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14 Emmy-Worthy Performances That Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

From left: Wyatt Russell for Under the Banner of Heaven, Janelle James for Abbott Elementary, and Youn Yuh-jung for Pachinko are all on our Emmy-nominations wish list. Photo: FX; ABC; Apple TV+

One of the most crowded television years ever has finally come to a close, and members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences have their ballots in hand, trying to figure out how they could possibly distill so many performances in dramas, comedies, and miniseries down to a manageable list of nominees. There are certain shows everyone expects to be a part of the Emmys conversation this year — Succession, Ozark, Ted Lasso, Barry — but that’s really just the tip of the TV iceberg when it comes to the 754 series that aired between June 2021 and May 2022, comprising nearly 3,000 performances eligible in the various acting categories.

Many of those acting nominations are considered locks at this point, but with such a broad field of eligibility, there’s room for some less expected names to pop up on nomination day. As a public service for those ballot-holders looking to mix it up a bit, we’ve collected 14 potential acting nominees who currently aren’t being predicted by a majority of Emmy experts. Some are right on the bubble, just needing a nudge (like the one you’re reading right now!). Some are undeniable long shots. But this is the kind of expansive, diverse TV year when an outsider could become a household name. Take a risk. This TV season deserves it.

Paulina Alexis for Reservation Dogs

Photo: Shane Brown/FX

Just about everything works on Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s spectacular FX coming-of-age comedy about Indigenous teens living on a reservation in Oklahoma. But it’s the core quartet of young people that brings it all together, and any one of them could be nominated as a stand-in for the entire crew of RezDogs. It’s hard to pick a standout — Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, and Lane Factor might all be just as deserving — but the season’s emotional climax, sixth episode “Hunting,” belongs to Paulina Alexis. When her character, Willie Jack, goes hunting with her father, Leon, the two discuss her uncertain future and memories of her cousin Daniel (Dalton Cramer), whose death a year before the show opens drives a lot of the first season. The past and future collide in a powerful series of conversations that rise to one of the most emotional exchanges on television in the past year. Alexis evokes how the loss of Daniel has unmoored her character while never sinking into melodrama. It’s a wonderful single-episode turn, and recognizing it would be a sign that the Academy is willing to think outside of the box.

Jon Bernthal for We Own This City

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Corrupt cops are often presented in film and TV as something like evil geniuses, people who exploit a broken system through their intelligent maneuvering of racial and social injustices. In David Simon and George Pelecanos’s limited series, the great Jon Bernthal understands that corruption rarely requires brilliance, finding a register of opportunism in Sergeant Wayne Jenkins that makes him one of the most fascinating characters in years. It’s not so much that Jenkins gamed the system as that the system was designed to enable morally bankrupt idiots like Jenkins. Bernthal captures a jittery, sweaty uncertainty in Jenkins that’s riveting, playing him as a guy who may realize he has no moral code if he stopped taking advantage of his position for a second to think about it. He’s a vicious shark swimming in amoral waters.

Mackenzie Davis for Station Eleven

Photo: Ian Watson/HBO Max

The Limited Series categories are ludicrous this year, with projects including The Dropout, Maid, Scenes From a Marriage, The First Lady, Dopesick, The White Lotus, Under the Banner of Heaven, and The Staircase fighting for limited recognition. Well, let’s not forget one of the best limited series of 2021, HBO Max’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about not just the end of the world but what happens after. A series that opens with a flu pandemic wiping out much of the world population might have been too much for some people in the middle of a COVID-19 surge, but Station Eleven is ultimately a powerful reminder of the human need for connection and artistic expression. And it’s really held together by a graceful, moving performance from Mackenzie Davis, who was somehow never nominated for Halt and Catch Fire. The Academy can make up for that egregious error by giving her a Best Actress nod here.

