With the Emmy nominations in place and the ceremony not until August 25, now is the time of the awards year where we get to wildly speculating about who has the best chance to win. The Emmys, moreso than other award shows, give us a little bit of help when it comes to the acting categories in that each nominated performer gets to submit one episode to the Emmy voters for consideration. With this information in hand, we can get a better sense of what Emmy voters are working with. (And then we can be totally wrong about them, and they pick Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom as Best Actor.)
We'll be taking the acting categories and breaking them down, episode by episode, to see which performers submitted most wisely, and which have the inside track to win.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory
Episode Title: "The Indecision Amalgamation"
Episode Description: Oh, Penny's auditioning for a role in some alien-sploitation movie or whatever, you know how this show is. Elsewhere, Sheldon is experiencing extreme indecision over what new gaming system to buy, and his big obsessive brain isn't helping matters.
Okay, so I am not a regular watcher of The Big Bang Theory. I'm not sure if Bialik's Amy was more of a focus in other episodes this past season. But her contributions to this one aren't much. She's essentially a sounding board for Sheldon — which, I gather might be the function of every other character on the show as well — as he navigates one of the more shamelessly product-placed storylines that I've seen this side of The Apprentice. (Yes, Amy, thanks for informing the audience that, after strenuous research, the X-Box One is hands-down better than the PS4.)
My guess is that this episode got picked for the mid-episode scene where Amy drops her monotone demeanor to facetiously enthuse about Sheldon's X-Box research, all leading up to an exasperated shout of "PLEASE PASS THE BUTTER!" Trust me, it works in context. ... Maybe.
Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Episode Title: "The Feud"
Episode Description: The title refers to a multi-generational family rivalry that bonds Jay, Phil, and Luke against a trio of crumbums (including John Heard and Rob Riggle). Cam and Mitchell panic when Lily gets sent home with head lice, only it's Claire who pays the price when she unwittingly picks her niece up from school.
The main thrust of the episode doesn't belong to Bowen's Claire, but that whole head lice business allows for a good bit of physical comedy from the two-time winner. Lice jokes in family sitcoms are as old as lice themselves (look it up). Physical comedy doesn't get much more basic than Julie Bowen, wild-haired, scratching at her scalp, trying to angle her head away from people who hug her. And if Julie Bowen is ever in her element at anything, it's at being basic. Remember: she's won twice! If you've liked her on Modern Family before, there's no reason you won't like her performance in this episode.
Anna Chlumsky, Veep
Episode Title: "Detroit"
Episode Description: Selina Meyer's campaign rolls through the titular city in order to make some sort of jobs speech or another, but matters are quickly overshadowed by the former Finnish prime minster, a gaffe about gun control, and Catherine Meyer punching out a demonstrator.
Notice how Chlumsky's character Amy is nowhere to be found in that episode description? "Detroit" is something of a puzzling pick for Team Chlumsky. She's quite good in the episode — she's quite good throughout the season — but her best moments are reacting to other characters. Her face when Selina speaks rudely of the dead reporter. Her face when Selina reveals she's having sex with her trainer. The closest Amy comes to a moment of her own is when she yelps "You punched that motherfucker!" and even there, it's Selina's daughter's moment.
Honestly, everybody in this episode gets overshadowed by Sally Phillips as Minna Hakkinen, which is why she should have been nominated in Guest Actress, but I digress. If we were going on a full-season basis, Chlumsky's talented enough to win the category. On the basis of this episode alone, it's gonna be tough. Even worse news: her true best episode, "Clovis," where she was wooed by the Google-ish tech giant, wasn't submitted for either Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, nor Veep's Outstanding Comedy Series nominations, so there's no chance of overflow goodwill.
Allison Janney, Mom
Episode Title: "Estrogen and a Hearty Breakfast"
Episode Description: While Christy deals with the conservative parents of her daughter's boyfriend/baby-daddy, Bonnie is told she's beginning menopause, and thus undergoes every stereotypical calamity that generally accompanies Hollywood's broadest conception of the effects of women's hormones on their bodies.
