The better TV gets, the harder things get for Emmy voters. And looking back at it, this has been a good year for television, with more than enough Emmy contenders to confound anyone perusing the electronic ballots that have been showing up on eligible voters' computers. Just reading through the names is effort enough, let alone winnowing them down. Which is where we come in, with a handy, ideal-ballot guide to which people and what shows voters should nominate. (The nominees will be announced on July 19, the awards presented Sept. 23.) What could be simpler?
Best drama: Breaking Bad (AMC); Downton Abbey (PBS); Game of Thrones (HBO); The Good Wife (CBS); Homeland (Showtime); Mad Men (AMC)
With the return of Breaking Bad and the move of Downton Abbey from mini- to maxi-series category, this has become an incredibly competitive field. Even so, Bad, Abbey and of course Mad Men count as must-haves, joined by The Good Wife as broadcast's dramatic standard-bearer and Homeland as the season's best new drama.
Alas, that leaves just one open spot. In terms of personal affection, I'd lean toward Justified (FX) (which could be a great substitute for Downton if voters are unhappy with the category bait-and-switch), True Blood (HBO), Rescue Me (FX), The Walking Dead (AMC) or Fringe (Fox). But in Emmy's universe, the pull of Game is likely to be irresistible. And in terms of scope and ambition, it really is hard to deny the show its place.
Best comedy: The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Community (NBC); Louie (FX); Girls (HBO); The Middle (ABC); Modern Family (ABC)
Last year, voters spent three of these precious spots on NBC Thursday comedies —The Office, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock— and still managed to miss the one show in that lineup that most deserved the nod, Community. Let's fix that this time around. And while you're correcting errors, the time has come to stop ignoring The Middle, a far funnier and truer portrait of the Midwest than Parks could ever hope to be, and to take note of the sheer invention going on over at Louie.
Big Bang is irreplaceable and Modern Family is a given — indeed, as TV's best comedy, Family's only chance of losing in September is if voter fatigue sets in. Girls merits the last spot on the list, but if you promise to nominate star and creator Lena Dunham in the acting category, you can substitute House of Lies, Cougar Town, Wilfred or, if nostalgia compels, 30 Rock.
Actor, comedy: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock (NBC); Joel McHale, Community (NBC); Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Louis C.K., Louie (FX); Don Cheadle, House of Lies (Showtime); Neil Flynn, The Middle (ABC)
It's hard to imagine Parsons, Baldwin and Louis C.K. not repeating their nominations from last year, just as it's almost impossible to imagine Cheadle not joining them for his barn-burning performance in Lies. As for the other spots, it's probably unfair to bump Bang's Johnny Galecki out of contention, but it's even more unfair to bypass Flynn and McHale, both of whom are overdue for recognition. If you crave an alternative — or if you think Baldwin has been nominated often enough — turn back to Galecki or consider Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope), Billy Gardell (Mike & Molly) or Elijah Wood (Wilfred).
Actress, comedy: Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie (Showtime); Patricia Heaton, The Middle (ABC); Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (HBO); Zooey Deschanel, New Girl (Fox); Lena Dunham, Girls (HBO); Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly (CBS)
It often pays to keep in mind that you're voting for the performances here, not the shows. New Girl, Girls, Mike & Molly and, most especially, Veep, all have their weaknesses and their detractors — but their stars don't and shouldn't.
That also means that you're voting for performances, not performers, meaning that Heaton's political opinions and social-media stumbles should not stop you from recognizing one of TV's best comic turns. I'd give the last slot to Falco, but as she already has won a well-deserved Emmy for this show, I'd be content to see it go to Enlightened's Laura Dern, Cougar Town's Courteney Cox, Raising Hope's Martha Plimpton, Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler or Don't Trust the B's Krysten Ritter, who'd be a particularly fun outlier choice.
Actor, drama: Jon Hamm, Mad Men (AMC); Damian Lewis, Homeland (Showtime); Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad (AMC); Timothy Olyphant, Justified (FX); Denis Leary, Rescue Me (FX); Kiefer Sutherland, Touch (Fox)
Let's be realistic. As deserving as he may be, Leary is unlikely to be nominated; the show has been too long out of sight to be in Emmy mind. And Sutherland's chances will depend on whether voters decide to reward him for being the best thing about a bad show, or punish him for being in a show that's too bad to have "Emmy nominated" attached to its credits.
Without them, where should voters turn? Consider Kelsey Grammer (Boss), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Michael Emerson (Person of Interest), Michael C. Hall (Dexter) or Hugh Laurie (House).
Actress, drama: Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife (CBS); Claire Danes, Homeland (Showtime); Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men (AMC); Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey (PBS); Emily VanCamp, Revenge (ABC); Elizabeth McGovern, Downton Abbey
No Emmy ballot is ever going to please everyone, and no matter what voters do, critics are bound to quibble with one choice or another. But here's one thing that's guaranteed to make any sensible TV viewer scream: Leave Damian Lewis off of the actors' list or Claire Danes off of this one. No two performances are more essential if the Emmys wish to be taken seriously this season.
Moss and Margulies should be locks here, as well, but beyond that, the choices become hazier. Some may feel Downton Abbey should have stayed in the miniseries category (just as some felt it should have been considered a series last year). Some may feel VanCamp is too young or her show is too slight. And some may feel the need to vote for SVU's Mariska Hargitay, because they always do. Those voters feeling otherwise can consider Kathy Bates (Harry's Law), Glenn Close (Damages), Anna Paquin (True Blood) or Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer).
