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Dear Emmy Voters And TV Lovers, Here's What You Shouldn't Miss

Naomi Ackie as Alicia in <em>Master of None.</em>
Naomi Ackie as Alicia in Master of None.

As a critic who loves glitzy awards shows and celebrations of great work, I find the Emmy season feels a bit like Christmas and the Super Bowl rolled into one, glorious package. But it can be ruined if the folks handing out the big awards make the wrong picks.

Just ask the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which last year saw controversy over its lack of diversity in TV categories of the Golden Globes – epitomized by ignoring HBO's compelling, Black-led drama I May Destroy You - snowball into the snub that helped cripple a 77-year-old Hollywood institution.

So, as the members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences wrap up voting on nominations for the Emmys today, I have a few recommendations for under-the-radar potentials they should seriously consider.

These suggestions won't necessarily avoid a Globes-level disaster; frankly, any institution that tone deaf seems bound for tragedy. But they can widen the field of consideration enough so that any one snub won't make the entire enterprise look bad.

And if you're not among Emmy voters, but simply someone who loves great TV, here's a list of some shows and performances you might have missed while catching up on WandaVision and Mare of Easttown.

Outstanding Supporting Actress, Comedy: Naomi Ackie, Master of None, Netflix

The latest season of Netflix's Master of None felt much more like a drama, centered on the decaying marriage between Ackie's ambitious interior designer Alicia and Lena Waithe's floundering novelist Denise. But the show was considered a comedy in previous seasons, focused on Aziz Ansari's hapless actor Dev, so here we are. Ackie's smart, determined Alicia is the beating heart of this new season for a reimagined show – a woman dedicated to having a baby despite how it affects her marriage or her health. The episode featuring her fertility struggles while moving on from Denise and building a new life is the biggest reason to watch at all, proof that they needed to pair Waithe with a talented, emotive actress to make this year's episodes soar.

Outstanding Comedy Series: Shrill, Hulu and/or Made for Love, HBO Max

In Shrill, Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant has created an unassuming, yet surprisingly adept comedy about a millennial woman struggling to grow beyond the limited picture others have of her. And in the same way Bryant's Annie refuses to let herself be defined as the fat girl who writes about body positivity for the lame weekly newspaper where she works, Shrill refuses to limit itself to her story as an overweight woman, morphing in its third and final season into a perceptive, touching comedy about preparing for adulting.

Made for Love is an odd, sci-fi-laced dark comedy featuring Cristin Milioti as a woman whose effort to leave her suffocating marriage to a tech billionaire is hampered by a chip he planted in her brain allowing him to track her movements and see what she sees. Of course, it's an allegory for the suffocating nature of modern misogyny. But thanks to the comedic chops of Milioti and ace backups like Ray Romano as her sex doll-loving dad, it's also a madcap treatise on the pitfalls of family, technology and personal relationships-as marketing.

Outstanding Lead Actor, Comedy: William Zabka, Cobra Kai, Netflix

For some reason, Netflix's Karate Kid update series is classified as a comedy for Emmy purposes (they probably figure the category offers less competition). Regardless, Zabka's compelling, sympathetic take on grown-up-bad-guy Johnny Lawrence – a loser in his 50s still fighting to contain his anger and get past abusive father figures – is the series' secret sauce. Lawrence's struggles are the most realistic element of Cobra Kai and close to the only performance worth repeated watching, once you peel away the nostalgia and what-do-they-look-like-now curiosity.

Outstanding Limited Series: Small Axe, Amazon and The Underground Railroad, Amazon

With only five nomination slots and high-profile series like The Queen's Gambit, Mare of Easttown, WandaVision and The Undoing in contention, this may be the most competitive category in the entire contest. So it will be tempting for Emmy voters to pick just one of two high-profile, big-budget projects centered on Black culture and characters.

But Small Axe and The Underground Railroad are very different. Small Axe is Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen's effort to tell the untold story of Black immigrants in England with five evocative films. The Underground Railroad is Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins' beautifully punishing, 10-episode take on Colson Whitehead's novel leveraging magical realism in the story of an escaped slave's journey to independence. Both deserve the honor of a nomination, no matter how crowded the field.

Outstanding Supporting Actress, Drama: Wunmi Mosaku, Lovecraft Country, HBO

Perhaps the most subversive character in HBO's series on a Black family trapped in a story of horror, afrofuturism and magic, Mosaku's Ruby Baptiste is a Black woman who gains the ability through magic to become a white woman in 1950s America. It's a painful transformation, which involves shedding skin in bloody ribbons. But what makes the transition truly chilling is Mosaku's portrayal of a Black woman who suspects that being able to become white may solve all her problems, until it actually happens.

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series: The Amber Ruffin Show, Peacock

This is another highly competitive category: last year, just three shows were nominated, with Saturday Night Live a virtual lock for nomination and win. Still, Ruffin has managed to build a quietly powerful, sidesplitting series on NBC Universal's streaming service Peacock. Ruffin marries devastatingly hilarious monologues on code switching at work, your mom's take on social issues and white supremacy's connection to the culture wars with her earnest, sweet attitude — like a hitman disguised as your little sister's best friend. Since its debut last year, Ruffin has slowly found her voice, building an arsenal of awesome segments on a budget that would likely make shoestrings look generous. And an Emmy nomination just might convince Peacock to move her onto broadcast TV, perhaps in the old time slot once held by the departing A Little Late with Lilly Singh. Your move, Emmy academy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.