Emmy season is upon us yet again! Emmy nominations were announced Thursday, July 12th, with “Game of Thrones” leading the pack at 22 nominations. As we speed toward the September 17th telecast, Awards Circuit is taking a look at all of the major categories. Each acting, writing and directing nominee must choose one episode to be judged on. The series nominees all submit six episodes. Each Friday, we will watch all the nominated episodes in a given set of categories and provide a power ranking of the nominees.
We’ve seen a lot of growth in the actress category at the Emmys. On the drama side, only a few years ago Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win the Lead Actress in a Drama award. Following that, we saw a surprise win from Tatiana Maslany from “Orphan Black” followed by Elisabeth Moss’ juggernaut win for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The two face off against one another for the first time, while Sandra Oh from “Killing Eve” looks to be the first Asian woman to win the prize.
On the comedy side, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won every year “Veep” has been on the air. After six years of consecutive wins, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is not in contention this year. “Veep’s” final season airs next year. That means this year will be the first new winner in the category since 2011.
Lastly, on the miniseries side, four of the six nominees are past Emmy winners. Will one of them add to their Emmy mantle, or will a newcomer take the prize?
Read through to see our power rankings of the nominees.
Best Actress in a Drama
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown” – “Dear Mrs. Kennedy”
Plot: Inspired by Jackie Kennedy and against her government’s wishes, Elizabeth takes an unconventional approach to resolving an issue in Ghana.
It’s not easy measuring up to Jackie Kennedy. The normally posh and put together Queen Elizabeth finds herself self conscious while welcoming the American First Lady. Claire Foy does a great job bringing to life Elizabeth’s insecurities and showing how it can manifest in coldness. As the episode ends with JFK’s assassination, we see Elizabeth go through a change of heart. It’s a strong performance, but it’s slight compared to the other heavy hitters in the category. Foy had a much better shot last year once “The Crown” was riding considerable buzz and rave reviews. With “The Handmaid’s Tale” only increasing nominations, a new buzzy star and a former winner in the category, Foy may have to wait another year.
Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning / Alison Hendrix / Cosima Niehaus / Helena / Rachel Duncan / Camilla Torres in “Orphan Black” – “To Right the Wrongs of Many”
Plot: Now in labor, Helena is forced to hunker down in the basement of Old Dyad for the delivery. It’s a cage match for survival as Sarah and Art struggle to protect her in a desperate last stand against Neolution.
Former Tatiana Maslany is one of two nominees who are in the final season of their show. Maslany submits the series finale of the show, which allows her to tie up the fates of no less than six different characters. The first half of the episode gives Maslany lots of action as the clones battle their nemesis while one of them gives birth. The second half finds each of the women figuring out what the next step of their lives looks like. Maslany gets more than a lot of accents to play around with. She gets to see all of these characters through duress and planning for the future. She pulled off a surprise win before thanks to a competitive category causing vote splitting and because Emmys love people who play multiple categories. It’s possible the same thing could happen again.
Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale” – “The Last Ceremony”
Plot: A frustrated Serena becomes desperate; The Commander tries to make amends with Offred; Nick pushes Eden farther away; Offred is faced with an unexpected reunion.
Last year’s winner returns again this year with a particularly distressing episode. Offred begins the episode with contractions. Upon it being a false alarm, the Waterfords plot a diabolical method of coaxing the baby out. Moss prefaces the episode narrating what goes through her character’s mind during the forced sex ceremonies. This comes back to haunt her as Commander Waterford rapes her later on in the episode. Following this, he takes her to see her daughter, where she finds herself having to answer for the state of the world. It’s an emotional and harrowing hour. Yet, it may be too hard to watch for voters. Moss is great, but has less range than other nominees. She could repeat last year’s win; however, she should watch out for Oh, Maslany and Russell.
Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri in “Killing Eve” – “I Have A Thing About Bathrooms”
Plot: Having survived a terrifying close call with Villanelle, Eve now has the mole ensconced in a safe house and is buzzing. They have an exciting opportunity to glean information and crack this thing open.