Naomie Harris for The Man Who Fell to Earth

Photo: Aimee Spinks/Showtime

In many ways, Naomie Harris, an Oscar nominee for Moonlight, has to play the straight woman in this Showtime adaptation of the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis and 1976 film starring David Bowie. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets to go all kinds of over-the-top as an alien who has come to Earth to save both our planet and his own, but Harris has the difficult job of countering that with believable reactions. She’s our eyes into this sometimes inspired show, and Harris gives the character nuance that so many other actresses would have missed. This is a character who has been underestimated her entire life, and it takes a man falling from space for her to see her own potential. Harris not only nails this backstory but sells some of the broader flights of fancy, centering the show even as it spins out around her.

Oscar Isaac for Moon Knight

Photo: Marvel Studios

Marvel made history last year with several major Emmy nominations for its first series, WandaVision. It probably won’t be as lucky this year, as shows like Hawkeye failed to find the same level of critical success, but there is one solid chance for a Marvel hero to appear on Emmy morning in the form of Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character of Moon Knight with an unpredictable, almost manic energy. Isaac takes on Marc Spector as a man at odds with his own body, someone thrown around the universe when it’s taken over by his alter ego. It’s a very physical, unusual performance, one that doesn’t conform to expectations in the way many MCU acting turns have a tendency to do. Emmy voters have been increasingly embracing genre television with nominations for shows like The Mandalorian and The Boys. Let’s invite Moon Knight to the party.

Samuel L. Jackson for The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray

Photo: Apple TV+

One of the most famous actors in the world has recently been so committed to MCU-level blockbusters that it’s possible some people forgot what a phenomenal dramatic actor Samuel L. Jackson can be with the right material. He reminds everyone in the Apple TV+ adaptation of the novel of the same name by Walter Mosley. Jackson plays Ptolemy Gray, a 91-year-old man with increasingly severe dementia who is given an opportunity to participate in a breakthrough medical trial that will allow him to remember everything he’s ever forgotten … for a limited amount of time. It’s a concept that allows Jackson to play a range from the initial fear of an old man who knows he’s running out of time to the version of Ptolemy who regains everything he’s lost, knowing it will all slip through his fingers again. Jackson sells both the urgency — there’s a crime Ptolemy is trying to solve while he’s mentally able to do so — and the poignancy of a life that we all know will someday drift into forgotten memories.

Janelle James for Abbott Elementary

Photo: ABC

This is the funniest performance on network television right now, and it’s not even close. There are expectations that ABC’s massive surprise hit will show up on Emmy morning in categories such as Best Actress (well deserved for Quinta Brunson) and even Comedy Series, but the ensemble could get pushed out by the Academy’s tendency to nominate everyone from shows like Barry and Ted Lasso. Let’s not let that happen. There are several worthy candidates in this show’s supporting cast — Sheryl Lee Ralph should be a lock, too, and probably will be for season two — but it’s Janelle James who gets the biggest laughs. Every line reading is just a bit left of expectations, finding comedic rhythms in Ava’s hysterical selfishness that are unlike anything else on TV right now. Ava is horrible at her job; James is incredible at hers.

Britt Lower for Severance

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s hit drama built enough buzz over the course of its first season that it seems likely to be on the top of Emmy voter minds and could appear in Best Drama, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Hot take: It deserves a Best Actress nod too. From the minute Britt Lower’s Helly appears on the conference table in the series premiere, viewers are locked into this performance. She’s the audience surrogate, the person who needs everything explained to them and wants to escape this terrifying vision of the future. As Helly fights against her situation, Lower never resorts to overplaying her character’s panic and confusion. She’s consistently relatable, which makes her journey through the first season to that stunning finale the backbone of everything else that happens on this show. We love Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken as much as anyone, but Lower is the underrated MVP.

