
Top Chef, Bravo
The Voice, NBC

You think Modern Family has a hammerlock on nominations? Since this category came into being, The Amazing Race has never not been nominated, and has only lost once (to Top Chef). I love TAR, and its globetrotting, frenetic competition is truly a production and editing miracle. But at this point, the show is winning awards for its great format (and inertia) more than for being good in any particular season. Emmy could shake things up—and recognize a rare new commercial hit on broadcast TV—by giving it up for The Voice, which has revitalized the flagging singing-show format with a more current mix of music and dynamite chemistry between two different panels of coaches. And don’t cry for TAR; it can’t always come into the pit stop first.

2 comments
Poppersci
Poppersci

So you're going to do a BB review?

IPFletcher
IPFletcher

I'll be honest, I haven't seen the other nominees in the "LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE" category, but I wouldn't bet against Jessica Lange here. Despite all the crazy, loopy, over-the-top points they ran her through plot-wise, she (amazingly, in my opinion) managed to believably transform her character's very nature right in front of us. At the beginning of the season, we all hated Sister Jude with a passion; by season's end, just about the *only* thing we cared about was that she find peace and an end to her own suffering. This was a character and a performance that sticks with you and it's all because of Lange.