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The Emmy Nominations: Breakouts, Snubs, and Surprises

The usual suspects ('Game of Thrones,' 'Veep') are back, but several promising newcomers show that the TV Academy might be learning something

TV fans have traditionally rarely relied on the Emmys to reward excellence in our beloved medium. (The Big Bang Theory, for example, boasts dozens of Emmy nods, including four for Best Comedy.) But the 2016 nominations prove that the TV Academy is getting better as television becomes the best it’s ever been. Here’s evidence that the Emmys are worth paying attention to — because they're finally watching what the rest of us have been watching all along.

The Breakout Hits

As the stodgiest of the three major industry awards (which include the Oscars and the Golden Globes), the Emmys have a deserved reputation for rewarding brand recognition over actual quality. But give the TV Academy some credit for making some effort toward appreciating new shows and all the different ways television is hurtling forward. In their first year, for example, Mr. Robot (USA Network), Master of None (Netflix), and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) received multiple nominations. (Not insignificantly, all three are also projects with significant racial diversity.) And with one of the most astounding and important episodes this year (about keeping hope alive in the face of police brutality and racial injustice), Black-ish (ABC) finally joined the Emmy race in its second season.

The Painful Snubs

Though the Emmys recognized more than the usual five nominees in many categories, there are more snubs that sting than we can count. White men swept the late-night talk show category, shutting out Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal (TBS) — arguably the best of the bunch. Other brilliant dark-horse female comedians who were shut out of their admittedly crowded category are Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW), Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat (ABC), and Maria Bamford of Lady Dynamite (Netflix). And as glad as we are to see Constance Zimmer’s name among the dramatic actress nominees, surely Shiri Appleby of UnREAL (Lifetime) belonged there too. But perhaps the most surprising of the snubs is that of HBO’s desegregation miniseries Show Me a Hero, which featured an incredible performance from Oscar Isaac.

The Good Surprises

Zimmer wasn’t the only bafflingly good TV vet to get her due at last. Ryan Murphy should get a pair of fruit baskets from Sarah Paulson, who’s been nominated this year for her work on both The People v. O.J. (FX) and American Horror Story: Hotel (FX). Recognized for three separate projects is Laurie Metcalf for HBO’s dearly departed Getting On and Louis C.K.’s Horace & Pete, as well as for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series (The Big Bang Theory). Ellie Kemper received her first Emmy nod for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), though her co-star, five-time nominee Jane Krakowski (seven if you count her daytime work), was ignored this year. (The Native American controversy probably didn’t help.) With two hit sitcoms now under her belt, Tracee Ellis Ross joins fellow nominee Niecy Nash from Getting On among the women of color who have had opportunities to shine at the Emmys, which culminated in Viola Davis’s historic win last year. (Speaking of the triumphs of black women, how 'bout that directing nod for Queen Bey for Lemonade?) After championing the low-rated The Americans for so long, FX must be gratified that the show is finally up for the trophies it has long deserved, including those for Best Drama, actress Keri Russell, and actor Matthew Rhys. That Louie Anderson was also nominated for playing Zach Galifianakis’s sublimely passive-aggressive mother on Baskets is an extra feather in FX’s cap today.

The Bad Surprises

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black wasn’t snubbed, per se — it did get one measly nomination for casting — but the fact that it was apparently set aside by Emmy voters for its thoroughly enjoyable third season boggles the mind, especially when the objectively terrible House of Cards scored 13 (!) freaking nods. And though it feels mean to single out ensemble players, come on: Nominees Kit Harington (Game of Thrones; HBO), Michael Kelly (House of Cards), and Cuba Gooding Jr. (The People v. O.J. Simpson) are clearly the worst parts of their casts.

The Big Holdovers

Overall, though, the Emmys are still the Emmys, with many of last year’s nominees continuing their reigns from last year. The 2015 drama and comedy winners — Game of Thrones and Veep, respectively — added a significant number of nods to HBO’s 2016 awards tally, even if the premium cable network’s nominations tumbled significantly from 126 nominations last year to 94 this year. Taking up space in nomination purgatory — where they won’t win but they can’t skip the ceremony on September 18 — are House of Cards, Modern Family (ABC), Downton Abbey (PBS), Homeland (Showtime), and the immortal Simpsons (Fox). Perhaps we can add to this list the excellent Better Call Saul (AMC), which enjoys Breaking Bad’s imprimatur but not its mass renown, and Fargo (FX) and American Crime (ABC), whose marketing teams seem to have figured out that anthology shows are the new Emmy bait, for nominations at least. As long as television retains its inferiority complex vis-à-vis film and stays dazzled by any movie star that deigns to appear on the "small screen" for a season at a time, the Emmys will continue throwing trophies at them.