The Emmys loved Sandra Oh for years, nominating her for “Grey’s Anatomy” five consecutive times. Finally, Oh stars as the lead of a TV show, becoming the first Asian actress nominated for leading actress in a drama. Her role on “Killing Eve” is truly killer. Eve Polastri takes an interest in a female serial killer as she becomes bored with her current MI6 job. What makes Oh’s submission exemplary is her first face to face encounter with said killer, Villanelle (Jodi Comer). The two women have incredible chemistry. The shifts in mood, allegiance and tone are all explicitly communicated by Oh’s remarkable performance. Even though “Killing Eve” has only one other nomination, Oh could very well win here. If she wins, she’d make history. Oh is also grossly overdue for a win, and the Emmys know that.
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in “The Americans” – “The Summit”
Plot: Philip tells Elizabeth about his connection with Burov, Elizabeth uses the young intern to listen to an important meeting after the original plan fails.
As “The Americans” comes to a close, will Keri Russell finally win her Emmy? Though this is the final season of the show, Russell did not go with the series finale of the show. Instead, her episode, “The Summit,” finds Elizabeth’s allegiances tested. Her operation finds her romancing a young man in the government to get him to plant a bug. However, she finds that her mission is part of a plot to oust Gorbachov. Keri Russell gives a remarkable performance and shows a real change in Elizabeth’s point of view. If voters want to send the show off with a fond farewell, Russell stands a good shot at being swept up with the show. She will have to fend off the historic newcomer (Sandra Oh) and reigning champ (Elisabeth Moss).
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in “Westworld” – “Reunion”
Plot: Dolores remembers she’s been to the outside world; William makes a bold business venture.
Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores, a robot who achieves sentience, was one of the most galvanizing forces around “Westworld’s” success last year. This year, the iconic nature of her character seems to have waned. “Reunion” finds Dolores on the hunt for more outside of Westworld. She gets to take charge and be commanding. However, there isn’t much to get excited about with her choice. “Westworld” seems to have cooled with voters this year. It missed out on key writing and directing nominees. Among the nominees this year, Evan Rachel Wood lacks the same buzz the other women have. It’s great to see her among the nominees, but there’s no need for her to prepare a speech.
- Sandra Oh – “Killing Eve”
- Elisabeth Moss – “The Handmaid’s Tale”
- Keri Russell – “The Americans”
- Tatiana Maslany – “Orphan Black”
- Claire Foy – “The Crown”
- Evan Rachel Wood – “Westworld”
Best Actress in a Comedy Series
Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in “Better Things” – “Eulogy”
Plot: Sam, feeling unappreciated, encourages her children and closest friends to pretend that she’s dead and speak at her pretend funeral so that she may hear how they really feel about her.
It’s great the Emmys once again nominated Pamela Adlon for her astounding work on “Better Things” on FX. Her work on the show stands as one of the best things of this year. Adlon wisely picked the perfect episode to showcase her craft. “Eulogy” finds Sam lashing out at her daughters for under-appreciating her. Feeling at the end of the rope, Sam comes home to find her family holding a fake funeral for her. She hears all the nice things they’d have to say about her if she were dead. It’s poignant and wonderful. Even as it builds to an emotional conclusion, Adlon gets plenty of opportunities to be caustically funny. “Better Things” is the most low profile show of the nominees and the episode is less overtly funny as other shows. This could cost it the win. However, it’s an excellent selection and could win over a good amount of votes.
Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – “Thank You and Good Night”
Plot: In the Season One finale, Midge and Susie deal with the repercussions of Midge’s off-script takedown of a famous comedian. With tensions still high at the Weissman household, Rose makes some bold changes. Midge and Joel reunite for Ethan’s birthday party.
The breakout star of the past year of TV was undoubtedly Rachel Brosnahan. From the opening moments of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Brosnahan proves she’s a star. It was a misstep not submitting the terrific pilot (nominated for directing and writing). Still, the season finale can also be a winning tape. Midge struggles with putting her life and career together and emerges triumphant by the end. Brosnahan kills every punchline with wit and zest. Even more impressive are the intricate relationships she builds with every character she shares a scene with. Brosnahan enters the race a clear frontrunner, especially with all of the support for the show as a whole. This may be the most easy to predict category, but I’d watch out for a surprise Janney win.