Supporting actor, drama: Alan Cumming, The Good Wife (CBS); Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones (HBO); Walton Goggins, Justified (FX); Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad (AMC); Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men (AMC); Alexander Skarsgard, True Blood (HBO)
Talk about your nearly impossible choices. As easy as it is to defend this list, it would be equally easy to defend one assembled from John Noble (Fringe), Neal McDonough (Justified), John Slattery (Mad Men), Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age), Billy Campbell (The Killing) and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad). And we haven't even mentioned Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time), Josh Charles (The Good Wife), Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) or John Scurti (Rescue Me).
Still, choices must be made, and the original choices offer a wide range of admirable performances. That includes the incredibly adept and amusing dual-personality turn from Skarsgard, even though he's unlikely to be nominated because voters up to now have shown virtually no interest in True Blood.
Supporting actress, drama: Christine Baranski, The Good Wife (CBS); Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (AMC); Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey (PBS); Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad (AMC); Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy (ABC); Rutina Wesley, True Blood (HBO)
Few supporting actors this season had more Emmy-friendly showcase seasons than Baranski, Hendricks, Oh and Gunn — and how could anyone imagine not nominating Smith?
Which leaves Wesley, whose work was as flashy and fine as any of the other contenders, but who (like Blood's Fiona Shaw and Kristen Bauer van Straten) is laboring in a show Emmy voters just don't seem to love. Odds are good her spot will go to Smash's Anjelica Huston, a perfectly wonderful substitute, but voters may also consider The Good Wife's Archie Panjabi, Grey's Chandra Wilson, Homeland's Morena Baccarin or Boardwalk Empire's Kelly Macdonald.
Supporting actor, comedy: Ty Burrell, Modern Family (ABC); Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family; Ed O'Neill, Modern Family; Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family; Max Greenfield, New Girl (Fox), Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Here's the big question in the comedy supporting categories: Can Modern Family's adults repeat last year's six-for-six nomination sweep? There's no doubt they could, and there should be few complaints if they do: You won't find better actors anywhere. And if they do, and only two slots remain in the male supporting actor list, give one to Greenfield for turning his Schmidt from what could have been a stock jerk into one of the year's best and most endearing new characters. And give the second to Helberg in recognition that he'd already done the same for Howard on Big Bang.
And if voters think that, good as Family may be, it doesn't deserve to take up that much Emmy room? Then look at Glee's Chris Colfer, Wilfred's Jason Gann, Cougar Town's Ian Gomez, How I Met Your Mother's Neil Patrick Harris, The Middle's Atticus Shaffer or Community's Danny Pudi and Donald Glover.
Supporting actress, comedy: Eden Sher, The Middle (ABC); Julie Bowen, Modern Family (ABC); Sofia Vergara, Modern Family; Kristin Chenoweth, GCB (ABC); Kristen Bell, House of Lies (Showtime); Yvette Nicole Brown, Community (NBC)
Come on, people: Eden Sher. Week after week, she works a little comic miracle on The Middle, creating an eternally, hilariously optimistic teenage outsider who is uniquely odd and yet somehow universal. And yet each year, Emmy voters ignore her.
Tell me you're not going to make that mistake again.
Movie or miniseries: Sherlock (PBS); Game Change (HBO); Hatfields & McCoys (History); American Horror Story (FX); Hemingway & Gellhorn (HBO); Luther (BBC America)
Here's a truth that applies across the movie and miniseries categories. Outside of Hatfields & McCoys, viewers won't care, because that's the only one sizable numbers of them saw. And outside of Sherlock, Luther and Game Change, I don't much care, either. Anyone and anything else is pretty much just filling the spaces.
Movie/miniseries actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock (PBS); Idris Elba, Luther (BBC America); Woody Harrelson, Game Change (HBO); Kevin Costner, Hatfields & McCoys (History); Alan Rickman, The Song of Lunch (PBS)
When the time comes to give the Emmy out, I'll have my fingers crossed for Cumberbatch. But when the nominations are announced, I'll also be rooting for Rickman to slip in for a lovely performance in PBS' strange, generally ignored Song of Lunch.
Movie/miniseries actress: Julianne Moore, Game Change (HBO); Nicole Kidman, Hemingway & Gellhorn (HBO); Emma Thompson, The Song of Lunch (PBS); Leslie Hope, The River (ABC)
Moore and Kidman are probably locks, and Thompson, who deserves a nomination, probably has a good shot at one on name recognition alone — even though odds are most voters didn't see her film.
Hope is an unlikely candidate, but she did give her failed ABC series more emotional weight than anyone might have expected. As for the vacant fifth spot, I'm willing to root for American Horror's Connie Britton because she's such a fine actor, even though it wasn't always clear who seemed more unhappy to be stuck in that house of horrors, the character or the star.
Movie/miniseries, supporting actor: Ed Harris, Game Change (HBO); Martin Freeman, Sherlock (PBS); Denis O'Hare, American Horror Story (FX); Paul Blackthorne, The River (ABC)
Harris will be nominated; Freeman had better be. Beyond that, you're on your own.
Movie/miniseries, supporting actress: Jessica Lange, American Horror Story (FX); Sarah Paulson, Game Change (HBO); Gillian Anderson, Great Expectations (PBS); Frances Conroy, American Horror Story; Lara Pulver, Sherlock (PBS)
From what I can tell, the official Emmy ballot doesn't include Sherlock's Mrs. Hudson, Una "Not Your Housekeeper" Stubbs. More's the pity.