In the era of Peak TV, the real winners are the audience. Today’s television watchers have an unprecedented variety of programming at their fingertips, at an equally unprecedented level of quality. In this environment, the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, airing on Sunday, September 18th, may mean more than ever — they’re a way to separate good TV from great TV, one category at a time.
Here’s our attempt to do the same. Below, you’ll find our predictions for the most likely winners, the shows and stars that deserve to stand in their place, and the overlooked gems who ought to have had a shot at the spotlight themselves. From broadcast to basic to pay cable to streaming, they’re a demonstration of the breadth of TV today. May the best shows win!
Better Call Saul
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
WILL WIN: Mad Men, the final jewel in the crown of TV’s New Golden Age, wrapped up its run with a triumphant final season last year — and Game of Thrones still beat the damn thing. Despite the long-overdue appearance of The Americans and the well-deserved debut of Mr. Robot on the Best Drama, look for the Khaleesi and company to repeat the feat this year.
SHOULD WIN: We said it last year even while we were hedging our bets: “No series on TV thinks bigger or strikes harder than Game of Thrones.“ With its stunning dual climaxes — the jawdropping “Battle of the Bastards” and the destruction of seemingly half the cast as Cersei Lannister settled all family business — the show left it all on the field this year, and deserves the gold.
ROBBED: While Showtime’s smart, sexy The Affair and Lifetime’s breakout reality-TV satire UnREAL had to settle for Best Supporting Actress nominations to even get their feet in the door, the year’s two biggest turnarounds from their first-season woes, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s The Leftovers, were unjustly shut out entirely. Any of those four shows deserve the slots occupied by the Downton Abbey/Homeland/House of Cards trifecta.
Master of None
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
WILL WIN: Last year, Veep fended off acclaimed newcomer Transparent and repeat winner Modern Family to take home the trophy, an especially impressive feat in this streak-prone category. It’s likely to do the same this year, even if Black-ish and Master of None have taken over Transparent‘s rookie slot.
SHOULD WIN: Veep‘s reputation as one of the smartest satires on television grows by the season, so another victory would be well deserved; of course, the same is true of Silicon Valley, but Veep has slightly broader appeal. The potential spoiler here is Black-ish, a comedy with a top-notch cast and a fearless writers’ room.
ROBBED: The absence of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City (or for that matter, Andy Daly’s late, lamented Review) is starting to feel like a deliberate snubbing of shows that stretch the sitcom premise. That’s putting aside Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty, which aren’t even up for consideration in the animated-series slot to which they’d be unjustly relegated.
Best Limited Series
The Night Manager
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
WILL WIN: Good Lord, what a smackdown. After Fargo‘s triumphant Seventies-based second season, it was hard to imagine any miniseries topping it — until The People v. O.J. Simpson came along and married Ryan Murphy’s knack for excess and a pivotal episode in American history to astounding effect. Look for the docudrama’s depressingly relevant race/gender politics and its ability to turn oft-caricatured real-life figures into flesh-and-blood human beings to give it the edge.
SHOULD WIN: Taking sides against Fargo‘s second season and its sci-fi tinged tale of a corporate crime syndicate vs. a “family business” is almost like taking the Lord’s name in vain, something its Midwestern heroes wouldn’t much care for. But People v. O.J. is a searing, hugely entertaining work that’s unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.
ROBBED: Let’s face it: When you can create a remake of Roots that manages to be a worthy successor to the original and still have a hard time competing, it’s tough to argue anything was robbed.
Best Actor in a Drama
Kyle Chandler, Bloodline
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
WILL WIN: Though Matthew Rhys has been due for a Best Actor nod for years thanks to his note-perfect work as tortured KGB operative Philip Jenkins on The Americans, Rami Malek’s inaugural turn as Mr. Robot‘s deeply disturbed protagonist Elliot Alderson — all wide eyes, clenched jaw, and seething emotion — is the stuff overnight stardom is made of. A weirdo newcomer is a risk in this category, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take.
SHOULD WIN: Honestly, between Malek’s restrained tortuousness and Rhys’s tortured restraint, it’s basically a toss-up. Had Rhys been nominated for his even more devastating work last year, he’d have it in the bag, but Malek’s genuinely inimitable performance — seriously, it’s impossible to picture any other actor doing what he does — deserves the top honor.
ROBBED: Though he dealt with many of the same “reality issues” as Malek’s antihero, Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey was able to emote on The Leftovers‘ second season in a way Mr. Robot‘s tightly-wound lead was never able to. On the flip side, Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar on Narcos existed on Elliot’s flat-affect spectrum, but his thousand-yard stare communicated menace, not anxiety. Either man would have been a worthy substitution for the Schreiber/Spacey also-ran slot.
