When the 71st Emmys airs on Fox on Sunday, September 22, there will be a myriad of storylines to keep an eye on. For starters, will Ava DuVernay’s transformative Central Park 5 scripted series When They See Us, which earned an impressive 16 nominations (including Jharrel Jerome, whose heartbreaking performance as one of the wrongly incarcerated black and brown teens Korey Wise, galvanized critics and audiences) dominate the crowded field?
Will HBO’s fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones take home a large share of its Emmy-leading 38 nods, capping off its controversial swan song? Can the voracious Billy Porter strike a victory for the groundbreaking LGBTQ series Pose? Who will win the seven-person Lead Actress in a Drama series battle headlined by How To Get Away With Murder goddess Viola Davis and buzz-heavy Killing Eve co-stars Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer? Will Mahershala Ali (True Detective) add to his already crowded trophy case, and can Don Cheadle (Black Monday), Claws’ Niecy Nash (When They See Us) and Leslie Jones (Saturday Night Live) win a seat at the Emmy table?
While you ponder all that (as well as the possibility that 94-year-old living legend and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Cicely Tyson could win her fourth Emmy), we sought to highlight some of the best television performances of 2019. Because of the Emmy’s eligibility window (a show needs to have aired at least its first episode between June 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019) some of our picks didn’t make their cut, but they deserve to be on every voter’s list next year. Don’t sleep!
Snowfall (FX): Franklin puts the fear of God in best friend and drug lieutenant, Leon.
A cable television drama that presents a nuanced, non-formulaic, unflinching, and at times humanizing look inside the dope game was flagrantly ignored by Emmy voters. Sound familiar? While the late John Singleton’s stellar ‘80s drug series Snowfall may not be in the GOAT confines of HBO’s perpetually overlooked The Wire, it still boasts some remarkable performances. Chief among them this year is British actor Damson Idris as South Central, LA’s methodical crack kingpin Franklin Saint.
When underling Leon (Isaiah John) attempts to take territory away from valuable Compton partner Manboy (Melvin Gregg), an almost too-calm Franklin steps in to smooth things over. But the car ride back unleashes a scarier figure that recalls the slow-burning, menacing demeanor of Denzel Washington in Training Day (yeah, he’s that good). “I built this shit!” he finally explodes. “Me…brick by brick. And I’ll be damned if I let you tear it down just because you don’t like the way another n---a talks!!!” Chills.
Euphoria (HBO): Rue’s surreal relapse.
By now you’ve probably heard the mouth-opening buzz centered around the provocative, controversial teen drama Euphoria. There’s a lot to see here: crippling depression that goes beyond high school angst, body insecurity, explicit sex scenes, trans life in a cis world, full frontal male nudity, and family dysfunction.
There’s also the no bullsh-t portrayal of drug addiction, a reality that’s imbedded heavily in the rollercoaster storyline of Rue, played with deep, dark poignancy by former Disney Channel star Zendeya, who serves notice that she is headed for future award season glory. Snorting a line of what looks to be cocaine, Rue’s descent is transformed into a haunting song and dance sequence seemingly headed for a tragic overdose. Riveting stuff.
Pose (FX): Candy confronts her parents at her own funeral.
Being a trans woman is not at all easy. Often times you face discrimination, the threat of violence, and in more frequently extreme cases, death. Which is why Pose stands proudly as one of television’s most important watershed LGBTQ breakthroughs. Of course, much of the praise surrounding the show in its second season has been bestowed on indelible headlining regulars Billy Porter (Pray Tell) and MJ Rodriquez (Bianca).
But Pose’s worthy cast of all-heart co-stars and role players also deserve recognition. And truthfully we didn’t see Angelica Ross coming. After the acid-tongued comedic Candy is brutally murdered and left in the closet of a seedy hotel, her spirit haunts and comforts friends, rivals and family members. Candy’s tear-inducing appearance at her own funeral, where she finally finds emotional common ground with her parents (“This is me, ma…This is who I truly am…”), is particularly poignant.
Queen Sugar (OWN): Charley has it out with Nova.
Queen Sugar half-sisters Nova (Rutina Wesley) and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) have long had a loving, but strained relationship. But when a manuscript of Nova’s explosive tell-all memoir entitled Blessings and Blood gets out amongst the Bordelon clan, all hell breaks loose. The painful aftermath has a foundation-shifting effect on everyone from younger brother and ex-con Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) to his estranged, recovering addict, baby mother and former love Darla (Bianca Lawson).
However, the master class showdown between Wesley and Gardner is epic. “At the end of the day, you wrote about your evil light-skinned sister and her famous philandering husband,” Charley claps back after being told buy Nova that she has been hiding behind the supremacy of her half-white privilege. The only question is when will Ava DuVernay’s heart-grabbing rural Louisiana drama get the Emmy respect it deserves?
Snowfall (FX): Mel gets stuck on the pipe.
What makes Reign Edwards’ portrayal of Spelman college-bound college girl Melody so compelling? In just one episode she manages to reenact the instant destructive addiction of crack without ever devolving into ham-fisted clichés. When Franklin finds Mel high and out of her mind in a crack house, he physically drags her kicking and screaming into a car to take her back home to her beyond worried LA cop father Andre (Marcus Henderson).
She later assaults Franklin, steals from family members and hustles for her next hit on the streets. College no longer seems in the cards. Mel’s free fall is so abrupt that Franklin has already accepted the fate of his beautiful on-and-off-again girlfriend and next-door neighbor. She’s gone. It’s yet another sobering indictment of how the ‘80s crack epidemic ravaged once burgeoning black communities.
