No disrespect meant to perennial faves, but the increasing predictability of the outstanding acting Emmy nominations has lent the annual awards show a sense of repetition.
Oh, cool, Bryan Cranston. Neat, Claire Danes. Yes, hello again, Dame Maggie Smith.
And while those nominations would definitely be warranted again this year, it’s time to inject a much needed sense of surprise into the Aug. 25 proceedings by honoring these 31 deserving first-time nominees, presented below in alphabetical order:
3. Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black
The fact that Aduba exclusively refers to this character by her given name, Suzanne, and not her disparaging nickname, Crazy Eyes, helps explain why you feel so much empathy for Litchfield’s most unhinged inmate. Which is not to undersell the insanity; in fact, because Aduba created such a three-dimensional human being, watching the character’s unsettling conniption fits becomes a test of the viewer’s emotional endurance. —Jarett Wieselman
4. Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex
Strong, insightful, unexpected, and sexy are adjectives that apply to Lizzy Caplan’s career-redefining performance and to her Masters of Sex character, Virginia Johnson. But perhaps the most significant accomplishment is that Caplan is able to infuse the progressive Johnson with a sense of modernity without making her a forward-thinking character in retrospect. Through her performance, the viewer can sense the impending revolution because it’s never openly winked at. —J.W.
5. Olivia Colman, Broadchurch
Ricocheting between comedy and hard-hitting drama — and proving equally adept at both — Colman is one of the finest actors working today. In Chris Chibnall’s mystery drama Broadchurch, she gives her character, DS Ellie Miller, newly returned to work after having her second child, such intense authenticity and emotion that it seems impossible that Ellie doesn’t exist in real life. (Colman so thoroughly eradicates all evidence that Ellie is a mere fictional character.) Ellie’s anguish as she loses her innocence, as she investigates the murder of her friend’s 11-year-old son, is so incredibly painful to watch that your heart breaks watching her attempt to keep her psyche in one piece. In a show that is brimming with strong performances, it’s Colman’s that remains haunting long after the credits have rolled. Ellie — and Colman — stay with you in the best possible way. —Jace Lacob
6. Hugh Dancy, Hannibal
While Mads Mikkelsen has the showier role (playing a sociopathic cannibal will do that for ya), Dancy was tasked with the grander challenge this season as Will Graham found himself imprisoned for the first stretch of episodes — forcing Dancy to find fresh acting notes while working in the same confined space — and lying through his teeth for much of that time.
As a result, Dancy was required to layer multiple truths into every scene, offering him a unique opportunity to play with perception and the outward manipulation of his scene partners. The result was a decadent blend of mischief and mental instability. —J.W.
7. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, Broad City
Before it even began, Broad City had a high bar set for it: executive-produced by Amy Poehler, and immediately compared to the critically acclaimed Girls. But these brilliant performers rose to the challenge by creating something truly unique and embodying Ilana and Abbi with equal parts gritty realism and high-concept stoner weirdness. They play off each other so well that it’s hard to imagine giving favor to one over the other: They fuse together to form a pair of best friends that are as relatable as they are fucking weird. —Louis Peitzman
8. Joel Kinnaman, The Killing
While Season 2 put a major damper on everyone’s enthusiasm for this once-addictive crime drama, the one thing that hasn’t changed throughout the show’s run is Kinnaman’s hypnotic performance. Season 3 featured a whole new Detective Holder. Clean, responsible, and screaming internally, the actor was a model of duality, seamlessly blending Holder’s desire for change with the duty he now felt to keep up appearances. A truly fascinating portrait of a man on the edge. —J.W.
9. Annet Mahendru, The Americans
The nuanced and provocative performance delivered by Afghan-born Russian-Indian actor Mahendru often needs no translation. On the second season of FX’s Cold War espionage drama The Americans, Mahendru’s triple agent Neena Sergeevna found herself battling against a broken heart (and some broken bones) after numerous betrayals. But Neena is the consummate fighter whose war is anything but cold, and Mahendru imbues her character with both flinty courage and immense fire, the combination of which is enough to set the Rezidentura ablaze. In the process, she all but steals the show out from under her experienced co-stars. —J.L.
10. Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
The most glaring omission from 2013 is now 2014’s most mandatory nomination, as Maslany was once again tasked in Season 2 with differentiating five physically identical clones (including one who is transgender, transitioning from female to male) through nothing but accents and physicality.
But the real success of her performance is that each creation is so distinct, it consistently feels like you’re watching five different actors: an acting accomplishment that actually sells the fundamental conceit of the show, ensuring Orphan Black never feels gimmicky. In short, week in and week out, Maslany easily delivers the most impressive performance currently happening anywhere on television. —J.W.
11. Melissa McBride, The Walking Dead
The zombie apocalypse has affected everyone differently on AMC’s uber-popular drama, but no character has undergone a greater transformation than Carol Peletier, who started as her husband’s meek victim but in the wake of his death, evolved into a woman of strong moral and physical conviction. Her beliefs were tested in the most recent season, when she was forced to make the heartbreaking (but, ultimately correct) decision to murder Lizzie, a young girl who’d been driven to the dark side by their warped world. McBride has flawlessly realized every stage of her character’s progression, and lent them all such a strong sense of necessity that the audience never even contemplated revolting. —J.W.
12. Rory McCann, Game of Thrones
Among the many performances from Game of Thrones’ sprawling ensemble, McCann’s as Ser Sandor “The Hound” Clegane stood the tallest. Like Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), his hostage-cum-pupil in the brutal ways of the world, we were at once repulsed and compelled by the Hound’s weary, pragmatic, and ultimately tragic cynicism. McCann’s best scene: the moment when he recounts the story of how his older brother burned his face and his father let it happen, delivered with perfect, heartbreaking understatement. And yet, when HBO submitted GoT Season 4 performances for Emmy consideration, McCann’s name was inexplicably not on the list. —Adam B. Vary
13. Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
Whether she’s playing straight, gay, male, female, or Bieber, McKinnon — in her second season on SNL — emerged as the show’s most versatile comedienne since Kristen Wiig. Dependably playing stock characters, slaying impersonations, and turning risky bits into recurring hits (who’d have seriously thought hearing the frustrations of Russian citizen Olya Povlatsky would become a consistent laugh-riot?) underscores the fact we’ve only begun to see the depths of her insane brilliance. Or should that be brilliant insanity? —J.W.
14. Wendi McLendon-Covey, The Goldbergs
On paper, Beverly Goldberg is an aggressively overbearing helicopter mom with a borderline-inappropriate infatuation with her children. But the winning McLendon-Covey has filled her colorful creation with so much love, every embarrassing action and obsessive tendency is completely justified — and endlessly endearing — because her heart, like her hair, is simply too big. —J.W.
15. Chris Messina, The Mindy Project
The Aaliyah dance. The red glasses. The ass grab. While it’s easy to single out individual moments of hilarity from the comedy’s second season, what often goes overlooked is how quietly Messina has turned his character into the beating heart of The Mindy Project. Danny’s struggles with love are just as harrowing as Mindy’s, and, yes, OK, Danny ended up dumping Mindy, but Messina’s soulful eyes told you it broke his heart to break hers. So while there’s no doubt Chris Messina landed jokes and slayed choreography, he should actually be celebrated for the sheer amount of heart and emotion with which he infuses the entire show. —J.W.
16. Joe Morton, Scandal
For most of the show’s first two seasons, Kerry Washington was the epicenter of the popular, salacious ABC drama. And no disrespect to the leading lady or her white trench coats, but Season 3 of Scandal gave praise — and excellent monologues — to the veteran actor, who played Olivia’s controlling and manipulative father. Morton took Shakespearean speeches and added his own firm and terrifying flare. He turned chats in the park into captivating scenes and was the villain everyone wanted more of, even as he threatened to topple the order of Olivia’s universe. —Emily Orley
17. Niecy Nash, Getting On
HBO’s hilarious hospital comedy boasted a trio of sublime performances from stars Alex Borstein, Laurie Metcalf, and Niecy Nash, but the Reno 911! alum is the only one yet to score an Emmy (Borstein was twice nominated for Family Guy, and Metcalf won three times for Roseanne). Through the newly reassigned Didi Forchette, Nash not only served as the audience’s wide eyes, but employed an inspired mix of dedication and exasperation, perfectly encapsulated by this scene. —J.W.
