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This Year’s Most and Least Exciting 2018 Emmy Races

Not all categories are created equal.
By  · Published on July 23rd, 2018

As far as award shows go, the Primetime Emmys are a bit of a puzzle. They hold a special place in my heart as the only major American award show to recognize excellence in television. They also do ill-advised things like overload viewers with “in memoriam” segments, give boatloads of awards to The Big Bang Theory, and hire SNL‘s Michael Che and Colin Jost to host in 2018. Plus, the show fills an odd time on the calendar, marking either the very late end of one award season or the early beginning of the next depending on who you ask.

In the past years, the Emmys seem to have gotten even stranger. Categories like “limited series,” which once felt bloated and unnecessary, are now prestigious and exciting, encompassing everything from sequels to miniseries to anthologies. Meanwhile, major categories have been shaken up over the blurring of genre lines–if Atlanta’s psychological horror episode “Teddy Perkins” wins an award in the comedy category this year, it might be the most depressing piece of art to ever be called comedy by the Academy. In these strange times, what can we do besides what we’ve always done when it comes to award shows? Judge them. Below, check out our breakdown on the categories which have the most and least potential to keep us on our toes come September.

MOST EXCITING: Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program

Why should you care about a category that’s so minor its winner won’t be announced on air? Queer Eye, of course. The Netflix life-makeover show has become an international success thanks mostly to its charismatic, obsession-worthy cast. Karamo, Bobby, Jonathan, Tan, and Antoni have quickly become near-household names for their heartwarming hijinks and willingness to find common ground with people who are in many ways their polar opposites. The person who brought these five enthusiastic gay men into our lives deserves an award for all the joy, memes, and guacamole we’ve ended up with. Plus, unlike the main “Unstructured Reality Program” category, which besides Queer Eye is a snoozefest, most of the other entries in this race–including Born this Way and RuPaul’s Drag Race–would make good winners.

MOST and LEAST EXCITING: Outstanding Lead Actor / Actress in a Comedy

These categories are so up and down that they’re giving me whiplash. On the one hand, they’re chock full of deserving performers including Pamela Adlon, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, Ted Danson, Bill Hader, and Donald Glover. Conversely, they still feel overstuffed with Academy favorites and holdovers from past eras. William H. Macy’s character has always been Shameless’ most-loathed and least funny, and the show is flailing in its later seasons. He, like Allison Janney in CBS’ Mom, seems to gain frequent nominations due less to the quality of the show and more to the Academy’s apparently indiscriminate love for his work. Meanwhile, these categories also featured some of the most egregious snubs, including Kristen Bell, Justina Machado, Alison Brie, Rachel Bloom, Zach Galifianakis, and the cast of Will & Grace.

MOST EXCITING: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

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Keri Russell might be the front-runner here for her excellent work in The Americans’ final season, but this category really has no losers. It’s also Tatiana Maslany’s last year of eligibility for Orphan Black, a series for which she played multiple roles, and switched between them convincingly, with apparent ease. Killing Eve has been called that show’s spiritual successor, and Sandra Oh’s nomination is worth celebrating both as deserved recognition for her engrossing performance (and her equally great, under-recognized career), and as the first lead actress Emmy nomination ever given to a woman of Asian heritage. Claire Foy, Elizabeth Moss, and Evan Rachel Wood round out the category: not a weak link among them.

LEAST EXCITING: Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series

A category that is traditionally dominated by drier educational fare, the docuseries race heated up for a few years when addictive longform true crime series Making a Murderer and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst took home the trophies. Unfortunately, this year looks like more of the same old game, with HBO’s Dr. Dre miniseries and Netflix’s Wild Wild Country emerging as the only standouts. More disappointing than what’s included, though, is what’s left out: a whole slew of remarkable, unique programming including Evil Genius, Flint Town, and Bobby Kennedy for President didn’t make the cut. Netflix may have oversaturated its market this year with hundreds of originals of varying quality, but it seems to have a near-monopoly on thrilling documentary series, and that area of expertise isn’t reflected in this year’s race.

MOST EXCITING: Outstanding Lead Actor in Limited Series or Movie

Darren Criss has all the buzz this year for his sensational role in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Still, there’s not a bad apple in this bunch, which also includes Benedict Cumberbatch doing some of his best work in Patrick Melrose and Jesse Plemons’ complicated and creepy loner character in Black Mirror’s excellent “USS Callister.” Plus, if John Legend wins he’ll have himself an EGOT!

LEAST EXCITING: Outstanding Animated Program

This category consistently lacks imagination, and it sometimes feels like voters are only aware of half of what’s out there. While I knew my personal favorite animated program (Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!, naturally) wouldn’t make the cut, the Academy’s continual failure to recognize Bojack Horseman is disheartening. On its surface, the series follows a washed-up celebrity horse, but it also deals carefully and beautifully with a myriad of dark stuff, including depression, addiction, and generational trauma. At any rate, fans are excited that Rick & Morty picked up its first nod, but South Park and The Simpsons are two aging shows which I’d love to see move aside for fresh blood like Bojack or even Nick Kroll-starring Big Mouth.

MOST EXCITING: Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special

This is a category which–not kidding–counts both Twin Peaks: The Return and American Vandal among its nominees. I’m not sure if I’m more confused by the titles’ coexistence within the same sentence or by my complete inability to choose one over the other. While this and a directing nod are the most notable of Lynch and Frost’s nominations for their medium-bending sequel series, this is the only category that recognized Netflix’s inspired mockumentary American Vandal. The rest of the pickings aren’t so slim either, with FX’s Gianni Versace miniseries and Black Mirror’s epic Star Trek-skewering episode among them.

MOST EXCITING: Outstanding Guest Actor / Actress in a Drama Series

The actress category is overflowing with legendary lifetime talents, including Diana Rigg (was her character still alive on this season of Game of Thrones? I guess it’s been awhile), Cicely Tyson, Cherry Jones, and Viola Davis. On the other hand, the guest actor category can be summed up in two words: Ed Kemper. I can’t imagine any other race is more of a shoe-in than this one, which if there’s any justice in the world should see Cameron Britton go home with a trophy for his steamroller performance as the eloquent, horrifying serial killer at the center of Mindhunter’s first season.

MOST EXCITING: Outstanding Main Title Design

GLOW is nominated for its main title sequence when the first episode of its second season is a sweet and empowering love letter to title sequences (and women filmmakers). For this reason alone, I’d do a happy dance if it won.

LEAST EXCITING: Outstanding Reality Competition Program

If I described this category as “a bunch of shows you probably didn’t realize were still on the air, plus RuPaul’s Drag Race,” that would be too kind. I don’t know what I expect from a category that’s only existed for 15 years and given 10 of those awards to The Amazing Race, but somehow it’s still more than what we got.

MOST EXCITING: Everything with Atlanta

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Donald Glover? Check. Zazie Beetz? Check. Bryan Tyree Henry? Check. Katt Williams? Incredibly, check. Hiro Murai for “Teddy Perkins,” perhaps the single best half hour of television so far this year? Check. Expectations for Atlanta were high after its award-winning debut season, and the second season of the Glover brothers’ expansive yet personal series turned out to be a masterpiece of challenging, evocative storytelling. The show snagged 16 nominations, and if the night has to have a category sweep, this should be it.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)