emmys 2017

Emmys 2017: Who Will and Should Win in the Drama Categories?

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale. Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The 69th Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 17, and all this week, Vulture TV columnist Jen Chaney and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz are breaking down the major categories. What will win? What actually should win? That’s what we’re here to determine.

Today’s focus: Drama series.

Outstanding Drama Series

Better Call Saul (AMC)

The Crown (Netflix)

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

House of Cards (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

This Is Us (NBC)

Westworld (HBO)

With reigning champ Game of Thrones out of the way this year, this category is tinged with a sense of mystery — by which I mean: I have no real idea what’s going to happen here — and a sense of significance.

For the first time in the history of outstanding drama, the majority of nominees come from streaming services rather than broadcast or cable networks. Netflix has always had at least one binge-worthy dog in this fight, but it’s never had three, and Hulu has never had any. Given the circumstances, it seems like an ideal year for the industry to send an official signal that digital platforms aren’t just the future of great television, they’re the present.

But is that the signal voters will choose to send, or will nostalgia for the days when broadcast owned the Emmys dominate instead, giving This Is Us — the first broadcast network contender in this category in six years — an edge?

Honestly: I don’t know. But …

The Emmy should go to: Better Call Saul. I love Stranger Things, and The Handmaid’s Tale was gorgeously directed, riveting, and relevant. But if I’m being completely honest about which drama was the most consistently flawless and impeccably crafted, episode after episode, I’d have to give this to the AMC Breaking Bad prequel.

The Emmy will go to: The Handmaid’s Tale. The Crown is handsome and very well done, but I’m not sure if it will have the enthusiasm behind it that other shows might. Stranger Things was the year’s breakout TV phenomenon and resonated with those who maintain a fondness for the ’80s and/or appreciate sci-fi/horror that’s made with heart. Westworld represents a chillier form of sci-fi, but an ambitious one with strong production values and a pedigreed cast. As a general rule, though, Emmy voters tend not to reward genre fare, no matter how much care, heart, ambition, or pedigree it may contain.

That’s why I think this will come down to a battle between This Is Us and The Handmaid’s Tale, the former a tear-jerking but warm piece of escapism, the latter a bracing, dystopian ice bath that feels relevant to right now. Older voters in particular may be very excited to see a traditional network like NBC take the top prize since that hasn’t happened in 11 years. (The last time was in 2006, when Fox’s 24 won.) They, and others, may also appreciate that, despite its newfangled twists, This Is Us is a classic family drama about decent people, the sort of show that rarely gets recognized in this category these days.

On the other hand, all the recent outstanding drama winners — Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Mad Men — have skated on the darker side of the tonal spectrum. That suggests The Handmaid’s Tale has an advantage that will put it over the top.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama

Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (NBC)

Anthony Hopkins, Westworld (HBO)

Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul (AMC)

Matthew Rhys, The Americans (FX)

Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan (Showtime)

Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (Netflix)

Milo Ventimiglia, This Is Us (NBC)

The Emmy should go to: Sterling K. Brown. Ventimiglia is lovely on This Is Us, and both Odenkirk and Rhys were as immersed in their conflicted anti-heroes as they have been since their respective series began. (Barring unexpected knockout performances in the next few months, I plan to make a hard push for Rhys next year, when he takes his final bow as Philip Jennings.) But Brown was the emotional anchor of the biggest new show of the last fall season, and that counts for a lot. Even when some of the writing threatened to sink into overly sentimental quicksand, Brown kept his portrayal of Randall tethered to earth, making this wounded adopted son the most empathetic character on a show that runs on an engine of empathy.

The Emmy will go to: Conventional wisdom also says Sterling K. Brown will take this one. Clearly, I’m cool with that.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)

Claire Foy, The Crown (Netflix)

Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Keri Russell, The Americans (FX)

Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld (HBO)

Robin Wright, House of Cards (Netflix)

The Emmy should go to: Elisabeth Moss. I admire all of the nominated performances. (Next year’s Rhys push will likely be complemented by a Russell push.) But Moss’s work as the beaten-down-but-unbroken Offred towers over everyone else’s in my mind. Fear, despair, rage, and the need to constantly suppress those feelings course through Moss’s veins in every moment of every episode. For God’s sake, just watch her in the season finale when she’s stuck in a back seat, unable to speak to her daughter who is mere feet away. She’s unhinged and unforgettable.