Best Actress in a Drama
Claire Danes, Homeland
Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
Tatiana Malsany, Orphan Black
Keri Russell, The Americans
Robin Wright, House of Cards
WILL WIN: Now that longtime TV veteran Keri Russell has finally cleared the hurdle of, you know, getting nominated for her excellent work, our hunch is that her turn as The Americans‘ tightly wound spy Elizabeth Jennings will earn her the Emmy.
SHOULD WIN: Russell would be a deserving champ, as would Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyons and last year’s winner Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating, who keep their respective shows afloat. But for sheer degree of difficulty, Tatiana Malsany’s turn as basically half the cast of the clone drama Orphan Black is impossible to top.
ROBBED: Like an emotionally tortured game of can-you-top-this, The Leftovers added Regina King’s bereaved mother to Carrie Coon’s depressed woman-on-the-verge; either would be well worth a nomination. So would Ruth Wilson on The Affair, for our money one of the most on-the-edge devastating performances on TV. And if ever Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary should have been given a nod, it was during Downton Abbey‘s final season — she deserved it more than the show itself.
Best Actor in a Comedy
Anthony Anderson, Black-ish
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth
William H. Macy, Shameless
Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
WILL WIN: Our money’s on Anthony Anderson. His character is both the glue that holds Black-ish together and the culmination of a long small-screen career, the kind of thing Emmys are designed to reward.
SHOULD WIN: Our sentimental favorite here is Will Forte,a personal favorite thanks to his former moronic man of action MacGruber on Saturday Night Live and tortured public-access host Will Grello on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! He holds The Last Man on Earth on his shoulders, making it the perfect make-good.
ROBBED: Until the Academy adjusts its rules to make room for the likes of Eric Andre on his 15-minute showcase, we’ve got to go with Andy Daly, who invested his fake reality show Review with enough pathos for the Best Drama category. And we don’t know how to count Bruce Campbell’s lion-in-winter stint on Ash vs. Evil Dead, but here is as good a place as any.
Best Actress in a Comedy
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Laurie Metcalf, Getting On
Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie
WILL WIN: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is, at this point, the stuff of small-screen legend as Selina Meyer. There’s no reason she shouldn’t pick up another trophy when, after the departure of creator/showrunner Armando Iannucci, she’s the show’s prime mover.
SHOULD WIN: It’s wonderful to see Tracee Ellis Ross garner the kudos that by any rightful measure she earned back in her Girlfriends days, but Roseanne vet Laurie Metcalf has the clout to defeat Louis-Dreyfus if anyone does.
ROBBED: It’s quite frankly absurd for Girls and Broad City to exist without Lena Dunham, Ilana Glazer, and Abbi Jacobson, respetively, being honored for their existence. The same can be said for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend impresario Rachel Bloom.
Best Actor, Limited Series/Movie
Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Idris Elba, Luther
Cuba Gooding Jr., The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager
Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
WILL WIN: Stacked with marquee actors and movie stars like only a post-Golden Age TV Emmy slate can be, this surprisingly competitive category is nonetheless dominated by a television veteran: Courtney B. Vance as the simultaneously idealistic and opportunistic Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Rarely has an actor made himself both hero and villain so convincingly.
SHOULD WIN: If the glove fits, wear it: This is Vance’s category to lose.
ROBBED: Patrick Wilson’s good-hearted lawman in Fargo may have been one of the show’s least showy performances, but he was the anchor that held the whole thing down. Ditto True Detective 2.0’s Colin Farrell, whose sad-sack cop lingers long after this much misunderstood season is over.
Best Actress, Limited Series/Movie
Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
Felicity Huffman, American Crime
Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Lily Taylor, American Crime
Kerry Washington, Confirmation
WILL WIN: Sarah Paulson was Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson, granting a much-maligned historical figure a dignity the misogynistic media of her era denied her. After many a star turn in various Ryan Murphy series, this is truly her time to shine.
SHOULD WIN: Paulson earned the statuette, though there’s an argument to be made that Kerry Washington, snubbed as the pivotal part in Scandal, ought to grab the gold for being the best thing in HBO’s Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill dramatization.
ROBBED: Rachel McAdams ought to have won a shot at the top honor for the mansion orgy sequence in True Detective‘s Season Two Alone.
