(Photo by Netflix, Disney+, OWN)
With an estimated 532 scripted series released in 2019, choosing the best TV to watch has become something of a chore — not to mention expensive if you’re subscribing to all of the streaming services to complete the task. Narrowing the worthy award contenders is another heavy lift, and those who take on the challenge run the risk of permanently becoming one with their couch.
To this, we say, “Help! We’re trapped in our sofas!” But we’re also ready to do the hard work for you.
We’ve looked at the top contenders for nominations in the top drama and comedy Emmy categories and noted a few other titles that may not be dominating the conversation but definitely deserve recognition. Nominations will be announced on Tuesday, July 28, and while these shows may not be among them — we think they should.
Who Stars In It: Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Abby Glover, Maya Hawke, David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Charlie Heaton, Natalia Dyer, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Cary Elwes
What It’s About: This throwback to the age of Spielbergian 1980s genre fare centers on a group of kids who encounter ominous, supernatural goings-on in their sleepy, circa-1983 Indiana town. With the help of the local police chief and a new friend with psychokinetic abilities, they band together to investigate and fight back against an insidious entity as it threatens to turn their world upside down.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: Matt and Ross Duffer’s love letter to the ’80s turned out to be more than just a cheeky excuse to wallow in smug nostalgia when it premiered, as Stranger Things managed to tell a compelling sci-fi/horror mystery without skimping on the underlying character work. As a result, the series has been a critical darling, and the first two seasons accordingly racked up multiple Emmy nominations, even taking home six trophies in the Creative Arts categories. That successful formula continued in season 3, which showcased outstanding ensemble work from its talented cast and built on the series’ larger mythology. There’s also something to be said for its consistently top-notch special effects; the show just doesn’t work if it can’t sell the menace of the Upside Down and its evil manifestations, but it does so convincingly and with flair.
Who Stars In It: Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Nick Nolte, Werner Herzog, Taika Waititi, Giancarlo Esposito
What It’s About: Set in the larger Star Wars universe some time after the events of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and before Episode VII: The Force Awakens, this space adventure follows a lone member of the titular famed order of bounty hunters who encounters an alien child on one of his assignments and decides to take him under his protection as powerful adversaries with ulterior motives are hot on their trail.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: It would be easy to dismiss The Mandalorian as a blatant ploy to attract subscribers to the fledgling Disney+ streaming service — as if the Disney/Pixar/Marvel/Star Wars libraries weren’t enough to begin with — but its remarkable approval rating from both critics and audiences are testament to the show’s quality. Anchored by a charismatic lead in Pedro Pascal — who spends almost the entire first season obscured under a helmet, mind you — and his undeniable screen chemistry with his diminutive, puppet costar, the series immerses viewers in its unique world and grounds its otherworldly characters in thoughtful, affecting relationship dynamics. Considering the level of talent involved across the board, from creator-writer-producer Jon Favreau and writer-directors Rick Famuyiwa and Dave Filoni to folks like Deborah Chow and Taika Waititi, the latter of whom directed the outstanding season finale, it’s hard not to feel like the series should take home a trophy. If nothing else, the fact that Baby Yoda not only felt like a real, living, breathing, ridiculously adorable creature, but also became a viral sensation overnight is a pretty convincing argument for at least a technical award or two.
Who Stars In It: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint
What It’s About: Philly couple Dorothy and Sean Turner (Ambrose and Kebbell) are reeling after the death of infant son Jericho, with Dorothy turning to a therapeutic baby doll to deal with her grief. When a mysterious stranger enters their home – and the doll suddenly springs to life (or does it?) – things get very, very creepy.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: In the up-and-down career of M. Night Shyamalan, Apple TV+’s Servant is among the peaks. Shyamalan executive produced the series and directed two episodes, and his expert sense of slow-moving dread is the show’s signature. Never truly scary, but always unsettlingly “off,” the Certified Fresh 10-parter may progress too glacially for some, but patient viewers will be rewarded with some of the last year’s best WTF moments, a moving dive into parental grief, and an embarrassment of great performances. Ambrose in particular is in top form as Dorothy, the grieving, delusional, and occasionally hysterical mother, and she is well-matched by the mesmerizingly quiet Free, whom Game of Thrones fans will remember as ill-fated Marcella Baratheon and who here plays the “servant” who could hold the answer to the family’s big mystery.