A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO): Shakespeare + Bardi Gang + Barbz = hilarity.
In less ambitious hands this Romeo and Juliet spoof would have hit a cringe-worthy, stale note. Fortunately, A Black Lady Sketch Show creator and lead writer Robin Thede sticks the landing with the Shakespearean flip, Rome & Julissa, which cleverly lampoons STAN culture, social media peer pressure, popular theme parties, and star crossed love affairs in the span of four minutes and twenty-seven seconds.
Series regular Quinta Brunson, arguably the show’s MVP, belongs to the House of Cardi B while Everybody Hates Chris and The Walking Dead’s Tyler James Williams is a member of the House of Nicki Minaj. Despite a perilous blood feud between the two rapper’s factions, the pair instantly falls in love, prompting this uproarious exchange. Julissa: “I came to Stan my queen and yet knew not I’d meet my own Offset.” Rome: “Nay. To stay or should I flee the one I love Stans Cardi B…” Iambic pentameter never sounded so boundlessly hilarious.
Boomerang (BET): David gets his groove back.
The best compliment you could pay BET’s Boomerang is that its staunchly obsessed with walking its own path. This is no small feat considering that the Lena Waithe and Halle Berry produced comedy series is a small screen sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 1992 romantic comedy classic. Boomerang’s strong assemble of talent and smart writing gives the young, dynamic actors the freedom to zig when you would expect them to zag.
And while we await the follow-up to last season’s holy sh-t cliffhanger—will Marcus Graham’s equally impulsive daughter Simone (Tetona Jackson) and Jacqueline Broyer’s polar opposite, warm-hearted son Bryson (Tequan Richmond) survive the return of an old flame?—let’s acknowledge the scene-stealing flair of everyone’s favorite Wall Street shark turned beyond-his-years preacher David (RJ Walker).
Not only does the scuffling pastor display true chivalry, offering an attractive woman named Elaine (“Like Seinfeld…”) his blazer and help finding a Lyft as they talk outside the club, he invites her to his church. AT 7 AM THE NEXT DAY…AND SHE ACTUALLY COMES! Now that’s game.
Carnival Row (Amazon): Mr. Agreus demands respect.
In Amazon’s dark fantasy, steam pump romp Carnival Row, war-torn mythical creatures like fairies, fauns, and trolls live amongst humans. This, of course, creates much tension and overt prejudice against the hard working outsiders who are just trying to find a better way of life. Sounds familiar? Indeed, the eye-popping Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne vehicle does not attempt to hide what doubles as an allegory for President Trump’s xenophobic, racist, and often-time cruel immigration policies. When we meet the mysterious Mr. Agreus, a wealthy faun played with regal quiet rage by David Gyasi, it is abundantly clear that he’s not immune to societal prejudice.
After moving into the biggest mansion in the rich human section of The Burgue, he is gawked at like an oddity and called a “puck,” a virtual stand-in for the N-word. His snobby next-door neighbor Imogen Spurnrose (“Does he really think his money can buy him acceptance here?”) and her inept brother Ezra are aghast at the thought of living next to that.
But when she discovers that her older sibling has lost all their sizable fortune she makes a deal with Mr. Agreus. In exchange for a loan to save the Spurnrose family business, Imogen helps the proud faun rub shoulders with the Burgue elite—but only on his terms, segueing into a spectacularly awkward get-together. “Which is how I find myself here…in such fine company,” Mr. Agreus says with a wry smile amongst the other nervous, posh guests. The unlikely pair eventually falls for one another.
Mindhunter (Netflix): The FBI finally meets Wayne Williams.
From 1979 to 1981, at least 25 black children and six adults were murdered in Atlanta. The heinous killing spree caused widespread panic, especially in African-American communities that long believed (and for good reason) that law enforcement in a city just a little over a decade removed from segregation was lackadaisical in its search for the serial killer.
In its second season, Mindhunter dramatizes the confounding, racially frenetic case, which made national headlines (enough so that even Prince name-checked the unfathomable murders in his dark 1981 song “Annie Christian” until 1982. That was the same year Wayne Williams, elevated to ominous heights by Christopher Livingston, was finally caught. Despite police believing that there was enough evidence to connect the wannabe local music impresario to 22 of the unsolved murders, the prime suspect is only convicted in two of the deaths of the adult victims.
What makes Livingston’s performance especially potent is the subtle creepiness he imbues, specifically in episode 9, when Williams is stopped by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit led by special agents quirky Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and the grizzled Ben Tench (Holt McCallny). The weird AF bespectacled killer drips with unnerving narcissism. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
9-1-1 (FOX): Athena Grant tells mama to back off.
Angela Bassett is a national treasure. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s kind of strange watching the legendary Oscar and Emmy-nominated icon flex her otherworldly talents as LAPD patrol sergeant Athena Carter Grant on the rather pedestrian 9-1-1. Not that it’s a bad show (it’s mildly entertaining as procedural dramas go). But come on! We are talking about the ageless Yale School of Drama-trained thespian that can recite the alphabet and make it sound like the most riveting of soliloquies.
Bassett certainly puts her immense talents to charitable use in a scene where Athena’s overbearing mother talks down to her soon-to-be husband, LAFD captain Bobby Nash (Peter Krause), objecting to his fatherly handling of her grandchildren. Athena is having none of that as she gives this stern ultimatum: “Apologize, mama…if she wants to stay in this house tonight…she does.” Well, damn.
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Photo Credit: FX/Youtube