The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.
Unlike the Oscar race, the scope of Emmy contenders — especially for the top comedy and drama prizes — has widened to such a degree that voters may, if they’re lucky, get around to watching half of their screeners. This season, we’ve seen a number of new shows spring up that could feasibly snag a spot on this year’s list of nominees, many of which come from networks that rarely end up on lists like this. As members from the nearly 20,000-member Television Academy get ready to cast their phase-one ballots next month, we’ve winnowed down the field of new contenders to the nine most likely to break through the comedy and drama series categories. (For the purposes of this piece, we’ve excluded anthology/limited series like FX’s American Crime Story.)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — CW (Comedy)
Star and co-creator Rachel Bloom was the belle of this year’s Golden Globes when she nabbed the award for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy. And deservedly so: The former YouTube star and multitasking actor, writer, and producer — not to mention Broadway-caliber singer — is broadcast television’s Lena Dunham. Her obsessive onscreen odyssey to reclaim a teenage crush managed to grow into TV’s most realistic, often painful portrayal of 20-something female neuroses since, well, Girls. Co-created by veteran screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, the Globe-nominated CXG is in many ways also the modern soul-sister to Ally McBeal: Both are hourlong fantastical comedies about pratfall-prone lawyers distracted by a past love. Speaking of, Ally won best comedy at the Emmys in 1999, which bodes well for this CXG’s chances to break through as an hourlong comedy.
Baskets — FX (Comedy)
FX has struggled to get Emmy recognition for any of its comedies that don’t start with “Lou” and end with “ie,” so the presence of this year’s utterly bizarre offering from Mr. CK himself (as producer), Zach Galifianakis, and Portlandia’s and Man Seeking Woman’s Jonathan Krisel in this year’s race is worth voters’ notice. The Bakersfield, California–set absurdist glimpse into the life of a struggling, Paris-trained clown named Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) has all the lovely weirdness of Portlandia, with surprising moments of genuine emotion, thanks in large part to comedian Louie Anderson who delivers a bravura performances as Baskets’ doting mother, Christine Baskets.
Casual — Hulu (comedy)
This Golden Globe–nominated series manages to spin what could be a rote log line — amid marriage troubles, a late-30’s L.A. woman reluctantly moves with her teen daughter into her wisecracking brother’s hip digs – into a relatable family and relationship dramedy. As onscreen siblings, Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey deliver a distinctly heartbreaking spin on the grown-ups-as-lost-kids conceit. And the series, executive-produced by Jason Reitman and created by Zander Lehmann, offers a rare, layered role for young actress Tara Lynne Barr as the Teenager who must bear witness to the harsh reality that adults really don’t know anything.
Jessica Jones — Netflix (Drama)
The last series with a female lead character to win best drama was Homeland in 2012. Before that? Cagney and Lacey in 1986. Netflix’s Jessica Jones is one of few series this year with a female role meaty enough to maybe make history again. The Peabody-winning series, created by Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (and based on the Marvel comics character), features Krysten Ritter as the titular character who, when a traumatic experience ends her short career as a superhero, settles in New York City and opens Alias Investigations detective agency. The show was widely praised for how it handled themes as weighty as PTSD, rape, power, and sexuality, all framed with a neo-noir aesthetic. As Jessica, Krysten is reckless, surly, violent, sexual, strong (like, lift-up-a-car strong), brave, and above it all good-hearted. “We’ve seen this kind of character before many times throughout pop-culture history,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in his review, but “nearly always played by somebody like Humphrey Bogart or Bruce Willis.”
Master of None — Netflix (Comedy)
No new comedy this year became a quicker talking point than Aziz Ansari’s semiautobiographical series about Dev, a struggling Indian-American actor living in New York. Cleverly organized by episodic themes like “Indians on TV” and “Old People,” Master seamlessly weaves more traditional career and dating narratives with personal vignettes, including various moments featuring Ansari’s own parents. The heart-tugging second episode, “Parents,” wherein Dev and his Asian-American friend Brian try to bond with their immigrant parents, was a moving — and typically unseen — examination of the immigrant experience in America. Moments like these are what helped Ansari nab a Globe nomination, for comedy actor, and the series garner numerous accolades, including AFI Show of the Year.
The Man in the High Castle — Amazon (Drama)
Inspired by the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name — which imagines a world where America lost World War II and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — High Castle became the streaming company’s most-watched series ever last fall (not that they’d release the actual numbers, of course). The futuristic thriller was adapted by X-Files writer and three-time Emmy nominee Frank Spotnitz (who is competing in this category against Fox’s X-Files reboot) and features the kind of eye-popping production design, by Drew Boughton, that helped Game of Thrones gain attention early on in its Emmy tenure despite the Academy’s long history of ignoring fantasy dramas. Last year’s win for Thrones could signal that voters are finally broadening the scope of what defines an Emmy-caliber drama.
Mr. Robot — USA (Drama)
What’s more dizzying than creator Sam Esmail’s paranoid tech thriller is that his paranoid tech thriller airs on USA. Yes, the same USA that brought us so-called “blue sky” popcorn dramas like Burn Notice, Royal Pains, and White Collar also brought us this year’s winner for Outstanding Drama at the Globes, a trophy for supporting actor Christian Slater, and a nomination for lead actor Rami Malek. The show cut through the noise for a number of reasons: a compelling performance by Malek as the anxious Elliot Alderson (whose narration gives the show its on-edge pacing), a stylish visual aesthetic, and its larger commentary on the frightening power structure under which we live. The result is another Peabody-winning game-changer, giving Emmy its darkest competitor since Breaking Bad.
Underground — WGN (Drama)
In the opening scene of Underground’s pilot, Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” is heard as a young man sprints through the woods, his own breathing synchronized with the song’s frenetic pacing. Love it or hate it, it was a bold move for the series, which tells the story of the Underground Railroad through the eyes of a group of plantation slaves, and was created by Heroes writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and produced by singer John Legend. Similar to USA, it gave WGN its first critically acclaimed piece of original television. It may be an underdog for the Emmys, but there may be enough affecting moments of drama here to compel voters.
UnREAL – Lifetime (Drama)
This scathing insider’s look behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like reality series called Everlasting boasts more female talent — in front of and behind the camera — than any other drama contender this year, including its creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and stars, Critics’ Choice nominee Shiri Appleby as mentally unstable producer Rachel, and Critics’ Choice winner Constance Zimmer as her sardonic boss, Quinn. Let’s not also forget the series is on Lifetime, a network that, despite sporadic Emmy showings for original movies like Steel Magnolias, has never had a viable drama series contender in its 30-plus year history. And now that it does, it’s a series (also a Peabody winner) that skewers the very notion of Television for Women and forces us to face our own appetite for shock TV at any cost.