Allison Janney as Bonnie Plunckett in “Mom” – “Phone Confetti and a Wee Dingle”
Plot: Christy and Bonnie’s relaxing trip to a spa takes a turn when Bonnie lands in jail.
Allison Janney has won for some pretty terrific “Mom” showcase episodes. They’ve allowed her to be traditionally funny while also showing the depths of addiction. Her submission this year allows her to nail many a cheap one liner. While in jail, she gets in a lot of digs about her daughter, all leading to a nice conclusion. Yet, it lacks the punch of past winning tapes. One can’t discount the fact that Allison Janney is coming off an Oscar win. She’d become only the third person to win an Emmy and Oscar in the same year. Janney is incredibly popular right now and has won for this episode before. Jon Cryer won over more buzzy, dramatic competition for “Two and a Half Men” when he moved from Supporting to Lead. Could Janney do the same now that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is out of the picture?
Issa Rae as Issa in “Insecure” – “Hella Great”
Plot: Issa struggles after the break with Lawrence and difficulties with a new task at work. Molly doubts her worth at work, and Lawrence adapts to his new housing situation.
It’s incredible to see the hilarious Issa Rae nominated for “Insecure’s” second season. Rewatching her episode, the first of season two, only further accentuates how much the story is a true passion project for her. What makes this a great episode of “Insecure” might also not make it a great showcase for Rae. First, the show is best when it embraces the ensemble and everyone gets a chance to shine, particularly Yvonne Orji as Molly. Second, the episode is mostly about Issa trying to get back with her ex who she cheated on. This might not endear her to voters who haven’t seen the show. Also, the show didn’t show up anywhere else, which signals lack of support. The nomination is the real win here and hopefully they continue to watch the show.
Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow “Bow” Johnson in “Black-ish” – “Elder. Scam”
Plot: When Ruby gets scammed, Dre begins to suspect that she isn’t as sharp as she used to be; Diane develops an instant crush on Zoey’s visiting friend.
Tracee Ellis Ross got a lot of great stuff to do on “Black-ish” this season. She directed her first episode on the show and her character got great storylines around postpartum and trial separation. This is why her episode submission seems so strange. Bow is a distant B-plot as she freaks out about her daughter bringing a boy to stay over. She has a lot of fun with the comedy, but is overshadowed by Jenifer Lewis as her mother in law. The episode revolves around Lewis’ character faking dementia to get sympathy and presents out of her son. Ross had episodes, while more dramatic in nature, that would’ve made her a real threat for the win. However, it’ll be unlikely she can defeat Rachel Brosnahan with her current tape.
Lily Tomlin as Frankie in “Grace and Frankie” – “The Home”
Plot: The children suggest Grace and Frankie should live in an assisted living community. Sol and Robert realize something about their relationship.
Everybody loves Lily Tomlin. Though “Grace and Frankie” stars both her and legend Jane Fonda, Tomlin has received four consecutive nominations for this character, while Fonda only has one. Still, each year Tomlin seems further away from winning. Her submitted episode, “The Home” gives Tomlin plenty of room to both be kooky and pull at our heartstrings. Tomlin nails all of the emotional beats, while still being classically funny. Yet, the show has zero buzz elsewhere. She’ll have votes from her devoted fans, but won’t be able to take out her strong competition.
- Rachel Brosnahan – “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
- Allison Janney – “Mom”
- Pamela Adlon – “Better Things”
- Tracee Ellis Ross – “Black-ish”
- Lily Tomlin – “Grace and Frankie”
- Issa Rae – “Insecure”
Best Actress in a Limited Series or Made for TV Movie
Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti in “The Sinner”
Plot: Anthology series that examines how and why ordinary people commit brutal crimes.
One of the most surprising turns of the year was from Jessica Biel. She gives the best performance of her career as Cora Tannetti in “The Sinner” on USA. At first glance, Cora seems like a normal, dissatisfied housewife. One day, however, she snaps and stabs a local guy multiple times on the beach. Biel sells this shocking turn and delves deep into the psyche that led Cora to make such a crazy decision. Though “The Sinner” didn’t show up in other categories, the buzz is strong on Jessica Biel’s performance. In a category full of veterans, Biel could be the one they want to reward next.
