The Emmy Awards honor the best TV has to offer — and now we're honoring the best of the best. Whether it's the greatest dramas, the funniest comedies, or the finest performances, we've combed the history of the Emmys for the most impressive top-shelf lineups of nominees ever assembled. The award slates you'll find below represent the best that television is capable of. Stay gold and read on.
The Lineup: All in the Family (winner), M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sanford and Son
To understand just how far ahead of their time the comedy crop of 1973 was, look no further than the wall-to-wall schlock in the Best Drama category: Cannon, Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Kung Fu, Mannix, and your winner, the freaking Waltons. Against this array of mostly wide-tie-wearing private dicks or whatever stood the career-best work of talents like Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, and Redd Foxx — often addressing seismic social change in subtle or overt ways, always being really fucking funny. Comedy was serious art at a time when drama was basically a joke.
The Lineup: Alan Alda (M*A*S*H), Judd Hirsch (Taxi), Hal Linden (Barney Miller), Carol O’Connor (All in the Family – winner), Robin Williams (Mork & Mindy)
Arguably the most olive-green lineup of actors in television history, it seemed that every nominee in this superstar-saturated year spent the bulk of his screen time in surroundings drab enough to make Travis Bickle reach for his Good Housekeeping subscription. The exception, of course, was Robin Williams, who somehow wedded his anarchic improvisatory talent to a character designed for children who found Fonzie too edgy.
The Lineup: Cagney & Lacey (winner), Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote, St. Elsewhere
Welcome to Peak 1980's TV. Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere made much of the great TV to come possible by enriching, expanding, and subverting the emotional content of cop and doctor dramas respectively. (Both were products of Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker's MTM Enterprises, the era's equivalent of HBO airing The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Sex and the City simultaneously.) Visionary tough-guy director Michael Mann’s stylish Miami Vice's editing and cinematography made it much more than white jackets and pastel t-shirts, while Cagney & Lacey and Murder, She Wrote transformed average police procedurals and detective stories into showcases for iconic actresses. This was the decade’s state of the art.
The Lineup: Bea Arthur (The Golden Girls), Shelley Long (Cheers), Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls), Phylicia Rashād (The Cosby Show), Betty White (The Golden Girls – winner)
The female leads of the two most important comedies of the decade versus three of the four stars of the best vehicle for comic actresses ever? Yeah, this one's pretty much untouchable.
The Lineup: Cheers, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The Golden Girls (winner), Night Court
Okay, so Night Court, endearing as it was, is a bit of a qualitative outlier here, Richard Moll notwithstanding. But NBC's first Thursday night Must See TV–style lineup of The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers was 90 minutes of appointment viewing for a generation. And winner The Golden Girls is more than just a camp/cult phenomenon: Pound for pound, joke for joke, it holds up as well today as stone classics The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, or Fawlty Towers. Its progressivism, and the fact that it gave four women actors of a certain age carte blanche to kick ass for years, is icing on the cake.
The Lineup: Frasier (winner, 1995 & 1996), Friends, The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You, Seinfeld
It was NBC's world; we just lived in it. Between comedy-boom standup-driven showcases Seinfeld and Mad About You, Cheers spin-off Frasier, and "Like Seinfeld, but with a younger, hotter cast" Friends, the network mastered all the ingredients that made for great Nineties comedy. Alone against the Peacock horde, for two years, stood Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn, and the prototype for the HBO mold-breakers and fake talk shows to come.
The Lineup: Chicago Hope, ER (winner, 1996), Law & Order (winner, 1997), NYPD Blue (winner, 1995), The X-Files
For three years, the same five shows were all but undisputed as the best TV had to offer. In the current era of seemingly infinite variety, the notion that two shows set in hospitals in Chicago and two shows set in police precincts in Manhattan each had equal claim on the throne might seem strange, but it just goes to show how beautiful the pictures that strong casts and idiosyncratic producers could paint within the broadcast networks' limited palette could be. This was prestige TV, 1990's style: Bill Clinton's in the White House and all's right with the Emmys.
The Lineup: John Goodman (Roseanne), Kelsey Grammer (Frasier – winner), Paul Reiser (Mad About You), Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld), Garry Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show)
Comedies in the Nineties knew how to build themselves around an actor. Remove a single one of these performers from the show through which they were nominated and there'd be no show. (Just check the last season of Roseanne if you don’t believe us.)