Who Stars In It: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, Patricia Allison, Keda Williams-Stirling, Mikael Persbrandt, Connor Swindells
What It’s About: An awkward, virginal British high schooler (Butterfield) finds himself following in his sex therapist mother’s footsteps when fellow students begin turning to him for advice on everything from performance anxiety to the intricacies of oral sex. Egged on by bad-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Maeve (Mackey) and gay best friend Eric (Gatwa), he begins charging for sex therapy sessions.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: For evidence that high school shows have come a long way since 90210, turn to Sex Education, one of a number of blisteringly smart, emotionally mature, and consistently surprising school-focused series Netflix has put out over the last couple of years. (Never Have I Ever and On My Block are right up there with it.) What makes Sex Education Emmy-worthy in its second year is that it successfully grew upon its already pitch-perfect first season, handing more of the narrative spotlight over to Maeve (this season dealing with her recovering-addict mom), and to Eric, whose complex attraction to school bully Adam is one of the most beautifully and honestly captured relationships currently on TV. He also remains hilarious. And then of course there’s Anderson as sex therapist and (occasionally) concerned mother Jean Milburn, who is as delicious as she was in season 1 when mortifying Otis with frank sex talk, but gets even more to do in this sophomore outing, including battling the stuffy school principal and liberating his repressed wife – mostly with cocktails. Give her all the Emmys.
Who Stars In It: Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, Christine Lahti
What It’s About: This update to the X-Files’ skeptic-and-believer-pairing procedural sees a psychologist (Herbers) teaming up with a priest-in-training (Colter) to investigate unexplained and seemingly supernatural happenings – most involving heaven, hell, and the church.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: Created by The Good Wife and The Good Fight creators Michelle and Robert King, Evil bears the duo’s signatures: It is crazy-smart, mixes fascinating cases-of-the-week with a compelling season-long plot, and is driven by two complex and frequently unpredictable protagonists – neither painted as purely good or… well, evil. What sets Evil apart from nearly anything else on major network TV right now, though, is its flair for the bizarre. (Another feature of the Kings’ – remember the short-lived Brain Dead?) Consider George, the glowing-eyed and strangely eloquent demon who alternately terrorizes and converses with Herber’s Kristen Bouchard in her dreams. Or the series’ villain, manipulative rival forensic psychologist and maybe-not-human, Leland, played by Lost’s Emerson. The actor is the show’s strongest chance at an Emmy nod, but we’re praying – to the good guy – that the overall show gets some love, too.
Who Stars In It: Conphidance, Haaz Sleiman, Mélanie Laurent, Shaun Taub, Jearnest Corchado
What It’s About: This Apple TV+ anthology series tells a different story of immigration in American with each episode. The stories are inspired by those featured in Epic Magazine’s “Little America” collection of true stories.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: All eyes at Apple HQ will likely be on The Morning Show come nominations morning, with the mega-budget, mega-star series likely to score nods despite the critical shrug with which it was greeted. (The series is just Fresh on the Tomatometer right now.) In a perfect world, though, those eyes – and all that campaign money – would be directed at Little America, one of 2020’s most beautifully realized and emotionally affecting new titles. And probably the strongest of Apple’s original offerings so far. The show is co-created by The Big Sick writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (along with Lee Eisenberg), and that film’s sense of humanity, empathy, humor, and warmth ripples through its eight episodes. It may not have the star wattage of Apple TV+’s flagship, but Little America deserves its moment in the light.
Who Stars In It: Akili McDowell, Alana Arenas, Phylicia Rashad, Nathaniel Logan McIntyre, Ade Chike Torbert
What It’s About: Fourteen-year-old David lives in a projects complex in South Florida, where he juggles supporting his hardworking mom, succeeding at a magnet school on the other side of town, and trying not to fall in with a group of local drug dealers.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: Often, when critics talk of TV having a cinematic quality, they’re talking about big-budget spectacles; Stranger Things and Game of Thrones, say, felt “cinematic” because of their scale. David Makes Man is as cinematic as any other on TV or streaming right now, but for very different reasons. Created by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote that play that was adapted into Oscar winner Moonlight, the series is a semi-autobiographical look at his formative years, told with a confidence, inventiveness, and a daring usually reserved for only the most lyrical of indie films. Which is not to say David is inaccessible or obtuse: The story that unfolds over its 10 episodes is a gripping and relatable tug of war, and at its center sits a fierce and star-making turn from McDowell as David. Season 1 of the OWN series is now available on HBO Max, and we’re confident that as more people discover it, the show’s 2021 chances for Emmy glory will rise exponentially.
