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12 Emmy Underdogs Who Deserve Recognition

A memo to Academy members ahead of next week's voting deadline.
  • Photos: Amazon, Showtime, HBO, HBO Max, Apple TV+.
    Photos: Amazon, Showtime, HBO, HBO Max, Apple TV+.

    We don't envy the task of the humble Emmy voter in 2022. With 171 drama series in contention, plus 118 comedy series, and 61 limited series — and each one likely submitting multiple actors for consideration — it's too much for any one person take in.

    Maybe that's why last year's Emmy ballot saw only a small handful of shows gobble up nearly 75% of all acting nominations. That was good news for Ted Lasso, The Handmaid's Tale, The Crown, and Saturday Night Live, and this year we can assume a show like Succession will similarly dominate.

    But there was a LOT of great TV this season, and there are many deserving performances outside of what's being widely predicted for Emmy success.

    So with Emmy nomination voting set to close June 27th, we’re here to make a case for 12 undersung performers, each of whom deserves strong consideration. We've limited ourselves to one performance per category, and no program is represented more than once.

    Best Actor in a Comedy: Danny McBride, The Righteous Gemstones

    Despite creating and starring in two well regarded series — Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals — Danny McBride has never been nominated for an Emmy. That deserves to change this year more than ever, thanks to his hilarious and occasionally touching performance in Season 2 of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones.

    As megachurch scion Jesse Gemstone, McBride may be a preening, self-righteous jackass, but he’s also a wounded kid with daddy issues, a wannabe mercenary trying to stop a gang of assassins, and a tender-hearted family man who’s devoted to his wife and kids. Even with his foul mouth and questionable leadership skills, he’s the heart of a fantastic show.

    Best Actress in a Comedy: Heléne Yorke, The Other Two

    The Other Two's triumphant second season was a balm on a turbulent 2021. Here's hoping that 2022 Emmy voters see one of TV's best comedies for the gem that it is.

    One of the things that makes the show so special is that it combines razor-sharp satire about the current state of pop culture with a dogged determination to treat its characters as people worthy of love and happiness rather that just broken creatures poisoned by their own adjacency to fame.

    This is best exemplified by Brooke Dubek, played by Heléne Yorke with a zeal to succeed and self-sabotage in equal measure.

    Whether she's taking on too much as her mom's co-manager, clinging to her belief that she might one day snag Alessia Cara as a client, or feeling baffled by how she keeps breaking an NDA with an NBA star, Brooke is consistently somebody worth rooting for, a quality owed to Yorke's totally unhinged yet empathetic performance.

    Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy: Jeff Hiller, Somebody Somewhere

    HBO’s Somebody Somewhere is one of the best new comedies of the year, and a big reason for that is Jeff Hiller as Joel, an openly gay and deeply religious man in rural Kansas who runs a queer-friendly cabaret when he isn’t doing zumba in his garage. Hiller plays Joel as a real person, not a collection of quirks, and we quickly understand both his decency and his willingness to go on an adventure. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with this guy?

    Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy: Paula Pell, Girls5Eva

    If the first season of Girls5Eva belonged to Renee Elise Goldsberry's bombastic performance as Wickie Roy, Season 2 belongs to Paula Pell, whose Gloria is determined not to let her second chance pass her by.

    Whether she's death-dropping on stage (and blowing out her knee in the process) or regretting not having been out of the closet during her prime girl-group years, Pell is in her own comedic prime this season.

    Best Actor in a Drama: John C. Reilly, Winning Time

    There are so many ways the character of Dr. Jerry Buss could have gone wrong in Winning Time. In HBO's telling, the man is a loud, louche braggart who seems more used-car-salesman than seasoned sports professional. Yes, that helps make the Los Angeles Lakers' basketball dynasty seem like an unlikely triumph, but without Reilly's carefully calibrated performance and irresistible charm, Buss would likely have turned off as many viewers as he brought in.

    Best Actress in a Drama: Sissy Spacek, Night Sky

    In Prime Video’s sci-fi drama Night SkySissy Spacek once again lives up to her reputation as a world-class actor. 

    As Irene York, a woman who salves her deep regrets by visiting another planet via the portal underneath her shed, she leads with a sense of determined hopefulness. Her health might be failing, her child might be long dead, and her beloved husband might be losing his memory, but she nevertheless insists on having new experiences. As the show’s plot gets more and more complex, it’s anchored by Irene’s desire to live with purpose.