The Lineup: Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos), Edie Falco (The Sopranos – winner), Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), Julianna Margulies (ER)
The Venn diagram overlap between the New Golden Age of TV Drama and the genre's Nineties heyday was slim, but man, what a glorious year it was. Carmela Soprano and Dr. Jennifer Melfi competing with Agent Dana Scully and Nurse Carol Hathaway, with Christine Lahti's less remembered but never less than dynamic work on Chicago Hope riding shotgun? For one brief shining moment, new-wave upstarts and old-guard icons were on equal footing.
The Lineup: Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue), James Gandolfini (The Sopranos – winner), Jerry Orbach (Law & Order), Martin Sheen (The West Wing), Sam Waterston (Law & Order)
Clearly, the best man won — after all, as Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini was pretty much the best man in any potential lineup, in any year, ever. But this year's crop of nominees was perhaps unique in that there’s not a bum note to be found in a minute of screen time for any of them. Whatever the depth and scope of the shows in which they starred, these may be the five most likeable leading men in the history of the tube.
The Lineup: Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age), Michael Emerson (Lost), Terry O’Quinn (Lost), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad – winner), Martin Short (Damages), John Slattery (Mad Men)
In Emerson and O'Quinn, you've got two veterans who got cast in a weirdo genre show that became a cultural phenomenon and gave them the roles of their lifetimes. In Short and Braugher, you have heavy-hitters from great shows past maintaining their usual quality. And in Slattery, you've got the silver-tongued Loki to Jon Hamm's Thor. It took the gut-churning work of relative newcomer Aaron Paul to top this tremendous array of talent.
The Lineup: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland (winner), Mad Men
Welcome to the Golden Age. Believe it or not, The Wire was never nominated for the Emmys' top honor (!?!), making the television renaissance's early years difficult to capture in a single award slate; ditto the mid-2000's, when Battlestar Galactica, arguably the finest science-fiction show in the medium's history, was routinely ignored in favor of Fox-y fare like 24 and House. But in 2012, the second generation following The Sopranos' breakthrough ran the table. (Yes, once upon a time Downton Abbey was indeed that good.) True, Homeland's misfiring, exec-meddling second season may have been an undeserving winner, given its competition — Boardwalk Empire's breathtaking late-season shocks, Game of Thrones' epic 'Blackwater' battle, Breaking Bad's face-off with drug kingpin Gus Fring, and Mad Men Season Five's back-to-back-to-back masterpieces — but the contest itself was incredible.
The Lineup: Christine Baranski (The Good Wife), Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey), Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey – winner)
Both The Good Wife and Downton Abbey have operated at the margins of what we consider New Golden Age dramas — the former on one of the Big Three broadcast networks, the latter a British import that has ended up on PBS. But each is anchored by a deep bench of impressive performances by very, very different actors — Baranski, Panjabi, Froggat, and winner Smith have almost nothing in common besides talent. In between them stand the key players in AMC's most important dramas, Gunn and Hendricks. That's a crew to remember.
The Lineup: Laura Dern (Enlightened), Lena Dunham (Girls), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Tina Fey (30 Rock), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation)
Did we say that 1987's lineup was untouchable? Yeah…we may have spoke a little too soon. This assortment of comedy and drama powerhouses well into their second decades of amazing people on screen, plus writer-director-performer Lena Dunham as "a voice of a generation," equals an award slate of intimidating caliber.
The Lineup: Bryan Cranston (winner – Breaking Bad), Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Woody Harrelson (True Detective), Matthew McConaughey (True Detective), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)
Some were bona fide movie stars. Some were men with the role of a lifetime. Some were both. Either way, the combined star power and actual power of last year's nominees made it the most spectacular slate the award has seen, with Cranston's last stand as Breaking Bad's Walter White ultimately giving him the edge.
The Lineup: Claire Danes (Homeland), Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Tatiana Malsany (Orphan Black), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Robin Wright (House of Cards)
Is this the strongest year for actresses in Emmy history? We say yes. The range of genres and tones represented by 2015's nominees is crazy wide, with prestige dramas, smash-hit soaps, political potboilers, sci-fi imports, and postcards from Shondaland standing shoulder to shoulder. The performances are equally varied, equally strong, and virtually indispensable for their shows: Can you imagine an Empire without Henson, a Homeland without Danes, or an Orphan Black without Malsany? Even if you could, why would you? For women actors on television, this really is a New Golden Age.