It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Jean Smart wasn’t an Emmy darling.
Although Designing Women got scads of nominations, she never got tapped for her career-making performance on that sitcom as the lovable and flighty Charlene, and even though she tackled the role eleven years before eventual Oscar winner Charlize Theron, she didn’t get awards attention for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
The Emmys have more than made up for those oversights: In the last two decades, Smart has been nominated 11 times and won four statues. And in a true sign that the Academy loves her, she’s been recognized for all kinds of work: comedies, dramas, guest roles, lead roles, you name it.
Which is how it should be! Jean Smart is one of the best actresses on TV, after all. But which one of her Emmy nominations is the most essential? Let’s get to ranking and find out:
David E. Kelley's short-lived series starred Kathy Bates as a scrappy lawyer trying to bounce back from a scandal. It was nothing special, but Bates and guest stars like Smart were certainly fun to watch. As D.A. Roseanna Remmick, Smart’s icy composure played nicely against Bates’ bluster, and you can imagine they had a good time hurling insults at each other while they fought over a case. But in the story of Smart’s career, this gig is just a footnote.
This was Smart’s second nomination (and win) for playing Lana Gardner, Frasier’s (Kelsey Grammer) old high school flame. She was good, of course, but her return as the character didn’t give her moments as iconic her first appearance the year before. Plus, her arc mostly focused on introducing the gang to her son Kirby (Brian Klugman).
Note: The character was originally called Lorna Lynley, but at the request of an actual person named Lorna Lynley, it was changed.
Smart was only in a handful of scenes in 24’s sixth season, but she sure as hell made the most of them. As First Lady Martha Logan, recently released from a mental institution and still simmering with rage over her husband’s corruption, she loses control during an argument and stabs him in the shoulder. You can see Smart’s fury rising from the moment the confrontation begins, but even she seems surprised to have taken it so far. The only reason this nomination isn’t higher is because it basically serves as a capstone to the work she did on 24 the previous year.
2001 was a very good year at the Emmys for Jean Smart, since she not only won for her guest turn on Frasier, but also was nominated for her guest turn on the forgettable cop drama The District. (This was the show’s only Emmy nomination in its four-season run.)
As the earlier entry on Harry’s Law proves, the guest acting categories are often filled with stars who get nominated for doing any old thing. But here’s the twist: Smart was actually fantastic as Sherry Regan, both a detective and the ex-wife of series protagonist Jack Mannion (Craig T. Nelson). She’s all swagger and sass, and her chemistry with Nelson elevates his performance above everything else he does in the show. It takes a great actor to help make other actors great.
Smart got her first-ever nomination (and win) for playing Lana/Lorna (see #1 above) on Frasier. And you could argue she won for a single scene, where she screams at her kid to put his brother on the phone. Over 20 years later, it’s still satisfying to watch Smart flip from “cooing lover” to “chain-smoking problem parent”, and it’s even better when she puts the sweetheart voice back on to ask for some coffee.
In some ways, this is the most important nomination in Smart’s career. It was her sixth overall and third in a row, and though she’d already taken home two Guest Actress in a Comedy trophies, the one brought her a victory on the primetime broadcast.
What’s more, she won for Samantha Who?, of all things. The show was smart and charming, but it never grabbed the zeitgeist. When Smart was nominated alongside Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty and Amy Poehler on SNL, she seemed like an underdog.
When she won, the message was clear: The TV Academy had put Smart in the Tyne Daly club of actors who will always be serious contenders.
As for her performance: It was great. Samantha Who? was about a self-centered jerk (played by Christina Applegate) who tries to become a better person after getting amnesia. Smart plays Samantha’s unimpressed mother, and her snarky refusal to believe her kid’s an angel puts valuable salt in the show’s recipe. If this series had run longer or been more beloved, this nomination might rank even higher, but even still, it’s a good one.
Helen Fahey hangs on the edges of Mare of Easttown. She’s never directly involved in the murder case that consumes her daughter (Kate Winslet), so she instead navigates her family’s many needs and tries to sneak a few minutes for herself to play computer games and eat desserts. At the same time, she is absolutely crucial to the show’s emotional core. In her own way, she’s suffered just as much as any character we meet, but she’s one of the few who’s found peace. In the finale, when she speaks frankly to Mare about her own happiness, she sets in motion the cascade of forgiveness that makes the series so powerful.
Smart finds so many layers in Helen – so many gestures and looks – that the character feels like a real person. It’s easy to imagine her life off screen, and that makes each of her scenes all the more memorable.
After she realizes her husband is not only a crook and a bastard, but also probably an assassin, Martha Logan breaks your heart with her fruitless attempts to stop him. Smart is devastating as she struggles to do the right thing, or even understand what the right thing is. As her mental state unravels and becomes a weapon used against her, she captures the frustration of a person who can’t beat the system.
Fargo has been rightfully praised for creating characters that embody the existential chaos of pure evil. But in Season 2, the show also gave us Smart as Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch of a crime family who is wicked for very specific reasons: She wants to protect her family and her legacy, and she wants to prove that a woman can be as much of a hardass as any man. She’s arguably the most relatable bad guy in the show’s history, and that’s got a lot to do with Smart’s blend of toughness, fear, and familial love as she settles into her role as a queenpin.
It’s nearly certain that when this year's nominations are announced on July 12, Smart will earn her second nod for starring on Hacks as Deborah Vance, the superstar comedian who has to revamp her act (and her life).
In fact, there’s a very good chance she’ll win for the second time, and it would be hard to argue with that. Smart is at the height of her powers in the role: her comic timing is sharp as a sword, her pathos is palpable as Deborah starts to doubt herself, and best of all, there’s always something mysterious underneath.
The show doesn’t try to explain all of Deborah’s moods and motivations, and Smart runs with that impulse by playing scenes incredibly close to the vest. We can’t always tell what she’s thinking, but we know she is thinking. It’s exciting to watch.
Along with being a great superhero action show and a soberting deconstruction of America’s embedded racism, Watchmen is also a portrait of good people made weary by time. Smart embodies that particular theme as Laurie Blake, formerly known as the hero Silk Spectre. Now she’s both an FBI agent trying to stop a violent militia and a yearning quasi-widow trying to get over the memory of her former lover, Dr. Manhattan.
You can feel the weight on Smart’s shoulders in every aspect of this performance. Even when she’s telling jokes or successfully fighting crime, she carries the wounds of her past, giving her performance an astonishing depth. It’s a reminder that as an actor, Jean Smart herself seems almost superhuman, capable of anything in any genre.
Nominations for the 74th Emmy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, with the ceremony to follow in September.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.