18. Jessica Paré, Mad Men
Hew and cry all you want, Megan Draper haters. Some of the best Don Draper moments from the first half of Season 7 revolved around his wife as she strove and struggled to make her career in Los Angeles — and learned to survive, and maybe even thrive, well outside the long shadow of her husband’s judgment and approval. And Paré took them on with zero concern about whether Megan’s actions may come off as selfish — like when she cast out Don’s pregnant “niece.” You may not like Megan, you may think she’s a mess, but in Paré’s hands, you always understood who she was. —A.B.V.
19. Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, Playing House
Acting Emmy nominations obviously cannot be shared, but if the Academy was to ever make an exception, it should be for the absolutely wonderful double act (and real-life best friends) Parham and St. Clair accomplish every week on USA. Elements of improvisation course throughout the comedy (created by the pair), highlighting the enormity of their talents. That rapid-fire back-and-forth not only sells the show’s central friendship but is also responsible for some of the year’s most hilarious — and quotable — conversations. —J.W.
20. Teyonah Parris, Mad Men
It’s taken a long time for Mad Men to turn its attention to its very few black characters — and certainly some of that was by design, as the monied world embodied by the show became itself more aware of the lives that had heretofore been at best on the margins. But when Parris, as quietly adroit SC&P secretary Dawn Chambers, confronted her callous new boss Lou Avery (Allan Havey) after he let slip that her race meant she couldn’t be fired, she commanded the spotlight, revealing an exasperated anger she had kept hidden from the office — and, largely, the audience. But it was Parris’ smile in Joan’s office, as Dawn privately relished her newfound position of power, that is exactly the kind of brilliant, subtle acting that the Emmys should always celebrate. —A.B.V.
21. Hayden Panettiere, Nashville
Is Nashville a great show? No, far from it, in fact. But throughout all the underwhelming storylines and insane soap opera antics, Panettiere has served up a sterling performance as self-sabotaging starlet Juliette Barnes. An infectious concoction of sugar and spice, Panettiere consistently elevates her creation above the rest (yes, that includes the flawless Connie Britton), turning the incredibly polarizing diva into someone you actually want to root for. —J.W.
22. Yara Pilartz, The Returned
SundanceTV’s saga of the mysteriously resurrected featured one of the year’s strongest ensembles, all of whom would be worthy of acting nominations. But it was Pilartz’s performance — as Camille, a 15-year-old who feels developmentally crippled compared with her 19-year-old twin sister, Lena — that resonated the most deeply. Lending her character a sense of maturity well beyond her years allowed Camille’s immature actions to stand in even starker contrast to the undeniable sense of stunted adulthood that permeated the unforgettable performance. —J.W.
23. Andrew Rannells, Girls
The trick to being a successful guest star is recognizing that you have a very limited amount of time to make an impression and maximizing that screen time without becoming a camera hog. No one grasped that balancing act this year better than Rannells, who through Elijah provided some of the year’s best one-liners, caustic put-downs, and dress shorts. In further proof of Rannells’ exceptional contributions to Girls, creator Lena Dunham is bringing him back full-time in Season 4. —J.W.
24. Emmy Rossum, Shameless
First things first, this show has no business in the comedy category — no matter what executive producer John Wells says — since Showtime’s dysfunctional family drama is one of the most powerful, troubling, and difficult shows on television. That said, I won’t knock their hustle in trying to get some long overdue awards show attention because it’s borderline criminal that Rossum’s work has yet to be acknowledged by the Academy.
Luckily this would be a wonderful time to right that wrong, as Fiona Gallagher faced her most crippling endurance tests this season. Tests that Fiona unexpectedly failed — allowing Rossum to do her best and most emotionally raw work to date. —J.W.