So, yes, Janney gets to play the menopause card, and what the performance lacks in subtlety it makes up for in the total opposite of subtlety. Bonnie has hot flashes! Bonnie has mood swings! Bonnie experiences a mid-life crisis and gets pink streaks in her hair! Bonnie's sex drive is troublingly decreased! Did I mention the hot flashes?? To her credit, one supposes, Janney doesn't show a bit of self-consciousness in throwing herself into the episode's big moments. Whether she's teasingly trilling "Son of a Preacher Man" or freaking out about her aging lady-parts, Janney keeps up with the episode's manic tone. It's a strange experience watching her pull all this off, particularly as someone who's loved Janney for years. Am I happy for her that she's found a role that lets her fill the room with her Allison-at-an-Eleven range of comedic antics? Am I deeply embarrassed that she has to play hacky dry-vagina jokes?
We're already talking about a television academy that likes Janney. Not only has she won four Emmys already (all for The West Wing), she's nominated twice this year (also for Guest Actress in Masters of Sex). It's hard to imagine voters already in love with her not getting into the moment where she tells off the conservative preacher parents in defense of her granddaughter.
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
Episode Title: "Anna Kendrick"
Episode Description: Anna Kendrick comes to New York City, sings some songs, pretends to be interviewed by Fox News. Brooks Wheelan performs part of his stand-up act at the Weekend Update desk.
It's pretty easy to boil down an SNL nominee's contributions in a given episode, so let's focus on the two sketches that potential McKinnon voters will be looking at: one is the cold open, where McKinnon plays an evasive and flummoxed GM executive. It's classic Midwestern McKinnon, and she's the clear standout performer. In her second big moment of the episode, she makes her return appearance to the Update desk as German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose awkward neuroticism over Putin-related matters conflicts with her stoic German nature. (McKinnon also participates in "Dongs All Over the World," but that's Aidy Bryant's show.)
Merkel Part II is the inferior of the two Update appearances, but the first one is found in the rather stellar Kerry Washington-hosted episode, which is otherwise McKinnon-lite. (Similarly, her "Dyke & Fats" triumph is in a Louis C.K.-hosted episode where she doesn't feature much.) McKinnon's great in "Kendrick," (we did name her this episode's MVP) but better options might've been the Drake episode (Justin Bieber + Mornin' Miami) or the Charlize Theron episode ("Come Do a Game Show with Your Mom, It'll Be Fun, Yes It Will!").
In general, McKinnon doesn't dominate episodes the way past SNL nominees Amy Poehler or Kristen Wiig used to do, and if they couldn't pull off a win, Kate's going to be a long shot.
Kate Mulgrew, Orange Is the New Black
Episode Title: "Tit Punch"
Episode Description: While Piper acclimates herself to the quid-pro-quo nature of prison life, we get the backstory on Red, who used to be the chef at her family restaurant until she and her husband ran afoul of Russian gangsters and their activewear-enthusiast girlfriends.
The ill-fitting placement of Orange Is the New Black in the comedy category might have made for tricky work in picking episodes to submit, but lucky for Mulgrew, there's a good bit of (admittedly dark) comedy in Red's story. The titular punch (sorry) is a particularly funny moment. Moreover, the episode lets you see a lot of shades of Red (I'm sorry!), from the confident, wise prisoner she's become to the frightened, vulnerable wife she was. If voters end up prizing acting range, Mulgrew is the champ by a good margin.
Supporting Actress in a Comedy really represents all the possible ways that smart episode submitting can help a nominee's chances ... and vice-versa. I can't see a scenario where Bialik or Chlumsky's submissions will convince anyone who wasn't already in their camps. Although, if we take a break from being Big Bang Theory snobs for a second, Bialik's one-scene highlight is probably second only to McKinnon when it comes to the biggest laugh-getter in the category.
Based solely on the episodes in evidence, this category could come down to Mulgrew and Janney, two veterans in new shows with incredibly divergent critical support. But don't count out Julie Bowen, who might prove to be just as tenacious as the head lice that dominated her episode's storylines. Sure, Merritt Wever may have dethroned her last year. But you know how it goes. Sometimes they come back.