On the eve of the announcement of this year's Emmy nominees, we offer last-minute suggestions for best actors, shows, writing and more.
Here’s what we know about the Emmy nominations, which the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will announce on Thursday morning: Katherine Heigl will assuredly not be nominated. We also know — thanks to an early short-list announcement from the Academy — which shows are officially in contention for outstanding comedy and drama series mentions.
Another sure thing: We’re bound to be disappointed when some deserving soul — an actor or show that earns our love week after week — gets overlooked. And so Salon’s staff has compiled a list of people we’re hoping to see get congratulatory wake-up calls from their agents later this week. From our lips, to Emmy’s ears …
Tracy Morgan, NBC’s “30 Rock” (Supporting actor in a comedy series)
Tracy Morgan is an actor/comedian with a history of DUI arrests, accusations of bad behavior with women, and all-around erratic choices. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to dismiss his performance on “30 Rock” as Tracy Jordan, a Hollywood actor/comedian with all the stability of a box of plutonium. Yet in much the same way his character energizes “TGS,” “30 Rock’s” late-night show within the show, Morgan brings something indispensable to the “30 Rock” mix. He tempers Alec Baldwin’s corporate menace and Tina Fey’s mustard-stained snark with utterly convincing outrageousness. It takes a talented performer to create a character who had a novelty hit with “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” a guy who would prefer to cut off his foot rather than wear an alcohol monitoring device. His “straight-up mentally ill” Jordan is the id of the show, an appealingly overmedicated, porn-loving, dog-fighting conspiracy theorist. And nothing made me laugh harder this season than Morgan’s tossed-off observation that “My genius has come alive, like toys when you turn your back.” He could have mugged it. He could have oversold it. But Morgan said it with the confidence of one who might really believe it. And for a giddy split second, I did too. Give that man a prize.
– Mary Elizabeth Williams
“Flight of the Conchords” on HBO (Outstanding comedy series)
If there is a point at which underplaying ceases to pay dividends, “Flight of the Conchords” has yet to reach it and may never. New Zealand musical comics Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are so low-key they make Bob Newhart look manic and emotive, but the sustained dance of deadpan in which they engage is relieved by brilliant gusts of Dennis Potter-style musical fantasy, as the Conchords parody everyone from David Bowie to the Pet Shop Boys to Barry White (the hilarious “Business Time”). This fish-out-of-water show celebrates failure in all its infinite variety, without once being heartless. And speaking of heart, how about some Emmy love for Rhys Darby, as a deeply inadequate band manager, and Kristen Schaal as Mel, the obsessive fan who enlists her own husband as a stalking accomplice?
– Louis Bayard
Jon Hamm, AMC’s “Mad Men” (Lead actor in a drama series)
If Jon Hamm doesn’t get nominated for his transfixing turn as ’60s ad executive Don Draper of the AMC drama “Mad Men,” then the gods must be crazy. While it’s easy enough to get behind such likely nominees as James Spader, Hugh Laurie or Denis Leary, all of whom play larger-than-life characters prone to bouts of anger and moments of profound longing punctuated by a colorful assortment of psychotic tics, Hamm has a far more difficult challenge on his plate: Let the viewer follow the ebb and flow of this understated, repressed, vaguely dissatisfied family man’s emotional tides. But somehow Hamm never hits a false note, never tries to pander by making Draper too likable or slick, never falls into growling macho territory. Don Draper is intimidating, haunted and complicated in ways that are unfamiliar to us, and it’s impossible to imagine any other actor pulling off that tightrope walk the way Jon Hamm does.
– Heather Havrilesky
Elizabeth Perkins, Showtime’s “Weeds” (Supporting actress in a comedy series)
Elizabeth Perkins has the toughest job on “Weeds.” On the show, Perkins plays Celia, Nancy Botwin’s (Mary-Louise Parker) neighborly frenemy. Her character is a drunk, a racist and a hypocritical puritan, but Perkins manages to humanize her, and even to make her strangely likable. When Celia taunts her daughter, calling her fat and ugly, we cringe not only because she’s a terrible mother, but because Perkins gives her an aura of delirious and teetering vulnerability.
This past season, Celia has been less of a presence on the show than in past years, but her scenes, as always, have included many of its most memorable bits. One of its story lines involved her budding romance with a sleazy land developer (Matthew Modine), and the scene in which she unveils her cancer-scarred body to him, petrified of rejection, provided the show with a rare tender moment. When she later discovers her lover screwing Nancy on his office desk, the look of hatred and self-disgust on Celia’s face should break even the coldest Emmy voter’s heart.