The Emmy will go to: Elisabeth Moss. In addition to everything I just said, there’s also the fact that Moss never won an Emmy for her work as Peggy Olson on Mad Men. She’s been  nominated six times, seven if you count her nod for the original Top of the Lake. The woman is due for a win.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

Ron Cephas Jones, This Is Us (NBC)

David Harbour, Stranger Things (Netflix)

Michael Kelly, House of Cards (Netflix)

John Lithgow, The Crown (Netflix)

Mandy Patinkin, Homeland (Showtime)

Jeffrey Wright, Westworld (HBO)

The Emmy should go to: John Lithgow. Ron Cephas Jones brought extraordinary humanity to his role as the cancer-stricken William, particularly in the “Memphis” episode, the strongest in This Is Us’s first season. But Lithgow is so convincing as Winston Churchill in The Crown that I completely forgot I was watching a performance, and that Third Rock From the Sun ever existed.

The Emmy will go to: John Lithgow. This is precisely the kind of performance I think voters will gravitate toward, especially if they want to honor The Crown but aren’t quite compelled to give it outstanding drama.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama

Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things (Netflix)

Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Chrissy Metz, This Is Us (NBC)

Thandie Newton, Westworld (HBO)

Samira Wiley, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

The Emmy should go to: Millie Bobby Brown. These are all powerhouse performances, so this is really, really hard. Thandie Newton goes fierce and deep in Westworld, Uzo Aduba is shattering as always in Orange Is the New Black, Chrissy Metz is vulnerable but never weak on This Is Us, and Samira Wiley is a thoughtful firebrand in The Handmaid’s Tale. But the two performances that stand out most for me are Ann Dowd’s and Millie Bobby Brown’s. Dowd is superb as Aunt Lydia, a monster whose occasional flashes of compassion are almost as shocking as her acts of violence. She’s also been an extraordinarily good actress for a long time, so I’d love to see her win an Emmy. Then there’s Brown, who, yes, is just a kid. But it really is harder than it looks to deliver a nearly wordless performance as persuasively and with as much soulfulness as she does in Stranger Things. In the breakout show of 2016, hers was the breakout performance, and the one from which your eyes couldn’t look away, even when she was facing a Demogorgon.

The Emmy will go to: Oy, I have no idea, so I’m going to say Thandie Newton because Westworld got a lot of nominations, so voters clearly like the series and may lean toward honoring her for the emotional texture she brings to it.

Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series

Better Call Saul, “Witness” (AMC)

The Crown, “Hyde Park Corner” (Netflix)

The Handmaid’s Tale, “Offred (Pilot)” (Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Bridge” (Hulu)

Homeland, “America First” (Showtime)

Stranger Things, “The Vanishing of Will Byers” (Netflix)

Westworld, “The Bicameral Mind” (NBC)

The Emmy should go to: The Handmaid’s Tale, “Offred (Pilot).” Three episodes rise to the top here: Better Call Saul’s “Witness,” in which tension mounts so subtly you don’t even realize how skillfully director Thomas Schnauz is building it; “The Vanishing of Will Byers,” the first episode of Stranger Things, which immediately sucks you into the story while thoroughly establishing setting and mood; and that Handmaid’s Tale pilot, which also sucks you in with a great, Children of Men–style opening and never lets go. I chose that because Reed Morano is so thoughtful and visually inspired in her choices. In a drama where everyone routinely says, “Under his eye,” Morano makes it clear immediately that the eyes through which you’ll understand this story belong to a her.

The Emmy will go to: Honestly, I think the voters will choose The Handmaid’s Tale pilot, too.

Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series

The Americans, “The Soviet Division” (FX)

Better Call Saul, “Chicanery” (AMC)

The Crown, “Assassins” (Netflix)

The Handmaid’s Tale, “Offred (Pilot)” (Hulu)

Stranger Things, “The Vanishing of Will Byers” (Netflix)

Westworld, “The Bicameral Mind” (NBC)

The Emmy should go to: Better Call Saul, “Chicanery.” In an exceptional season of Better Call Saul, this was a standout episode in which the rivalry between Jimmy and his brother, Chuck (the brilliant Michael McKean), explodes in a war of courtroom words crafted by Gordon Smith with precision and a deep understanding of how these siblings speak and behave.

The Emmy will go to: The Handmaid’s Tale, “Offred (Pilot).” Bruce Miller took a revered novel and adapted it for television in a way that feels both faithful to the text and freshly suited to the screen. Voters don’t always give the directing and writing Emmys to the same series, but they have for the past couple of years, and I suspect they’ll do it again.

Emmys 2017: Who Will and Should Win in the Drama Categories?