Michael Mando for Better Call Saul 

Photo: Sony Pictures Television & AMC

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s masterful drama has never gotten the level of Emmy recognition it deserves, and we’ve historically spotlighted the amazing Rhea Seehorn on this list because, well, never mind being nominated, she should actually win. That’s true again this year, but there are other performers from this incredible ensemble who deserve a supporting nod, too, including the mesmerizing Tony Dalton and Michael Mando, who played one of the most complex characters on the show, Nacho Varga. In the first half of the final season, Mando had his best episode in “Rock and a Hard Place,” in which Nacho makes his final decision in order to save his father’s life. Mando has never been a showy performer, grounding a character who could have been the cliché of the drug-cartel enforcer and making him seem genuinely conflicted and human. It’s the Academy’s last chance to recognize him for the consistent work he’s done since the very beginning.

Edi Patterson for The Righteous Gemstones

Photo: Ryan Green/HBO

HBO’s comedy hit took a cultural leap forward in its second season, getting some of the strongest buzz of anything in early 2022. It’s an ensemble piece, which can make it tough to pick out an acting nomination, but there’s a clear standout this year: Edi Patterson as the deranged Judy Gemstone, a middle child who’s constantly scratching and clawing for her place in the legacy of her famous family. In the second season, Patterson found new levels of comedic insanity in Judy, particularly in the way she treats her husband, BJ (Tim Baltz), and in her unique ability to be both hysterical and terrifying in the same line reading. She’ll make you laugh and hope you never meet Judy Gemstone in the same breath.

Wyatt Russell for Under the Banner of Heaven

Photo: Michelle Faye/FX

When are people going to start taking Wyatt Russell seriously? He was so memorable on Lodge 49, and he delivers in every unsettling scene of FX on Hulu’s limited-series adaptation of the Jon Krakauer novel about a grisly murder set against a backdrop of Mormon faith. Star Andrew Garfield is likely to get a deserved nomination, and the series is favored in the overall category, but Russell should be there, too. As Dan Lafferty, one of the psychopathic middle sons of a respected family in the LDS Church, Russell is mesmerizing, capturing how dangerous people, especially men, can be when they’re given power they’re not really capable of wielding.

Sadie Sink for Stranger Things

Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s biggest show finally returned in May 2022 with the first seven episodes of its supersized fourth season, and everyone knows who the standout was this year: Kate Bush! Well, an actress who helped propel the unexpected return of the ’80s chanteuse. Sadie Sink’s Max carries the season’s pivotal fourth episode, one of the best in the history of the show, as she gets sucked into the universe of this series’s Freddy Krueger. Sink conveys a young woman’s fight against her own trauma in a way that doesn’t succumb to melodrama, making her emotional journey to freedom so much more powerful than it would’ve been in the hands of a lesser performer. She’s a future star. Let’s start that future with an Emmy nomination.

Sydney Sweeney for Euphoria

Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO

Zendaya won the Emmy for the first season of Euphoria and could deservedly repeat that feat for year two. However, she should have company in the acting categories this year with maybe Maude Apatow and definitely Sydney Sweeney, who found fascinating levels of emotional instability in Cassie Howard’s complete collapse. Betraying her BFF, Maddy (Alexa Demie), with Nate (Jacob Elordi) sent Cassie down a road to what could really be called a mental unraveling, and Sweeney sells every overheated emotion. This is one of the broadest, most intense performances on television, and Sweeney makes it feel real, turning it up to 11 and reminding us that this is what emotions are like for teenagers, people who think every conflict is life-changing because, at that age, they are.

Youn Yuh-jung for Pachinko

Photo: Apple TV+

The 2021 Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress for Minari is the beating heart of the gorgeous drama Pachinko. Created by Soo Hugh and directed by the masterful Kogonada (After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou), this is the multigenerational story of a Korean family anchored by Youn’s Sunja, whose grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) returns to his home country of Japan to negotiate a land deal. It’s a complex story, beautifully told, and Youn holds it together with a performance that feels completely lived in and genuine. We can feel the history Sunja carries with her in every scene, making the flashbacks all the more powerful.

14 Emmy-Worthy Performances That Shouldn’t Be Overlooked