Wednesday, July 15, 2015

If I Had an Emmy Ballot 2015: Outstanding Lead Actor and Lead Actress in a Comedy

Can Adam Scott and Amy Poehler earn a victory lap for Parks and Recreation?

The 2015 Emmy nominations will be announced tomorrow morning.  As I’ve done each of the last two years, I’ll take a look at the past year in performances and give my thoughts on the actors, actresses, and shows I thought were best.

Two notes before we begin.  First, I'm working from the actual Emmy performer ballot, so I won't make any changes like putting Keegan Michael-Key or Jordan Peele in lead actor categories or move Orange Is the New Black into the comedy category, where it was last year.  Second, I'm only going to nominate people and shows that I've seen a good chunk of this past year.  For the purposes of this category, that means no New Girl, The Big Bang Theory, or The Mindy Project actors, among a few others.  Previously, we looked at the categories of Supporting Actor in a Drama, Supporting Actress in a Drama, Supporting Actor in a Comedy, Supporting Actress in a Comedy, Lead Actor in a Drama, and Lead Actress in a Drama.

I have to admit, I almost punted on the Lead Actor and Lead Actress in a Comedy categories entirely when I realized how few comedies I had watched this year.  It seems crazy, because so much of my 2014 Top Ten ended up being comedies, but a few of them ended up canceled, Review took the year off, and I didn’t catch many others.  I was finally able to scrape together a half-dozen nominees for each category but I feel like each list is more notable for its absences than its actual names.  For example, in the Lead Actor category there’s no Jim Parsons, William H. Macy, no Jeffrey Tambor, and no Chris Geere, because I haven’t seen any of their shows this year.  On the women’s side, there’s no Julia Louis-Dreyfus (the easy favorite), Edie Falco, or Melissa McCarthy.  There’s simply too much good television on these days and comedy fell by the wayside for me this year.

There are still twelve nominees here, though, and I did like their performances a great deal.  Given that half of them are pairs from the same shows, I decided to do these two together.  They almost certainly won’t match up with the actual nominees, but if there is any category this year primed for some surprises, it feels like it’s Lead Actor in a Comedy.  There are a lot of big name actors still eligible (Matt LeBlanc, Jim Parsons, Don Cheadle), but none of them other than Parsons really feel like locks.  We’ll see, though, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see everybody but Ricky Gervais (no longer eligible) back along with Jeffrey Tambor.  In fact, I’d say there’s about a seventy percent chance of just that thing happening.

On the women’s side, I don’t imagine much will change.  Five of last year’s nominees are back (with Taylor Schilling being shunted to the drama side) and all are established names at this point.  If there’s a seventy percent chance of the five returning men being nominated, I put it at eighty percent that the women are nominated again, with one newcomer (likely Gina Rodriguez after Golden Globe win or Amy Schumer) joining them.

The proliferation of new comedies I haven’t seen has been relegated largely to cable, so my list is going to be rather network heavy, starting with black-ish’s Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross.  Black-ish was a surprise as the season’s best fall sitcom and a lot of it stemmed from the show’s leads, as the married couple Andre (Dre) and Rainbow (Bow) Johnson.  The comedy tended to be broad, but the stories and performances, about an upper-class African-American family trying to navigate between black and white worlds, brought a new perspective to network comedy. The give and take between Anderson and Ross was hilarious but still felt real.  They argued occasionally, sure, but still obviously love each other and their kids.  This show was at its strongest in the home (Dre’s office life was often over-the-top but not in a good way) and these two brought that strength.

One of the best and strongest couples on television the last several years has been Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope and Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt.  This Parks and Recreation duo have been the heart of one television’s very best comedies and probably should have a pair of Emmys of their own at this point.  The final season of Parks and Rec was meant as something of a reboot, with the show fast-forwarding three years, but really it functioned as a victory lap, with the characters given an opportunity to reflect on how far they’d gone in ten years.  For Poehler and Scott it was one last chance to show off what made them one of the best couples on television.  No matter the power dynamic, whether it was Leslie running for city council or Ben running for Congress, they were always equals.  Poehler was able to swing between the butt of the joke and one sane voice while Scott spent most of his time as the straight man, which made his occasional bursts of hilarity all the more valuable.

There were some weird submission decisions with Fresh Off the Boat, with both Hudson Yang and Constance Wu submitting as lead but Randall Park submitting as supporting.  Maybe that’s the way it should be, though.  Yang was undoubtedly the lead of the show, as the Asian-American middle schooler moving to suburban Orlando.  The fish out of water, new kid on the block, and coming of age stories are all well-worn tropes, but wrapped in a new dynamic, with Yang’s Eddie trying to navigate the white world as an utterly American Asian-American, it felt, well, fresh. 

Even better than Yang was Wu, as Eddie’s mother Jessica.  Often portrayed as bewildered by Eddie’s taste in pop culture, and still keeping one foot in her traditional realm, Jessica nevertheless was fully embracing of everything white Floridian 1990s suburbia had to offer.  Wu was stern, funny, loveable, and in utter command of every scene she was in.  It was an unexpected performance coming from what could have otherwise been a spring, network fill-in.

My final three nominees for Lead Actor in a Comedy couldn’t be more different, beginning with Louis CK.  It’s often difficult to separate the real Louis from the fictional Louie, but given that Louis is actor, director, and writer, it’s easy to see that he knows how to use himself best.  His show has been one of the best comedies on television in the last few years and, given that he’s the only main character, it’s easy to put him here.

Thomas Middleditch, on the other hand, is the nebbish, neurotic lead of a company filled with talent.  Silicon Valley tends to fall into a rhythm from time to time, but the show never gets stale, largely because Middleditch is so capable of flexing from serious to absurd to reserved and back again.  His relative stability also allows his castmates to diverge into weird tangents and make the show even funnier.

Lastly, Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta is never the straight man in Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  He is always the joker or the butt of the joke.  But, above all else, Samberg never fails to make me laugh.  Whether it’s with elaborate pranks or subtle wordplay he makes every episode better.

The three remaining Lead Actresses also couldn’t be much different, at least far as their characters are concerned.  Lena Dunham plays the often dour, rarely together Hannah Horvath on Girls.  Girls isn’t the funniest show in the world, but trades that lack of laughs for depth, in no small part thanks to Dunham.  She has a complete handle on her character at this point in the show’s run and is an incredibly consistent performer.

The idea of a group of women being rescued from a subterranean bunker (“They alive, dammit!”) seems like a terrible premise for a sitcom, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes it work almost entirely thanks to Ellie Kemper.  Kemper has to play an absolutely ridiculous character with no sense of the real world and an absolute gullibility, but she makes it work with her earnestness.  And if there’s any trait Kemper just nails, it’s earnestness

I really should have started with Gina Rodriguez because, in my opinion, any discussion of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy category should begin with the Jane the Virgin star.  Sure, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is probably hilarious in Veep, but I don’t think any actor was asked to do more this year.  She had to handle a ridiculous premise, soapy love triangles, over-the-top telenovela drama, and family drama, all while remaining light, funny, and loveable.  She pulled it off with aplomb and turned Jane the Virgin into one of my very favorite comedies of the year.

So those are my nominees for Lead Actor and Lead Actress in a comedy.  Like I said, the list is a little light, but that’s more my fault than television’s.  There’s just too much to keep up with and, this year anyway, it was comedy that fell by the wayside.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.  Tomorrow morning we’ll look at the Outstanding Series and then find out who was nominated at 10:30am CST.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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