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Emmy nominations are coming up. Voters shouldn't overlook these shows

Star Amber Ruffin from <em>The Amber Ruffin Show.</em>
Heidi Gutman/Peacock
Star Amber Ruffin from The Amber Ruffin Show.

For TV critics, it's never too soon to begin complaining about the Emmy awards. And, as voting for nominations wraps up Monday among TV Academy members, a few issues threaten to hobble the quality of this year's nominees.

The biggest problem, of course, is volume. Thanks to the tremendous number of high-quality TV shows released this year, especially on streaming services, there are more performers and series turning in Emmy-worthy work than ever before. But the structure of the awards haven't kept pace with the changing quality.

Not to get too technical, but the number of nominees in each category is determined by how many submissions they get from eligible TV shows. But for categories where quality has risen more than the quantity of submissions, this means lots more worthy shows are competing for the same limited number of slots – leaving more outstanding series locked out.

Consider the variety sketch series category – where Saturday Night Live always wins, anyway – which will likely get two nomination slots. This is a category which has seen a spike in vibrant new series featuring non-white stars, like The Amber Ruffin Show, Ziwe, Pause With Sam Jay, A Black Lady Sketch Show and That Damn Michael Che. Sure would be nice if more than one of these shows could get the distinction of a nomination alongside shoo-in SNL.

And, of course, with all this volume, it's tough to know how many shows Emmy voters have actually seen. So, to help out, I'm going offer my own suggestions on performers and shows that might not be front-runners, but deserve the honor of a nomination this year. Here's hoping a few TV academy members have open minds and a little space left on their nomination forms.

Best actress in a drama: Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler on <em>Better Call Saul.</em>
Greg Lewis / AMC/Sony Pictures Television
AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul.

It is an inexplicable oversight. For seven years, Seehorn has brought to life the most compelling original character from one of TV's best drama series – itself a spinoff from one of television's best dramas ever.

And she has never been nominated for an Emmy.

Seehorn's take on Kim Wexler, an ace attorney drawn to the rule-breaking shenanigans of her husband and future drug cartel lawyer Jimmy "Saul Goodman" McGill, is the show's beating heart. Wexler's active involvement in her husband's scams – and the childhood experiences which may explain her attraction to his dark side – consistently produce the show's best moments. Emmy voters already know how good the show is: the series has received 39 nominations, including five nods for best drama and recognition for Seehorn's male costars Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks. So it is beyond time: Give this woman her nomination, already.

Best drama series: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Ethan Peck as Mr. Spock.
Marni Grossman / Marni Grossman/Paramount
Marni Grossman/Paramount
Ethan Peck as Mr. Spock.

I know. It's a science fiction series, and they rarely get nominations outside of technical categories. And it's the fourth live-action Trek series for streamer Paramount+ — the latest iteration of a franchise that is more than 50 years old. But Strange New Worlds is also an inventive, progressive, supremely entertaining series which has come closer to mimicking the rollicking spirit of the original series than just about any other version (except maybe Star Trek: Next Generation). Focused on the adventures of the Starship Enterprise before James T. Kirk became its captain, Strange New Worlds gives us modernized origin stories for classic Trek characters like Mr. Spock, Nurse Chapel and Lt. Uhura, balanced with bold new characterizations and stories.

They have turned a villainous species which was once a punchline among fans – the Gorn, played by a guy in a horrible plastic suit on the original series – and reinvented them as terrifying, Alien-style killing machines. They've given us gay and transgender characters presented matter-of-factly and with respect. Best of all, they have somehow managed to create a modern series which also pays homage to the franchise and elevates its history. What other contender for best drama can boast a hat trick like that?

Best actor in a drama: Quincy Isaiah, Winning Time: The Rise of The Lakers Dynasty

Quincy Isaiah as Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Warrick Page / HBO
Quincy Isaiah as Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

This series, focused on the 1980s-era "Showtime" period of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, has gotten lots of deserved criticism for distorting the lives of its well-known subjects to make for better drama. But I hope that doesn't keep Isaiah from getting his flowers for nailing a supremely difficult performance – playing Earvin "Magic" Johnson as he was transitioning from a superstar college athlete to making his mark as a professional in the NBA.

