This year’s Emmys are as chaotic an awards ceremony as any in memory—many fields feel wide-open. Any number of narratives could open up, from politics, spurred by the socially conscious shows up for prizes, to platforms, as streaming television could well claim its first top Emmy. Out of the long and diverse list of nominees, here’s who looks likely (and who really deserves) to take home the prize:
Best Drama Series
Will Win: The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Should Win: Stranger Things (Netflix)
With Game of Thrones ineligible this year due to its later-than-usual airdate and seven nominees that have never won before, this field is free and clear. But not all nominees are created equal. Those with the broadest potential bases of support would seem to be the emotional drama This Is Us, the sci-fi sensations Westworld and Stranger Things, and the dystopian saga The Handmaid’s Tale.
Of those, The Handmaid’s Tale makes the most urgent claim to voters’ attentions. Fortuitously timed and expertly marketed, the show’s resonances with present-day troubles make it seem like a worthy vote. While I tended to find The Handmaid’s Tale more interesting than well-made, I recognize the value of the Emmys’ crowning a show in part for its centrality to the culture. Given TV’s diffuseness, “best” is a tough claim to make, and the award show is at its best when it seeks to mark a cultural moment. For that reason, I’d give Stranger Things the edge on my own ballot over my second choice, Better Call Saul. A beautifully crafted story of innocent adventurism told in the remixed argot of a rec-room VHS shelf, Stranger Things is, if anything, a bit critically underrated. Its mega-impact on the culture all through summer 2016 make it perhaps the defining streaming sensation of our time, and would make it a very deserving winner.
Best Comedy Series
Will Win: Veep (HBO)
Should Win: Atlanta (FX)
It’s easy enough to imagine Veep rolling on to a third consecutive win despite a marked loss of direction in its most recent season. No other nominee seems quite strong enough to overtake it—though Black-ish has certainly picked up steam in nomination count and consensus popularity since its first year. In its most recent season, though, the show’s ever-present commodity fetishism and obsessive materialism curdled a bit, going from joke to simple fact. My pick would be Atlanta, a sitcom that, like fellow nominee Master of None, uses its creator’s idiosyncratic viewpoint to build out an engaging, seemingly boundless world. Both nominees are pushing forward what television can do and be.
Best Limited Series and Best TV Movie
Will Win: Big Little Lies (HBO) and Black Mirror: San Junipero (Netflix)
Should Win: Big Little Lies and Black Mirror: San Junipero
Both categories seem likely to award their worthiest competitor. Big Little Lies stealthily engrossed its viewer in a staid social whirl with a prosaic set of problems, before delivering a radical story of the power of women united, and the power they lose when allowing men to divide them. San Junipero, the most effective of last year’s Black Mirror episodes, isn’t really a TV movie, but deserves to be honored for its big-hearted, inventive story of love in the age of boundless technological advance. Both projects had deep reserves of imagination and humanity—it’s hard to imagine many viewers who’ve seen them voting against either.
Best Actor and Actress, Drama
Will Win: Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (NBC) and Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
Should Win: Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul (AMC) and Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
This Is Us has two actors from its cast nominated—a state of affairs that’d usually suggest a split vote. But Brown gets more to do than the stoic patriarch played by Milo Ventimiglia, does it better, and was a deserving and charming Emmy winner for the miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson just last year. Elisabeth Moss will win in small part because of the opposite fact: she’s never had the chance to charm future voters with an Emmy speech despite seven previous nominations for her roles in Mad Men and Top of the Lake. That she has delivered a sensitive and carefully thought-through performance that leads the audience through the wild narrative swings her series takes cements the win.
There are several overdue winners in both categories, but I give Moss the edge over The Americans’ Keri Russell for her longer wait for a win. The Americans’ Matthew Rhys would narrowly lose my vote to Bob Odenkirk, whose sensitive, bruised soulfulness-turning-to-soullessness on Better Call Saul shouldn’t go unrewarded a third year in a row.
