Allison Janney didn't win a major award until she was 40 years old, but once she started, she never stopped. Over the last 22 years, she's won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, multiple SAG Awards, two Tony nominations, and a whopping seven Primetime Emmy Awards off of 15 total nominations, making her one of the Television Academy's favorite actresses.
One of the quirks of that gaudy nomination tally is that each of those 15 nominations came for just three shows: six nominations for playing C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, six nominations for playing Bonnie Plunkett on Mom, and three for her guest-starring role as Margaret Scully on Masters of Sex.
Of course not all nominations are created equal, and even over the course of a single televison show's run, some performances are superior to others, especially when the Emmys require that specific episodes be submitted for consideration. So which were Allison Janney's very best Emmy-nominated TV performances? We've ranked each from 15-1:
In this nomination for the episode titled "Phone Confetti and a Wee Dingle," Janney's character, Bonnie Plunkett, takes her daughter Christy (Anna Faris) on a road trip to Reno to help Christy get over a breakup. En route, Bonnie gets thrown in jail for unpaid parking tickets, and Christy needs to get bail money, which becomes a problem when the ATM she goes to is in the middle of a casino. Janney ends up with some good, bantery scenes in the police station with a cop played by Bill Fagerbakke. But the episode is more of a showcase episode for Faris than it is for Janney, who would end up losing the award to Rachel Brosnahan for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Janney's first Emmy win for Mom came for an episode in the show's debut season titled "Estrogen and a Hearty Breakfast," where Bonnie freaks out after discovering she's beginning to go through menopause. She also has to put up with the conservative parents of her granddaughter's boyfriend, which gives Janney ample material to revel in Bonnie's lasciviousness. She'd end up doing much better work on Mom, but after an eight year break from West Wing, Emmy voters clearly couldn't resist the chance to throw her another trophy.
In what can only be explained as a show of love for Janney and her West Wing character C.J. Cregg, TV Academy members awarded her with an Emmy for one of the show's worst episodes, the gimmicky, dramatically inert "Access." Produced in the show's first season after Aaron Sorkin's departure, we got a faux-Frontline episode about a day in the life of the West Wing's communication director, and at almost every turn, faithfulness to the documentary conceit meant a more awkward and distanced version of the workplace drama we'd come to know. Janney doesn't give a bad performance here, but other than the fact that C.J. is centered in this episode, Janney's win doesn't feel particularly earned.
Janney was nominated for the second year in a row for playing Margaret Scully on the Showtime drama Masters of Sex. In the show's first season, Margaret was married to the Provost of the university, Barton Scully, a closeted homosexual with whom her sex life was nonexistent. In "Parallax," the Season 2 premiere, Margaret and Barton are separated, and he's undergoing shock treatments, which he hopes will make him "normal." Janney is excellent in two big scenes: one where Barton tries to have sex with her and she realizes he's only trying to pretend she's someone else, and another where she and her daughter save Barton from a suicide attempt. It's strong work, even if it pales in comparison to her other two nominations for this series.
The powers that be pushed Janney into the Lead Actress category starting in Mom's fourth season, and she was immediately rewarded with a nomination for the episode "Tush Push and Some Radishes," where Bonnie's birth mother dies (offscreen) and a resentful Bonnie finds out she has a half brother who is Black and also a successful lawyer. Bonnie's abandonment by her birth mother was good Emmy fodder (see below), even if this episode lacks the kind of fireworks that might have helped her best Julia Louis-Dreyfus (just kidding, nobody was going to best Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
After winning three Emmys in the previous two years, Janney lost out this time to Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, though not for lack of firepower in the submitted episode. In "Terrorists and Gingerbread," Bonnie meets her birth mother, the woman who abandoned her, played by Ellen Burstyn. The two powerhouse actresses combine for some incredibly well-acted scenes, including a big dramatic catharsis that likely had Janney close to her third straight win in this category.
Even at the time that this episode aired, it felt like an obvious play by the producers to hand Janney an Emmy-bait episode. As if she'd ever needed the help before. "The Long Goodbye," which breaks the show's traditional format to follow a West Wing character deep into their personal life, tracks C.J. on a trip back to her hometown, where she has to deal with her dementia-addled father and a reunion with an old flame, among other things. Janney gives a strong performance, although this episode is as much of a reminder as any that the strengths of The West Wing and the performances therein lie in its ensemble nature.