25. Timothy Simons, Veep
HBO’s genius political satire requires all of its actors to endure hard knocks with a forced smile, and no character has suffered more than Simons’ Jonah Ryan, the perennial punching bag for Selina Meyers’ staff. And for good reason. As tall as he is annoying, the aggressively incompetent turncoat spent Season 3 flip-flopping with a dizzying frequency, but Simons continued to evoke compassion for his creation by keeping his passion for politics and need for inclusion right at the surface. —J.W.
26. Allison Tolman, Fargo
“Decent” is the word that’s been firmly attached to Tolman’s Deputy Molly Solverson, an cop working a murder case in Bemidji, Minn.; indeed, her fundamental decency is what makes her the moral center of the show. But the character’s nuances play across Tolman’s face — Molly’s tenacity, vexation, and humor show in her minutely wrinkled brow and her darting eyes often more so than in her pointed dialogue, delivered in a Minnesotan singsong. Although the show’s creator claims Fargo isn’t about gender dynamics, Tolman’s performance of the frustrated, persistent policewoman says otherwise. —Ariane Lange
27. Albert Tsai, Trophy Wife
Child actors often come across as precocious line-reciters, not thoughtful performers. But in his first major screen role, the 9-year-old star of ABC’s brilliant but canceled blended family comedy made every joke, aside, and piece of dialogue feel like it organically came straight from Bert’s wonderfully enthusiastic mind. Whether he was screaming for salmon, performing Bertwheels, or crashing after his first taste of coffee, Tsai was the source of the year’s most charming debut performance. —J.W.
28. Christopher Evan Welch, Silicon Valley
Welch didn’t live to see his character, the deliciously eccentric billionaire investor Peter Gregory, appear on screen on HBO’s subversive comedy Silicon Valley, as he died four months before the premiere at age 48. What Welch left behind in Peter Gregory was a breakout performance, a pitch-perfect role as a socially awkward tech genius who bristles, squirms, and shouts his way out of nearly every encounter. Welch so ably inhabits this commanding role that much of Silicon Valley exists within his shadow. This is a virtuoso performance that goes beyond mere comedy — he captures the energy, vitality, passion, and oddness of an angel investor. Capital in every way. —J.L.
29. Jeremy Allen White, Shameless
Since the pilot, Rossum’s Fiona and White’s Phillip — better known as Lip — have worked in tandem, a brother/sister act of perfectly choreographed spontaneity. So in a season that brought Fiona to her knees, it’s no surprise that Lip finally stood on his own two feet. Taking control of the Gallagher clan was a good look on White as his brilliant delinquent juggled school and familial responsibilities while never losing that endlessly appealing edge. —J.W.
30. Mae Whitman, Parenthood
Long the best crier in Hollywood, Whitman put her tear ducts through the wringer last season as Amber — the self-assured character she’s taken on a stunning five-year journey of self-discovery — was forced to deal with a smattering of emotional setbacks. Beginning with the dissolution of her engagement to Ryan (Matt Lauria) and ending with, as a direct result of their split, her soldier ex returning to war where he was gravely injured. What made Whitman Parenthood’s most valuable player in Season 5 was her enduring ability to express a seemingly bottomless reservoir of emotions — both happy, sad, and stoned — without a visible trace of effort. —J.W.
31. Bellamy Young, Scandal
Shonda Rhimes’ political soap opera is designed so that viewers champion the illicit affair between Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the show’s protagonist, and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), her soulmate. That leaves Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), Fitz’s wife and first lady, out in the cold.
But over the last three seasons, audiences have warmed to Mellie, thanks to the cunning combination of character-expanding writing and Young’s deeply sympathetic performance. Season 3 offered audiences the biggest reason to sympathize with Mellie yet — she was raped by her father-in-law years ago and secretly suffered under the fear her eldest son was fathered as a result of this horrific act — and Young dazzled by bringing the difficult storyline to life. It takes an actor of enormous talents to transform a villain into a hero, but Young has proven to be woman enough for the job. —J.W.