Best Actor and Actress, Comedy
Will Win: Donald Glover, Atlanta and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Should Win: Donald Glover, Atlanta and Pamela Adlon, Better Things (FX)
Much though Golden Globe winner Tracee Ellis Ross seems to edge closer to the win at the Emmys, it’s still hard to imagine betting against an end to Louis-Dreyfus’s long winning streak. Ross would be a worthy winner, but I’d cast my vote for the creative force behind the FX gem Better Things, a show whose exhausted and frayed-nerve take on parenting is made both painful and joyful through Pamela Adlon’s achingly real performance. Another FX auteur, Donald Glover, seems likely to break Jeffrey Tambor’s own winning streak for Transparent. The near-universal acclaim Glover got for Atlanta was one of last year’s biggest TV stories, and deservedly so. His quiet, subtly heartbreaking performance as a would-be rapper who wants much more than life’s given him proves Glover’s more than just a visionary. As an actor, he’s the real deal.
Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, Miniseries/Movie
Will Win: Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies (HBO), Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies, Alfred Molina, Feud (FX), and Regina King, American Crime (ABC)
Should Win: Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO), Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard, and Laura Dern, all for Big Little Lies
Nicole Kidman’s shockingly edgy and painfully raw Big Little Lies performance was widely seen as reinvigorating her career. (That this “revival” happened after she received an Academy Award nomination in January proves just how staggering a leap forward Big Little Lies was.) Her fellow movie star Robert De Niro would seem likely to triumph over less-heralded competition for his role as Bernard Madoff, while Alfred Molina provides a worthy way to honor the much-nominated Feud and Regina King seems likely to complete a hat trick for her American Crime performances.
Kidman, despite the strength of her competition, simply must win. As for the rest: I wish I believed voters’ memories were long enough to honor Riz Ahmed’s transformative work as a kid in over his head in the justice system in last summer’s The Night Of. And while Molina is sensitive and empathetic on Feud and King delivered perhaps her best-ever work on American Crime this season, I simply can’t ignore the impact of Big Little Lies. Skarsgard transformed the neighborhood hot dad—gradually, then all at once, convincingly—into an out-and-out monster, while Dern provided a virtuosic outlet for the sheer rage all of her neighbors managed to hide behind social graces.
Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Drama
Will Win: John Lithgow, The Crown (Netflix) and Thandie Newton, Westworld
Should Win: Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton, both for Westworld
In a competitive field, it’s worth looking for the Emmy favorite—given the awards ceremony’s tendency to play favorites. John Lithgow’s long TV history (he’s won five trophies for his work on 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dexter and—yes!—Amazing Stories) compounds upon the novel nature of an American playing Winston Churchill and the fact that The Crown is likely to get blanked in several other places it’s nominated. Honoring him honors the show. The same’s true of Thandie Newton, a standout from the cast of Westworld whose performance as an android coming alive to the possibilities of her intelligence was among her show’s most convincing special effects. I’d applaud her winning, and would give a prize, too, to her costar Jeffrey Wright, whose discovery of his true nature made for one of the season’s most memorable moments.
Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Comedy
Will Win: Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, both for Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Should Win: Matt Walsh, Veep and Kathryn Hahn, Transparent
Coming off a period of perhaps its greatest relevance in memory, Saturday Night Live seems poised to be a big winner at the Emmys. While I’m sanguine about shows like The Handmaid’s Tale getting prizes for their status as zeitgeist hits, I’d argue that neither Baldwin nor McKinnon had wholly successful seasons—Baldwin never constructed a truly compelling take on Trump besides a vulgar dunderhead, and McKinnon’s “Hallelujah” performance post-election was as noxiously sentimental as her Fatal Attraction-spin on Kellyanne Conway was cruel and underthought.
Still, these two performers were the talk of the TV season. I’d vote instead for two underheralded actors: Walsh has never won an Emmy for his work on Veep, and his hangdog good humor in the face of endless crisis felt all the more welcome in an unmoored season. And Hahn’s performance as the biggest and most open heart on Transparent became more wrenching and convincing still now that she’s broken.