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12 Emmy-Worthy Performances That Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

Shaun Parkes for Small Axe: Mangrove, Thuso Mbedu for The Underground Railroad, and Evan Peters for Mare of Easttown. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Amazon Studios and HBO

It’s Emmy time again! As of today, those lucky enough to be members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have ballots in their hands and have been asked to consider the best of television from one of its weirdest years ever. As productions around the world are trying to manage pandemic protocols they never considered before, artists are being asked to remember the best work done by their peers during these strange times. A world with fewer red carpets and in-person FYC events is likely to produce a more unusual list of nominees than ever — and makes it even easier for great work to get overlooked. After all, there have been plenty of other things to think about over the last calendar year. But it’s time, Emmy voters, to take your great responsibility seriously. An Emmy nomination can change the trajectory of a show, bringing a program to a wider audience and completely altering the profile of a nominated star.

So consider this our official argument for a dozen nominations from across the television spectrum that Emmy voters need to consider. None of these performances are currently being predicted as nominees by a majority of pundits out there in the wild world of Emmy prognostication, so please don’t yell at us about how Jean Smart, Michaela Coel, Paul Bettany, and Ethan Hawke should get nominated. They totally should! And they likely will! This alphabetical list is reserved for the potential near misses who deserve to be bumped up on your list, Emmy voters. Get them off the bubble. Invite them to the dance.

Naomi Ackie for Master of None

Photo: Netflix

It seems a little silly to pit Naomi Ackie’s performance in the fourth episode of this season of Netflix’s Master of None against more obviously comedic performances from the likely to be nominated women of Saturday Night Live and Ted Lasso, but that’s the fault of these binary Comedy/Drama categories, not us. The truth is that Ackie’s work on the show transcends genre, grounding her character in emotional truth long before what’s arguably the best episode in the history of a show that has already won multiple Emmys. Series co-creator Aziz Ansari may be seen as poisonous now to some voters, which means they may choose simply not to watch Master of None, but at least take the time to check out just episode four, one in which Ansari and Lena Waithe cede the spotlight to the BAFTA-winning actress as she goes through the difficult process of trying to have a child on her own. It’s a powerful, character-driven episode that’s one of the best of any show in 2021.

Jessie Buckley for Fargo

Photo: FX

FX’s Fargo was once an Emmys powerhouse, but it feels more likely to go ignored this year. Part of the reason is the overcrowding of the Limited Series categories, where quality performances are going to be snubbed purely because there are so many to consider, but it’s also true that critics and audiences didn’t respond to the fourth year of Noah Hawley’s drama like they did in its initial run. But in a season somewhat overcrowded with characters, there was one that stood out: the perfectly named Oraetta Mayflower, a sociopathic nurse who killed the wrong patient, setting off a gang war in St. Louis. Jessie Buckley, star of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, doesn’t just nail the “you betcha” tone that ties this character to the Coen brothers legacy, she makes this angel of death into a much more complex and fascinating person than she is on paper. Buckley’s star is rising, but she has yet to land an Emmy or Academy Award nomination for any of her work. This feels like a good starting point.

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù for Gangs of London

Photo: AMC

Making more fans with each project, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù feels like a star on the verge of becoming a household name. He just needs the right part. An Emmy nomination for his charismatic work on AMC’s excellent crime drama Gangs of London would give him just the boost he needs to get cast in the right part. There would be no looking back. Dìrísù plays Elliot Finch in this sprawling epic from the great Gareth Evans (The Raid) about the criminal underworld in London. First appearing like little more than a low-level enforcer, Dìrísù’s character becomes one of the centerpieces of the series when a major secret of his is revealed. He helps hold together a very complex show by imbuing Finch with a perfect blend of unquestioning commitment mixed with a keen awareness that the world around him is getting deadlier by the day.

Renée Elise Goldsberry for Girls5Eva

Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

Broadway fans have known about the power of Renée Elise Goldsberry for years. After all, she’s one of the most famous stage actresses of her generation, winning a Tony for Hamilton after notable runs in productions of The Color Purple and Rent, among others. She’s done some TV work, including a Daytime Emmy–nominated turn on One Life to Live, but no show has really been able to tap her presence like Peacock’s Girls5Eva, which allows her to be both the diva and the victim at the same time. Goldsberry plays Wickie, the self-proclaimed queen of the titular group Girls5Eva (“because 4eva is too short”), and she perfectly captures the tenor of people who live completely different lives in the public eye compared to their realities. Faking an influencer lifestyle as if her fame never faded, Goldsberry is hysterical but never feels like she’s going for the broad, easy joke. With a nomination for Disney+’s Hamilton also very possible this year, it could be a double up for an actress who deserves to be known more beyond the Big Apple.

Michael Greyeyes for Rutherford Falls

Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

At first glance, Peacock’s Rutherford Falls may look like just another dumb-guy sitcom with Ed Helms taking a role played by so many comedians over history, but it’s smarter than it looks. The tale of a man named Nathan Rutherford reckoning with his family’s white place in the history of a city populated by people from the fictional Minishonka Nation is given most of its weight by the charming Michael Greyeyes. The Canadian actor balances detailed character work with excellent comic timing as Terry Thomas, the CEO of the local Minishonka casino and a man who knows how to use the newest controversy in town to the advantage of both himself and his people. Greyeyes is another actor on the verge of breakthrough — he also starred in a Sundance critical hit this year called Wild Indian — and recognizing the complexity of his work here would help that ascension.