Not only did he have to capture the athletic prowess of one of the game's best, Isaiah also had to play a young star learning that his million-dollar-smile and playing skills didn't necessarily make him a great man. In Winning Time, viewers see Johnson face everything from the racism of basketball fans and the national sports press to his own challenges with womanizing and earning the trust of veteran superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar. This is where Isaiah, in his first major role as an actor, really shines — giving us all a sense of the man struggling behind Johnson's outgoing, charismatic facade.

Supporting actor, limited series: Matthew Goode, The Offer

Matthew Goode as Robert Evans in The Offer.
Sarah Coulter / Sarah Coulter/Paramount+
Sarah Coulter/Paramount+
Matthew Goode as Robert Evans in The Offer.

Voters for the acting categories tend to look down on roles which seem like copycat impressions of famous people (which is why I'll be surprised if O-T Fagbenle gets a nod for his Saturday Night Live-level portrayal of Barack Obama in Showtime's The First Lady). But I'm hoping they make an exception for Goode's version of superstar producer and movie studio head Robert Evans in Paramount+'s limited series about the making of The Godfather. Evans was a legendary character, known for his hard-partying ways, perennial tan, self-centered, old school Hollywood patter and boundless ego.

But he was also a talented studio executive and producer, pushing Paramount Studios-then owner Gulf + Western to make a movie from the bestselling book and fill it with Italian culture to make their Mafia movie feel authentic. Goode, a supremely underrated British actor, nails Evans' bold personality and the brittle insecurities he tried to hide, nearly going off the rails when his marriage with star Ali MacGraw fell apart. For my money, it's the best portrayal of a famous figure in a series that also depicts Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Frank Sinatra.

Best comedy series: Schmigadoon! and This Way Up

I already expect shows like HBO's Barry, FX's Atlanta and ABC's wonderful surprise hit Abbott Elementary to show up among the best comedy series nominees. (Though I have no idea why Disney+ submitted the Marvel superhero series Hawkeye for consideration as a comedy series – except perhaps to imply that centering a TV show on the bow and arrow guy from The Avengers movies was one long joke?)

So that's why I'm devoting a little space to the longest of long shots in this category. Schmigadoon! is AppleTV+'s bizarrely creative series about a backpacking couple who stumble into a town where life is one, long classic musical. It's both a homage and parody of those Golden Age productions, like Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music or Carousel, and the amount of creative chops it took to pull off this show deserves recognition.

Aisling Bea in This Way Up.
Rekha Garton / Channel 4
Channel 4
Aisling Bea in This Way Up.

This Way Up is a brave, sardonic comedy about an Irish woman recovering from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt (played by Irish comic Aisling Bea) and her sometimes overprotective sister (played by Sharon Horgan). Bea writes all the scripts for this series, which aired on British TV and on Hulu as a small, quirky look at one sister working hard to pull herself together, while the other sister is slowly falling apart.

Neither of these shows have much chance of any major nominations, but they are potent examples of the smaller, eccentric productions which can get overlooked when voters have too much to watch and consider.

Best variety sketch series: The Amber Ruffin Show

Heidi Gutman / Peacock

I'm a broken record on this show, which I flagged as worthy of nomination last year, too. Ruffin has done an astonishing job of developing this series on Peacock, with her crew of scrappy producers/writers/performers, while also still serving as a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She's schooled her audience on the "real" meaning of CRT (Caucasian Race Tomfoolery), the ABC's of white privilege (assimilation, band-aids colored pink that are labelled "nude" and colonization), and how TV police dramas are "the most effective and long running ad campaign of all time" for the American police officer.

Aside from her illuminating bits about social issues, Ruffin is funny and charismatic in an offbeat but appealing way — delivering crushing social commentary with the same lilting cadence she deploys in discussing the latest Beyonce single. It's long past time for Ruffin to have a bigger stage, and a deftly-timed Emmy nomination might help do the trick.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.