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Sepinwall on Emmys 2020: Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Better Call Saul’?

This year’s nominations include some highlights — a haul for ‘Watchmen!’ Improved diversity! — but largely overlook one of the best shows on TV

Better Call Saul

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in 'Better Call Saul.'

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel

Watchmen — easily the best and most timely TV show of the last year — was the big winner at today’s announcement of the 2020 Primetime Emmy Award nominations. The comic book adaptation’s tale of superheroes battling (or, in some cases, reinforcing) white supremacy landed a whopping 26 nominations. That’s the most by far for any series, and a total that would be eye-popping in a pre-Game of Thrones world. There were nods for outstanding limited series; stars Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya-Abdul Mateen II, and Jovan Adepo; and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

With a headline like that, all seems well in the Emmy world, right?

Unfortunately, the nominations beyond Watchmen were spectacularly uneven, mixing fist-pumping choices (Ramy Youssef for best actor in a comedy!) with head-scratching ones (The Mandalorian for outstanding drama series?) and pure, wrong-headed, rage-inducing ones.

Yes, we have a lot to talk about here, but we need to start with Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, and Better Call Saul.

Saul had a decent morning with seven nods overall, including outstanding drama, plus one for its digital shorts where Seehorn’s Kim Wexler teaches legal ethics. But Odenkirk, who has been nominated every previous year of the series, and who has never been better than he was throughout its fifth and best season, got bumped by, most likely, Steve Carell from Apple TV+’s The Morning Show. Carell is the bigger name (in part because, once upon a time, he edged out Odenkirk for the role of Michael Scott on The Office), and Apple, which pushed the middling Morning Show to eight nominations, has more marketing muscle than AMC. Seehorn is even less of a name than Odenkirk, but she’s been giving the best dramatic performance on television for years now, with no Emmy recognition, and the trend unfortunately continues here.

But even nominations that should have been gimmes for Saul — Vince Gilligan for directing that stunning desert episode! Cinematography for that same episode, or the one with Jimmy’s reflection! — weren’t there. (Somehow, Ozark got two cinematography nods, suggesting that the category should be renamed Outstanding Use of a Blue Filter.) Even some of the nods Saul did get suggested institutional laziness, like Giancarlo Esposito, who remains excellent but underutilized, getting a nom over this season’s breakout performer, Tony Dalton. The series turned in an all-time season — one comparable to its Emmy-darling parent show at the peak of Walter White’s powers — and the voters collectively shrugged, checked a few boxes, and went off in search of shinier things.

OK. With that rant out of the way, let’s look for some good things. In The Good Place‘s final season, the voters finally noticed that the show features actors other than Ted Danson and Maya Rudolph, with farewell nominations for William Jackson Harper and D’Arcy Carden. TV’s funniest comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, earned eight nominations, including outstanding comedy series and three different writing nods. (I’m pulling for Stefani Robinson’s script for “On the Run,” a.k.a. The One With Jackie Daytona’s Toothpick.) Youssef actually received multiple nominations, both for acting and for directing the weirdest episode of Ramy Season Two (the one featuring Mia Khalifa), though the show itself couldn’t crack the comedy series field over the lazy second season of The Kominsky Method. And now the rage is bubbling up again, thinking about how Kominsky was nominated but Better Things fell entirely off the TV Academy’s radar.

Keep it together, keep it together… What else was good? Well, Toni Collette was nominated for Netflix’s aptly-titled miniseries Unbelivable. But, somehow, her extraordinary co-stars Kaitlyn Dever and Merritt Wever were not? They admittedly had the tougher road, submitting as leads in a limited series or movie, where they had to compete with marquee stars like Cate Blanchett and Kerry Washington, but still.

At least that category was — something else good! — one of several where the majority of nominees were black. At a time when the TV business is being pushed to do better when it comes to representation, the acting nominees on the whole were actually about 40 percent nonwhite. Rudolph alone picked up two different comedy guest-actress nominations, for Good Place and SNL, plus another for her voice work on Big Mouth. And the math is the same whether or not you count the two short-form acting categories, which may need to be redubbed “The Quibis.” (Latinx representation? Not so much, with zero acting nominees.)

It wasn’t a bad day to be new to the streaming wars, either. Disney+’s The Mandalorian brought home the fifth-most nominations of any show, with 15, albeit none for Baby Yoda, while Apple has to be pleased with its Morning Show campaign.

Last year’s big Emmy winners, Game of Thrones and Fleabag, have finished their runs, leaving a relatively wide-open field for whatever kind of virtual ceremony ABC has planned for September. If we were placing wagers right now, I would assume Watchmen, Succession, and Schitt’s Creek have the biggest night. But then, a few months ago, I was fantasizing about Odenkirk and Seehorn hoisting trophies together backstage, so you may want to beware putting your money where my mouth is.