Who Stars In It: Louis Hofmann, Lisa Vicari, Maja Schöne, Andreas Pietschmann, Karoline Eichhorn, Jördis Triebel, Paul Lux, Moritz Jahn, Gina Stiebitz, Oliver Masucci
What It’s About: Officially, it’s about the disappearance of two young children in the small German town of Winden and the double lives and fractures the incident exposes between four families. But you’ll quickly learn it’s so much more than that – thinking caps on, and pay attention.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: Why does Dark deserve all the Emmys we know it doesn’t stand a child’s-chance-in-Winden of winning? Because it did the seemingly impossible with its Emmys-eligible second season: It’s a complex, mind-bending, brilliantly confounding sci-fi phenomenon that actually just got better upon its return. The German series’ second season is 100% Certified Fresh and deservedly so, having expanded on the first season’s signature thrills and atmosphere, fleshed out its rich mythology, upped its levels of ambition, and all while never losing focus on character and emotion. There’s a reason Dark fans are so hardcore (yes, guys, we see you voting on those polls): this German gem is that damn good. And, as anyone who has seen the just-released third and final season knows, Dark also sticks the landing. Watch out Emmys 2021.
Who Stars In It: Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillen, Mark Proksch
What It’s About: A suburban comedy about four Staten Island roommates — who are vampires. The series, shot like a reality show with interviews and asides made to the ever-vulnerable camera crew, is based on the 96% Certified Fresh 2014 movie of the same name that starred film and series creators Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: Stars Berry, Novak, and Demetriou bring the undead to hilarious life in tackling the trials and tribulations of the modern-day vampire, with Proksch portraying the fourth roommate, an energy vampire, who sucks the life out of every party…office workplace…every house meeting of his bloodsucker roommates, and Guillen is Guillermo, the overtaxed and underappreciated human familiar of vampire Nandor (Novak). Few ensemble comedies can reach such heights of ridiculous and sublime with such seeming ease. We’re so sure that this unlikely award candidate deserves an Emmy, in fact, that we actually bet the Television Academy will grace it with a nomination.
Who Stars In It: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Charity Wakefield, Adam Godley
What It’s About: This semi-true series focuses on a young newly married Catherine The Great’s first days in Russia before she deposed her husband on her way to becoming one of the most celebrated monarchs in history.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara proved in his Oscar-nominated script about Queen Anne that he could deftly navigate dark comedy and drama while operating within the confines of a historical tale. For his new Hulu series The Great, he applies that award-winning formula to the ascension of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. The result is a hilarious satire that feels eerily topical despite being set more than 200 years in the past. Hoult, who was equally as entertaining in The Favourite, shines as the oafish and debauched Emperor married to the guileless-turned-ruthless Catherine, played by Fanning. The lavish costumes and production design serve as a stark contrast the obscurity of those forced to bend to the whim of an incompetent leader who values perceptions of strength and being liked over trying to govern responsibly. Still, there is cutting and poignant social commentary about feminism, trust in scientific fact, and the folly of war between all the laughs. As the disclaimer states in the opening credits, The Great is “an occasionally true story” — it’s also eternally fun and more than worthy of awards for several categories.
Who Stars In It: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv
What It’s About: A child’s murder propels season 2 of Mindhunter, the serial killer series set in the late ’70s and early ’80s about the development of the FBI’s criminal profiling division. The second season explored the work of serial killer Wayne Williams in the case that would become known as the Atlanta Child Murders. The series was created by The Road screenwriter Joe Penhall with executive producers including Gone Girl director David Fincher and Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron. Fincher also directed the first three episodes of the season.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: A wealth of talent from creators to stars and beyond make this Netflix series a cinematic-quality drama. Its already-impressive Tomatometer score improved from season 1 to season 2 to a Certified Fresh 98%. Season 1 scored at least one nomination: Cameron Britton for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as serial killer Edmund Kemper (the “Co-ed Killer”). That the series’ second season and its stars aren’t considered favorites for a nomination is one of the biggest crimes of Emmy season.
Who Stars In It: Jack Quaid, Karl Urban, Antony Starr, Elisabeth Shue, Erin Moriarty, Jessie T. Usher, Dominique McElligott, Chace Crawford, Nathan Mitchell, Laz Alonso, Tomer Kapon, Karen Fukuhara
What It’s About: The Boys imagines a world in which superheroes are drunk on their own powers and are used as assets bought, sold, and rented out by a corporate overseer. A rag-tag group of vigilantes take on “The Seven,” as the main superhero team is known, to lethal and often hilarious ends.
Why It Deserves an Emmy: There isn’t an Emmy for “Badass”? That’s a shame, because The Boys is the most inventive ensemble adventure to come to screens — small or large — possibly ever (sorry, Avengers). Its subversion of the comic book world’s superhero tropes calls for recognition beyond Comic-Con cosplay and fanboy/girl obsession.