Jude Law for The Third Day

Photo: Apple TV+

They can’t all be newcomers. And yet arguably the most familiar face on this list feels like he’s getting nowhere near the attention he deserves lately. Unlike most people in the world, Jude Law had a pretty killer 2020. He did arguably his best film work in Sean Durkin’s The Nest and then countered that with a riveting turn in HBO’s experimental miniseries The Third Day. Law plays Sam, a man wallowing in grief when he arrives at a mysterious island off the English coast, drawn there in ways he can’t quite explain. The Third Day struggled through comparisons to similar projects like The Wicker Man, but Law never strikes the wrong note, making Sam’s confusion and peril feel palpable. We are on the journey with Sam, and it’s Law’s increasing depth as an actor that makes that possible.

Thuso Mbedu for The Underground Railroad

Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

The overcrowding in the Limited Series categories means that some incredible performances are going to be overlooked. It’s just math. However, it’s startling to consider that so much talent in this section of the ballot could mean a complete snub for the cast of Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad, the television event of 2021 so far. With such an ambitious, lyrical tone, it might be easy to overlook the acting on this show, considering it more of an auteur vision than a performance one, but that would be a mistake. Thuso Mbedu’s moving and nuanced work as Cora Randall, an escaped Georgian slave on a journey across America, could be the representative for an entire ensemble of major talent, but please also consider nominating Sheila Atim, William Jackson Harper, and Joel Edgerton, doing the best work of his underrated career. All four are deserving.

Shaun Parkes for Small Axe: Mangrove

Photo: Amazon Studios

With their premieres at the New York Film Festival and deeply cinematic structures, the films of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series arguably fit better in the Academy Awards than the Emmy Awards, but we don’t make the rules. The fact is that Amazon submitted them for Emmy consideration, and they should pop up in a few places on Emmy nomination morning — most are predicting nods for Letitia Wright and John Boyega. This is a plea to dig a little deeper and also consider Wright’s co-star in Mangrove, the mesmerizing Shaun Parkes. He plays Frank Crichlow, the owner of a Trinidadian restaurant called the Mangrove in Notting Hill that faces racist harassment from the London police. Eventually charged with the rest of the Mangrove Nine, Parkes’s Frank fights back against the system that has been rigged against them. Parkes finds just the right balance of frustration and fire in one of 2020’s best performances in film, TV, or whatever you want to call it.

Nasim Pedrad for Chad

Photo: Scott Patrick Green/TBS

Who would have guessed that the most impressive performance to date from Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad would be as a 14-year-old boy? In a way that’s a little reminiscent of Hulu’s great PEN15, Pedrad plays teenager Chad Amani, never really acknowledging the age or gender difference that adds so much hilarity to the production. But Pedrad wisely never turns Chad into a mere gimmick sitcom, nailing the awkwardness of adolescence in ways that feel true despite (or maybe even more because of) the artificiality of it all. Pedrad captures that time when young boys feel like they can’t do anything right, wanting to say and do the right thing even as all of the structures of popularity in high school crumble down around them. She’s hysterical and often even a little heartbreaking, looking back on teen life with the wisdom of adulthood in her own way.

Evan Peters for Mare of Easttown

Photo: HBO

HBO’s massive hit Mare of Easttown is likely to show up all over the Emmy nominations on the morning they’re announced, but the crowd in Best Supporting Actor — including John Boyega (Small Axe), Bill Camp (The Queen’s Gambit), and Donald Sutherland (The Undoing) — could leave Evan Peters on the outside. Don’t let that happen. Peters not only feels like he’s finally graduated from playing teens and young men to a true grown-up role in Mare, he nails complex beats in a character who feels like he has shading and backstory that other actors would have ignored. Without spoiling anything, Peters’s final scene in Mare of Easttown is one of the most heartbreaking of 2021, and it’s not just because of the unexpected storytelling development — it also has to do with how much Peters has made us care about him in only a few episodes. Peters always had promise as an actor, but after seeing what he can do on Mare of Easttown, it feels like we’ve underestimated him.

Antony Starr for The Boys

Photo: Amazon Studios

Best Actor in a Drama this year is thin. Long gone are the days of powerhouse male-centered dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and it feels like this category could be tough to fill — Matthew Rhys is probably getting in for Perry Mason, which about six people watched, no offense to the always solid star of The Americans. However, there is a performance on the fringe of this category that feels like the most iconic that could be nominated: Antony Starr as Homelander on Amazon Prime’s massive hit The Boys. Starr imbues his sociopathic version of Superman with the kind of fascinating character work that makes it impossible to tear your eyes off of him every time he’s onscreen, and you usually miss him when he’s not. He’s the crazy center of this show, a vision of American exceptionalism run amok, and he totally gets the writing’s complex blend of comedy, action, and commentary.

Justin Theroux for The Mosquito Coast

Photo: Apple TV+

Speaking of thin choices in dramatic acting this year, why not make up for historic oversights regarding one of TV’s best actors, Justin Theroux? It still hurts that he not only never won for his breakthrough work on The Leftovers, but he was never even nominated. Ridiculous. He’s great on Apple TV+’s underrated drama based on the book by Paul Theroux, who just so happens to be Justin’s uncle. Having grown up with the source material, Theroux understands how to imbue his on-the-run patriarch with just the right blend of bad decision-making and blind commitment. We root for Allie Fox to get his family to safety even as we hate so many of his choices. It’s that elevation of bad behavior that led some to negatively compare The Mosquito Coast to Breaking Bad, which is fair, but no one can say a bad word about Theroux’s work. It’s impossible.

12 Emmy-Worthy Performances That Shouldn’t Be Overlooked