    Best Supporting Actor in a Drama: Tramell Tillman, Severance

    In Severance, Apple TV+'s series about a mysterious corporation that might also be a cult, Tramell Tillman gives company man Mr. Milchik the terrifying perkiness of a true zealot, and behind his smile, there are flashes of his rage for employees who step out of line.

    And while his performance is compelling from start to finish, Tillman truly earns his Emmy nomination when he puts on a turtleneck and cuts loose for a music dance experience with his underlings.

    Best Supporting Actress in a Drama: Courtney Eaton, Yellowjackets

    While we expect Yellowjackets to perform quite well when the Emmy nominations are announced, with likely nods for stars Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, and other members of the adult ensemble, there's a good chance that the actresses playing the teen girls stranded in the wilderness will be overlooked.

    That would be a shame, especially in the case of Courtney Eaton, who plays the quietly religious Lottie, who over the course of the show's first season evolves into a kind of woodland cult leader, and a rather terrifying one at that.

    In a show like Yellowjackets, which astounds in its ability to balance tones of mystery thriller, outlandish interpersonal drama, and bordering-on-supernatural fantasy, the Lottie role is crucial to nail without tipping the show's hand too far in one direction or another. Eaton sticks that landing with aplomb time and again, and she's a huge part of what makes Yellowjackets such an addictive pleasure.

    Best Actor in a Limited Series: Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

    If you were familiar with Hamish Linklater's previous work, you were likely entirely unprepared for what he unleashes in Midnight Mass. The stage and screen actor best known for roles in The New Adventures of Old Christine, The Newsroom, and Legion has more often than not been TV's go-to functionary bureaucrat or low-key supporting player.

    When he arrives on the scene of a New England town as a young priest taking over the island's influential Catholic church, we suspect he's probably up to something underhanded, but we're in no way prepared for the show's twist, nor for the emotional depths that Linkater will be able to explore after that twist is deployed. It is a powerhouse performance from an actor who hasn't been tasked with "powerhouse" very much in his TV career, and boy does he live up to the challenge.

    Best Actress in a Limited Series: Michelle Pfeiffer, The First Lady

    Showtime’s miniseries about three first ladies was critically panned (and for good reason), but we're not going to let that blind us to the fact that Michelle Pfeiffer is spectacular as Betty Ford.

    In a show that often feels like a stilted and “respectable” tour of American history, Pfeiffer is a live wire as a woman whose sudden appearance on the national stage makes her both more outspoken and more reliant on drugs and alcohol. Pfeiffer brings a feral intensity to places that typically demand decorum, and it makes her thrilling to watch.

    Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series: Gil Birmingham, Under the Banner of Heaven

    Detective Bill Taba is a perpetual outsider in Under the Banner of Heaven, FX’s miniseries about a murder in the Mormon community of Utah. He isn’t Mormon, for one thing, and he’s Native American, which makes him immediately suspect in the very white enclave he’s trying to investigate.

    Gil Birmingham thrives in these margins, communicating Bill’s skepticism and watchfulness with a few vivid glances or sarcastic comments. And in the final episode, when he delivers a scorching speech about the moral rot that has tainted the case from the beginning, he clarifies that Bill’s silence was never passive. It’s a masterfully subtle performance.

    Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series: Danielle Deadwyler, Station Eleven

    HBO Max's skillfully delicate interpretation of Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven is brought to gorgeous life by showrunner Patrick Somerville and a cast of incredible actors, many of them Emmy-worthy (Mackenzie Davis and Himesh Patel especially). Special attention ought to be paid to Danielle Deadwyler's supporting turn as Miranda, who — stranded in Malaysia while a pandemic rages — is only featured in a couple of episodes, but re-aligns the moral and emotional focus of the entire show.

    Deadwyler's command of her character's fear, regret, and ultimate determination to accomplish one final act make for some of the very best scenes of the series.

    Nominations for the 74th Emmy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, with the ceremony to follow in September.

    TOPICS: 74th Primetime Emmy Awards, The First Lady, Girls5eva, Midnight Mass, Night Sky, The Other Two, The Righteous Gemstones, Severance, Somebody Somewhere, Station Eleven, Under the Banner of Heaven, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Yellowjackets, Courtney Eaton, Danielle Deadwyler, Danny McBride, Gil Birmingham, Hamish Linklater, Helene Yorke, Jeff Hiller, John C. Reilly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Paula Pell, Sissy Spacek, Tramell Tillman