Laura Dern as Jennifer in “The Tale”
Plot: A woman filming a documentary on childhood rape victims starts to question the nature of her childhood relationship with her riding instructor and running coach.
Laura Dern gives perhaps the best performance on TV this year. Makes sense “The Tale” was originally going to go theatrical. That is, until HBO bought the film for $10 million in Sundance. Dern portrays a loose version of director Jennifer Fox in this retelling of her memories. Jennifer (Dern) comes face to face with painful memories of abuse from her childhood after her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds her old diaries. The complexities of Dern’s performance are vast and chilling. With all that firepower, one would think Dern would be a shoo in for her second consecutive Emmy. However, while “The Tale” did pick up a TV Movie nomination, it missed in other key categories. The buzz is lower, particularly because Dern just won last year. Still, voters watching the submissions will be hard pressed to find a better performance than Dern’s.
Michelle Dockery as Alice Fletcher in “Godless”
Plot: In the 1880s American West murderous outlaw gang leader Frank Griffin hunts for ex-protege Roy Goode. Frank’s chase leads him to La Belle, New Mexico – a town inhabited, after a mining disaster, almost entirely by women.
After years prim and proper on “Downton Abbey,” Michelle Dockery gets down and dirty. On “Godless,” she plays rancher Alice Fletcher who takes in fugitive Roy Goode, on the run from his former gang leader. Dockery is best as she teaches Roy how to break a horse and run a farm. There’s a lived in quality to her performance that is both surprising and exciting. Voters clearly love “Godless” and that could mean multiple wins across its nomination spread. Supporting players Merritt Wever and Jeff Daniels steal most of the spotlight. However, if the show has coattails, Dockery could be swept up with a win.
Edie Falco as Leslie Abrahamson in “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders
Plot: Behind the murders of a Hollywood movie executive and his former beauty queen wife by their sons.
No one chews scenery like Edie Falco. For her role as lawyer Leslie Abrahamson, Falco does a drag rendition of Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clarke. Her hair is bigger. Her voice is thicker. The histrionics couldn’t be higher. Falco’s dedication to the role makes her the only watchable part of the show. The Emmys love Edie Falco, rewarding her in both drama and comedy categories. Her performance hits both sides of her persona. While entertaining, it makes her extremely unlikely to win here. Still, there is the chance voters love her enough they’ll vote for her anyways.
Regina King as Latrice Butler in “Seven Seconds”
Plot: Tensions run high between African American citizens and Caucasian cops in Jersey City when a teenage African American boy is critically injured by a cop.
Regina King is no stranger to Emmy upsets. She won not one, but two Emmys for her work on “American Crime.” Both times she was an underdog. This nomination, her fourth, is the only one she’s received that wasn’t for “American Crime.” Her work in “Seven Seconds,” as the mother of a boy injured by cops, is compelling. King knows how to craft a fully rounded woman beyond the trauma going on during the series. These details make her more interesting and believable. Unfortunately, “Seven Seconds” has even less buzz and fanfare than “American Crime” did when she won for those first two seasons. Nevertheless, her performance is strong and voters seem to love her. If they are checking names, she may have her third surprise Emmy.
Sarah Paulson as Ally Mayfair-Richards in “American Horror Story: Cult”
Plot: A married couple struggles with their lives and marriage while clowns terrorize the city.
Sarah Paulson owes a lot of her career success to Ryan Murphy. Her work in earlier seasons of “American Horror Story” (particularly Asylum) brought her to the public’s eye. Playing Marcia Clarke in Murphy’s “American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson” brought her an Emmy win. Paulson is an extraordinarily talented actress. That said, her performance in the latest season of “American Horror Story” is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a lot of screaming crazy lines from Murphy’s wishy washy screenplay. Paulson gives it her all, and elevates many moments to levels of camp. However, this feels more like a name check rather than a nomination for her performance.
- Laura Dern – “The Tale”
- Jessica Biel” – “The Sinner”
- Regina King – “Seven Seconds”
- Michelle Dockery – “Godless”
- Edie Falco – “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders”
- Sarah Paulson – “American Horror Story: Cult”