– Thomas Rogers
“The Wire” on HBO (Outstanding drama series; writing for a drama series)
While “Sopranos” creator David Chase could fill his recycling bin with gold statuettes, “The Wire” has been nominated for exactly one Emmy, in 2005, for writing. (The show lost, to a miniseries about Peter Sellers.) That outsider status has been perfectly fitting for a show that was, after all, filmed in Baltimore and trafficked in none of the hour-long drama clichés so popular during its run. Cases weren’t solved. Good guys died. And justice was a dish served cold, if ever. Created by David Simon, a former journalist, and Ed Burns, a former homicide detective, “The Wire” had the feel of a deeply reported documentary. Add to that the imaginative talents of top-notch crime fiction writers — Dennis Lehane, George P. Pelecanos, Richard Price — and you have nothing less than one of the best series ever written for television. Season 5 was not the strongest — Simon, wrestling with ghosts, sometimes seemed myopic (or agenda’d) in his Baltimore Sun story line. (We should debate about the best season sometime, actually; I can see the argument for Season 4, but I’ll choose Season 1, a narrative that’s as streamlined as a luxury jet.) But even a bit off its game, “The Wire” dared to sustain a multicharacter melodrama of operatic proportions, taking the America we do not want to see and turning it into a show we could not miss.
– Sarah Hepola
Ed Westwick, the CW’s “Gossip Girl” (Supporting actor in a drama series)
It isn’t that “Gossip Girl’s” Ed Westwick is a particularly subtle or insightful actor. What he’s got going for him is pure charisma — and star-quality glamour, especially of the male variety, can be pretty rare on prime-time television. As spoiled, depraved Chuck Bass, Westwick oozes entitlement and machismo, but his full lips and David Bowie cheekbones also suggest a sort of androgynous, feline quality that he plays up to highlight the character’s manipulative petulance. Earlier this year, Salon’s Thomas Rogers compared Michelle Trachtenburg’s recurring role on the show to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s part in “Cruel Intentions.” Westwick’s Chuck Bass certainly takes a page from Ryan Phillippe’s character in the same film; but while Trachtenburg pales in comparison to Gellar, Westwick runs circles around the insufficiently sexy, insufficiently dangerous Phillippe. Chuck Bass is a teenage girl’s dream date and worst nightmare rolled into one — the kind of utterly debauched, upper-class bad boy who has a different girl (or two) in his hotel suite every night and presides over his very own trendy burlesque club. And while he’s more often villain than hero, he’s also the kind of bad guy you root for in spite of yourself, all the while chanting his simple-but-perfect catchphrase, “I’m Chuck Bass.”
– Judy Berman
“Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List” on Bravo (Outstanding reality program)
How did a show about a foul-mouthed comedian become one of the most wholesome reality shows on TV? In a genre that has become obsessed with creating and celebrating useless celebrity and family dysfunction, “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List” is a rare show that admits that show business success doesn’t come easy and that family and friends still matter. “My Life,” which follows Griffin from embarrassing gig to embarrassing gig (accompanied by her trio of cheerful assistants), highlights, for once, the hard labor that goes into being a media personality, and, no mean feat, it manages to do so while being dang entertaining.
Admittedly, your appreciation for “My Life on the D List” probably depends on your fondness for Griffin’s sense of humor — which tends toward the snarky and, er, gay — but, unlike most of its competitors, the show comes off as effortlessly breezy, unformulaic and, at times, heartfelt. At the end of last season, Griffin was forced to cope with the death of her father, and, since then, her interactions with her mother (who is, hilariously, never without a glass of wine) have been genuinely touching. “My Life on the D List” cements Griffin’s status as one of television’s most consummate professionals.
Mary McDonnell, Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” (Lead actress in a drama series)
One of the reasons “Battlestar Galactica” is so unlike most other science fiction shows on television is that, despite their high-tech gadgetry, “Battlestar’s” characters act like real people. In the past few seasons of the show, as Laura Roslin, the on-and-off-again president of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, Mary McDonnell has been faced with some pretty outrageous situations. Roslin has nearly been killed by a team of robot executioners and has had her breast cancer cured by the blood of a robot-human hybrid child, but, throughout it all, McDonnell’s performance has been so genuine and convincing that it transcends its fantastic environment and approaches the sublime.
McDonnell’s president is a reluctant leader, filled with self-doubt and struggling to reconcile her humane liberalism with the ruthless demands of her job. Although Roslin hides her private terror behind a professional facade, it often comes close to falling apart. Those moments showcase McDonnell’s talents and go to the core of what makes “Battlestar” such tremendous television — in a show about the psychic cost of politics and war, its leader bears the heaviest burden. This year, the president’s health has dwindled just as, conversely, her decisions have grown more brutal and pragmatic, and she has been forced to grapple with the moral costs of her transformation. The fourth season included a loaded choice: Would Roslin allow her injured nemesis, Gaius Baltar, to bleed to death on a Cylon spaceship or replace his bandages and let him live? Her eventual decision, to save Baltar, seems to have redeemed her character, but, as always on “Battlestar Galactica,” things are more complicated than they seem. Here’s hoping Emmy voters get over their skittishness about science fiction and reward Mary McDonnell for one of the best performances television has seen in a long time.