Best Supporting Actor in a Drama
Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Kit Harington, Game of Thrones
Michael Kelly, House of Cards
Ben Mendehlson, Bloodline
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan
WILL WIN: Now that Kit Harington has finally garnered a well-deserved nomination for his lowkey but absolutely crucial work as Jon Snow on Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister may be vulnerable to vote-splitting. That leaves Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmentraut, a virtual embodiment of world-weariness, as the man to beat.
SHOULD WIN: While Banks is as brilliant as he’s ever been in this role, which he’s played for years on both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, our heart belongs to the prince that was promised: Kit Harington’s Jon Snow, one of the most quietly compelling characters of the decade.
ROBBED: While Michael McKean continues to do devastating work as Jimmy McGill’s simultaneously sickly and slick brother on Better Call Saul, Joshua Jackson’s jilted, salt-of-the-earth ex on The Affair is the year’s big oversight.
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama
Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Maura Tierney, The Affair
Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones
Constance Zimmer, UnREAL
WILL WIN: Now here’s a tough call. Should the award go to someone from the onslaught of Game of Thrones players. Or the deserving nominees from the challenging, rewarding niche shows The Affair and UnREAL? Or sentimental favorite Maggie Smith? Our hunch is that the Emmy will go to the Dame for her final go-round as Downton‘s Dowager Countess.
SHOULD WIN: While any of GoT‘s stars would be worthy winners, and while Maura Tierney more than earned an Emmy for her handling of various marijuana-scented scenes alone, Smith should get whatever recognition she can while the chance remains.
ROBBED: There’s really only one name to mention here: Sophie Turner, aka Sansa Stark, the only major female character in Westeros who wasn’t nominated, despite having the most challenging material to handle.
Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Louie Anderson, Baskets
Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Tony Hale, Veep
Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele
Matt Walsh, Veep
WILL WIN: Barring some unmeasurable and unforeseen shift in the Academy’s taste, look for Tony Hale’s exquisite neurosis to triumph once again this year.
SHOULD WIN: Tough to argue with anyone here, so let’s give it to the odds-on favorite, Hale.
ROBBED: Girls‘ boys — Alex Karpovsky, Andrew Rannels, and dark lord Adam Driver — are the dictionary definition of unjustly overlooked.
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Anna Chlumsky, Veep
Gaby Hoffman, Transparent
Allison Janney, Mom
Judith Light, Transparent
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
Niecy Nash, Getting On
WILL WIN: As with the Supporting Actor category, we predict a repeat winner with Allison Janney as Mom‘s honorary title character
SHOULD WIN: Kate McKinnon may be coasting on post-Ghostbusters goodwill, but Niecy Nash has been a standout on every show she’s appeared on for a decade or so.
ROBBED: Not to get all Girls on folks again, but the show’s decision to focus directly on individual characters for an episode at a time gave virtual Emmy reels to Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and Jemima Kirke alike.
Best Supporting Actor, Limited Series/Movie
Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Hugh Laurie, The Night Manager
Jesse Plemons, Fargo
David Schwimmer, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
John Travolta, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo
WILL WIN: Is this the most competitive single slate in Emmy history? Vastly different though each of them may be, we’d be happy with wins from Plemons, Schwimmer, Travolta, and Woodbine alike. But as good as each of them are — especially Woodbine, one of the best villains in TV history — it’s Brown’s Chris Darden, the soul of The People v. O.J. Simpson, who’ll grab the gold.
SHOULD WIN: He may not have won the trial, but Chris Darden deserves the Emmy, thanks to Brown’s gorgeously complicated portrayal. That said, Woodbine’s breathing down his neck.
ROBBED: From Ted Danson’s noble cop to Jeffrey Donovan’s warring criminal, Fargo‘s gun-toting tough guys were as solid a slate as Game of Thrones‘ ladies in waiting. But as good as they were, none of them hold a candle to Zahn McClarnon’s walking-wounded Native American hitman from the Coen-iverse anthology show.
Best Supporting Actress, Limited Series/Movie
Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Hotel
Olivia Colman, The Night Manager
Regina King, American Crime
Melissa Leo, All the Way
Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Hotel
Jean Smart, Fargo
WILL WIN: With all the gifted actors in this category, it’s a tossup, though our guess is that Kathy Bates’s name recognition powers through to a victory.
SHOULD WIN: Regina King earned an Emmy from The Leftovers alone; she may or may not get one here. Jean Smart, however, put in work on Fargo that made her one of the most convincing crime bosses this side of Brando.
ROBBED: Is Rachel Keller’s Simone Gerhardt, the beating heart of the Gerhardt crime family, a lead or supporting actress on Fargo? Whatever she is, she’s dynamite, and deserving of a nomination.