Who would have thought that “Sophie’s Choice,” a wrenchingly sad 1982 drama starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, would enter the common vernacular to represent the hardship of choosing a favorite? But indeed, especially during awards seasons (ironic, given Streep won her second Oscar for said film and seemingly no one voted against her), you hear voters everywhere talking about their “Sophie’s Choice” votes with an almost-instant regret of having to do so.
Honestly, Sophie’s psychologically destructive choice between her two children of her two children can’t be compared to filling out an Emmy ballot. But in 2022, as the 20,000-plus members of the Television Academy face their last few days of voting, the choices are as difficult as they’ve ever been, with many top categories offering a tossup between as many as eight strong contenders. FX honcho John Landgraf might well have been correct when he said that “Peak TV” is happening this year.
The expansion of nominees seemed inevitable given that there are over 500 shows on the air yearly, but has it also created an embarrassment of riches. This is an era in which clearly defined genres are melding into one rich hodgepodge, especially with the once-mighty primetime 22-minute sitcoms and 42-minute dramas being recognized less and less often, while prominent drama series episodes are being allowed to run almost as long as, well, ”Sophie’s Choice.”
There are a few early favorites already for sure: “Succession” seems pretty unbeatable in reclaiming Outstanding Drama Series glory after being on hiatus last year, and it’s truly hard to believe the lovefests for actors like Jean Smart (“Hacks”) and Brett Goldstein (“Ted Lasso”) won’t continue one more year. But there are categories in which choosing a victor would, in the words of the late Nora Ephron, “make coffee nervous.”
Let’s take a look at one rock-solid category, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and break down why there could truly be six different outcomes on Sept. 12.
The nominees are the two stars of “Succession,” Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong, along with Jason Bateman from “Ozark,” Lee Jung-jae from “Squid Game,” Bob Odenkirk from “Better Call Saul” and Adam Scott from “Severance.” They’re six first-rate performances in five incredibly well-loved series with not a Big 5 broadcast network in sight, and again, many of them play with genre and even bend them a little.
Not one of last year’s nominees is in the Emmy category this year (and 2021 winner Josh O’Connor isn’t even on “The Crown” anymore), so you have to go one year previously to Strong’s win in 2020, which he could easily repeat given character Kendall Roy’s aggressive, eventually mournful arc in Season 3. But might it not be time to reward paterfamilias and acting titan Cox in this category, the much-memed and roaring spine of “Succession,” who hasn’t won an Emmy in two decades?
Or maybe it’s stalwart Bateman, a multiple SAG winner being honored for the final season of “Ozark” and has never won an Emmy for acting? (He has, however, won for directing “Ozark”).
Odenkirk has also never won for playing one of the best slow-burn characters in television history encircling not one, but two beloved shows and he had a highly publicized heart attack while doing it, making us all realize just how much we love him! (All praise to the entertainment gods, he’s seems to be doing just fine.) Plus, it couldn’t have hurt that the well-received series finale of “Better Call Saul” happened to take place right in the middle of Emmy voting.
Ask any “Parks and Recreation” fan at your office water cooler (sidebar: Do those still exist and do you use them?) who their supreme show crush was, and one would be stunned not to hear first-time nominee Scott’s name come up, which boosts his innate lovability factor; furthermore, he’s kind of playing a dual role in “Severance” (range!) and is one of those journeyman actors who’s worked with everybody, which goes a very long way in the industry.
And then there’s Lee, a riveting new television face practically invented for a close-up, who wholly carried a violent, eventful sci-fi series and did so with unshowy Everyman compassion and is undoubtedly one of the reasons “Squid Game” connected so fervently with viewers. Plus, as an Asian-born actor in a foreign-language series (a first-ever in the Drama category), his would be a history-making win and make great headlines, as it did when Lee won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics Choice Awards and Spirit Awards.
Emmys Restructure Awards for Game Shows
So the question is posed once again: How. Does. One. Choose? At least this category has the benefit of variety (one acting category of eight nominees consists of actors from only two shows, “Dopesick” and “The White Lotus”), which is kind of like picking your favorite vegetable in the same tasty poke bowl.
Maybe the solution is simple for some of these categories. Get yourself a really fun hat. Write the 6-8 nominated names on folded paper and throw them inside. Draw one at random. Commit to that selection. Then second-guess yourself. Repeat.
Final voting closes on Monday, Aug. 22. “The 74th Primetime Emmy Awards” will air on NBC on Monday, Sept. 12.