“The First 48″ on A&E (Outstanding reality program)
The “CSI” franchise is as much “Star Trek” as it is “Law and Order.” Not just because, as legions have noted, David Caruso’s weird, mannered, self-adoring portrayal of Lt. Horatio Caine owes everything to William Shatner. It’s because all three “CSI” shows might as well be taking place on the bridge of the Enterprise, in a galaxy far, far away from the world of real police work. “CSI’s” forensic magicians solve crimes with science, in 44 minutes plus commercials, and they speak jargon as meaningless to actual homicide cops as “Star Trek’s” fake-scientific babble about holodecks and dilithium crystals.
“The First 48,” however, captures the grind, and the allure, of actual crime-solving. Homicide detectives in Miami, Detroit, Kansas City, Phoenix and other cities catch murder cases, none of them glamorous, all of them full of pathos and narrative. They look for fingerprints and blood spatter, but by and large their job is talking to people — people who don’t want to be found, and people who don’t want to talk. The cops pound the pavement, knock on doors, eat crappy food and miss their kids. They work obsessively for the first 48 hours after the crime before the perps and the evidence and the witnesses melt away. They sit for hours in interview rooms with scared, sullen, uncooperative and dishonest people, and try to figure out who’s lying. In each episode, you get the real, street-level flavor of a city like Miami, far from both South Beach and the gleaming fictions of “CSI,” with tired, paunchy, cafecito-sipping cops picking up shell casings near Calle Ocho, or in the gritty housing project known as the Pork and Beans.
You also get two things missing from nearly all TV cop shows, not just “CSI.” You get story lines with non-white victims, non-white perps, and non-white cops. And as often as not, you don’t get “closure.” Sometimes the cops can’t figure out whodunit. Sometimes they know but can’t make it stick. But when they do make it stick, and a couple of cops in Dockers and cheap haircuts give each other a high-five right before the closing credits, it’s a lot more satisfying than a Horatio Caine one-liner.
– Mark Schone
Justin Kirk, Showtime’s “Weeds” (Supporting actor in a comedy series)
In the hands of a lesser actor, Andy Botwin might have become a disappointingly one-dimensional character. Though his early misadventures — getting his toes bitten off by a dog, courting an Israeli woman with a penchant for kink — made for great comic relief, the story lines didn’t offer Justin Kirk, who contributed a stunning performance to HBO’s “Angels in America,” the chance to exercise the full range of his capabilities. But in “Weeds’” third season, as Nancy (Mary Louise Parker) spiraled ever further into the realm of criminal irresponsibility and parental apathy, Uncle Andy became the (deeply flawed) father figure the Botwin kids desperately need. The new season has brought fresh conflict, as Andy encounters his estranged father (Albert Brooks) for the first time in years. Kirk and Brooks play beautifully off of each other. Father and son are both schemers with troubled pasts, and each sees in the other a mirror of his own aimlessness and dissatisfaction. Some of the credit for Andy’s evolution certainly belongs to “Weeds’” writers, but it’s Kirk who has seized the opportunity to transform him from goofy cartoon character into flesh-and-blood human, and a likable one at that. Most impressive of all, he does it without ever compromising Andy’s indispensable sense of mischief and fun.
Vincent D’Onofrio, NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (Lead actor in a drama series)
Most actors in procedural shows begin to resemble the civil servants they portray. They show up, hit their marks, clean off their desks and head home. Vincent D’Onofrio is one of the few to suggest that what’s going on in his head is as interesting as what’s inside the chalk outlines. As detective Robert Goren, he takes a clichéd conception — the quirky detective-genius who makes connections no one else can — and invests it with a dark and private meaning. D’Onofrio’s mannerisms can be off-putting at first, but he’s unafraid to be genuinely strange, and when the emotional stakes deepen — a rarity for a Dick Wolf show — D’Onofrio always comes up with the goods. (His scenes with Rita Moreno, as his dying mom, were particularly impressive.) No arresting officer is more arresting to watch.
Holly Hunter, TNT’s “Saving Grace” (Lead actress in a drama series)
If you’ve ever seen an episode of TNT’s “Saving Grace,” you’ll know why Holly Hunter deserves to be nominated for her role as Grace Hanadarko, the Oklahoma City detective with a haunted past and a reluctant guardian angel on her side. Hunter may have charmed us in other roles, but in this one, she’s firing on all pistons like never before. No matter how hackneyed or melodramatic some of the scenes would be with any other actress in the driver’s seat, Hunter manages to make them feel genuine and weighty. Whether she’s being carried around in a red cape by her cheering fellow detectives after nabbing a guy off the FBI Most Wanted list or dancing around in her house in a drunken, jovial mess of limbs and unfocused rage, Grace is effortlessly real and knowable. So many actresses search for that oft-repeated mix of “toughness and vulnerability,” while Hunter transcends such overly simplified notions with a scratchy laugh and a crooked grin and a toss of the head. There’s no way to break down Hunter’s performance, other than by remarking that it never remotely feels like a performance to begin with. You just can’t take your eyes off the woman, and even though you know it can only end badly, you care about her. Hopefully the Academy will, too.
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