In the series finale, "My Kinda People and the Big To-Do," Bonnie is juggling all kinds of crises and developments: her husband (William Fichtner) finds out he has lung cancer, though it's treatable; a new member of the support group (Melanie Lynskey) is having violent clashes with her mother, and Jill (Jamie Pressly) is getting married. Janney harnesses her considerable comedic ability to get across Bonnie's scattered state of mind, but it's the hard-won emotional monologue she delivers at episode's end, about how far she's come on this road to being a "grateful alcoholic," that makes this a great capstone nomination.
Margaret Scully returned in Season 3 of Masters of Sex now in a new relationship with Graham (Tate Donovan), though somewhat unhappily also in a trouple with Graham's travel agent. With some help from her ex-husband, Margaret stands up for what she wants in a standout scene in which Janney imbues Margaret with a hard-won self-awareness while at the same time communicating her pain that she can't ever seem to find satisfaction. Janney would lose to The Americans' Margo Martindale for the second straight year.
In the season 2 episode, "Dropped Soap and a Big Guy on a Throne," Bonnie throws her back out in the shower and is prescribed painkillers, a tenuous prospect for an addict. Janney gets to display a ton of physical comedy as she plays around with Bonnie's wrenched back (in particular a scene where she tries and fails to drink a cup of coffee). And even when the episode takes a darker turn and Bonnie actually relapses, Janney plays the divide between drama and comedy in a manner that lights the way for how Mom was already evolving into a show that was more about addiction and recovery than it was about a dysfunctional family.
For the show's final stretch of episodes, Janney played C.J. Cregg as a woman approaching a crossroads. This episode was the apex of that, as C.J. fielded a job offer from a tech billionaire (Xander Berkeley) and also one to continue working for the incoming President Santos (Jimmy Smits), all the while trying to figure out where her relationship with Danny (Timothy Busfield) was headed. Of all the ways that The West Wing put a button on its original characters, this episode's focus on C.J. was the best, and Janney was able to take the character full circle and into an optimistic future.
Back in the days when supporting performers submitted two episodes apiece for consideration, Janney offered up the second-season premiere — though curiously not the second half of that two-parter, which included a flashback to C.J. getting hired for the Bartlet campaign — as well as "Galileo," an episode where C.J. made a loud declaration outside of the Kennedy Center that she's good in bed. Strategy issues with episode selection aside, Season 2 was a sweet spot for pretty much everybody on The West Wing, and it's no surprise that Janney cruised to her second straight win.
After two seasons of dominating the Supporting Actress category, Janney was bumped up to lead actress status in Season 3 and picked up right where she left off, winning a third consecutive Emmy. The episode she won for, "The Women of Qumar," featured C.J. struggling to maintain her decorum as the U.S. announced arms sales to the fictional Islamic fundamentalist country Qumar, whose track record of abuse towards woman has C.J.'s hair on fire. Janney's emotional face-off with National Security Advisor Nancy McNally (Anna Deavere Smith) is both over-the-top and yet dramatically on-point, and Janney plays C.J.'s simmering rage as both righteous and frustrated at once.
Janney took home her first Emmy in 2000 for The West Wing's debut season, a year in which two killer episodes were submitted for consideration: "Celestial Navigation," where C.J.'s emergency root canal kept her sidelined (and talking like Elmer Fudd) while Josh (Bradley Whitford) deep-sixed a press briefing; and the grammatically infuriating "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics," where C.J.'s frustration that her optimistic outlook at the impending poll numbers isn't being taken seriously has her questioning her place in the administration.
Janney was a two-time winner at the 2014 Emmys, for Mom and for this episode of Masters of Sex in which she turns in a stunning performance as Margaret begins to take steps outside her unfulfilling marriage. Margaret goes through an entire season's worth of character development here, beginning as she reads Peyton Place in bed with a disapproving frown and ending with her having an affair (and her first orgasm) after seeing the film version of Peyton Place all by herself.
In between, Janney delivers a heartbreaking performance as she approaches Masters and Johnson to join their study only to be turned down because she's never had an orgasm. The look on Margaret's face as she hopefully — yet fruitlessly — offers that she's a fast learner is nothing short of devastating, more than worthy of the Emmy she eventually got.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.