10 Actress Performances Emmy Voters Shouldn’t Ignore

Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe. Photo: Amazon

The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.

Every year there are certain shows — whether new or returning — that prove to be Emmy bait right out of the gate. And within those early favorites, there are standout performers who naturally land on voters’ short lists because they’ve done a year’s worth of press, they’ve already won other awards, or their network is very rich in FYC promotional cash. But there are many hidden gems behind the boldface names, equally (and often more) deserving of voter consideration. As a follow-up to last week’s roster of ten male performances voters shouldn’t ignore, here are ten more by female performers that deserve serious consideration.

Maria Bamford, Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
Lead actress, comedy series
In an Emmy race filled with series created by and starring comedians as, more or less, themselves, only one show features someone truly willing to laugh at herself. Bamford’s ingenious show format — divided into “Present,” “Past,” and “Duluth” (where she had her real-life mental breakdown) — allows her to play three manic versions of herself. Bamford, who suffers from bipolar 2 disorder, infuses a brazen self-awareness into each distinct performance.

Donna Lynn Champlin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
Supporting actress, comedy series
Champlin has a tricky job to do in playing Paula, best friend and confidante to Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch. She is written to be the foil to Rebecca’s lovesick spaz, a part that could easily devolve into cliché rom-com tropes. But this is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, subverter of rom-com tropes, and Champlin’s charm is often so powerful, her humor so spot-on, that the series slowly becomes not only a love letter to finding a soulmate but also one to female friendship. 

Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe (Amazon)
Lead actress, comedy series
In season two of Catastrophe, Horgan plays Sharon, reluctant mom adjusting to life with now two children. The British TV vet — along with co-star and co-creator Rob Delaney — is known for her snarky one-liners because she’s an ace at them. But she’s equally good at communicating the most painful moments of isolation and malaise that come with parenting and marriage. 

Carol Kane, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Supporting actress, comedy series
Kane has said that she’s had to ask show creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock to decode some of the bizarre pop-culture references uttered by her eccentric landlady Lillian Kaushtupper. We’d never know. Even better, season two of Kimmy gave Kane a more dimensional Lillian to explore — one who laments the loss of her city to gentrification and does nude modeling for what she’s “pretty sure is an art class.” The raspy-voiced actress sells every moment, just as she did on Taxi nearly 40 years ago.  

Riley Keough, The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)
Lead actress, limited series
Keough had a lot of room to reinvent the lead role in this reimagining of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental feature starring porn actress Sasha Grey as a high-end call girl. She used it wisely. Keough’s Chicago law student turned escort Christine Reade is so measured, somber, and free of emotional attachment that the role feels more like a reinvention of Richard Gere’s escort in American Gigolo in which sex work, because it’s done by a man, is purely functional. Keough maintains an emotional distance from her clients, and ultimately us, in a way that keeps you constantly wondering what she’ll do next. 

Miranda Otto, Homeland (Showtime)
Supporting actress, drama series
With her ethereal looks and turn as Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Otto may on the surface seem a tough sell as an espionage-drama villain. Not after her disturbing and violent arc as double-agent Allison, the CIA’s Berlin station chief and informant for the Russians. It’s the quietness in Otto’s performance — all icy and clinical, never overt — that keeps us guessing until the show-stopping moment when she shoots herself in the chest — a rare moment for a female performer who the writers allowed to be as demented as the story requires. 

Amanda Peet, Togetherness (HBO)
Supporting actress, comedy series
HBO canceled the Duplass’ brothers L.A.-set dramedy after two seasons, making this Peet’s last shot at a trophy for her flawless turn as Tina Morris — a 40-something woman as tragically lost as she is well-intentioned. In the hands of most other actors, the role — heavy on push-up bras and emotional manipulation — could have been incredibly depressing. But Peet’s all-in embodiment of the pain and confusion attached to being alone in a coupled world is so charming (and funny), she time and again becomes the show’s scene-stealer. 

Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul (AMC)      
Lead actress, drama series
There was a lot of chatter this year that Seehorn’s Kim Wexler was at the center of one of TV’s most “feminist” dramas. Yes, the writers beefed up her screen time and workplace narrative in season two, but that doesn’t properly credit Seehorn with creating one of the year’s most unique protagonists to watch. Kim is equal parts girl-next-door, ambition, and a bit of an outcast who finds a kindred spirit in Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). But ultimately, she doesn’t need him, and Seehorn, like her male peers, gets cold as quickly as her journey demands. 

Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Underground (WGN)
Lead actress, drama series
Playing a young house servant named Rosalee, Smollett-Bell gives heft to an archetype that hasn’t historically been as well-developed for female actors in other slave narratives. She is stuck at the beginning between trying to grow up under her mother’s gaze and forging a future as a free person. Smollett-Bell’s performance grows and evolves alongside the pulsing season-one plot, gaining strength all the way up until the finale, where her sexual awakening and fearlessness are on full display. 

Alison Wright, The Americans (FX)
Supporting actress, drama series
Wright’s doomed FBI secretary Martha Hanson may be the most tragic figure in any drama this year. From Wright’s large, sad eyes to her increasing stiffness throughout the season, Wright’s entire body telegraphs Martha’s grief about Clark’s (Matthew Rhys) secret, and her ultimate punishment for his actions. Right up until the final moment she is released to Russian authorities, we see hope on her face; this couldn’t possibly be how it ends, could it? Her four-season performance arc is a master class in the power of a slow, subtle build.