The last time a television show starring a black family won the Emmy for best comedy, Ronald Reagan was beginning his second term as president and Bill Cosby stood tall as a beloved figure in American popular culture.
More than three decades later, there’s a good argument to be made that ABC’s “black-ish” is the best comedy on television right now, a smart family sitcom that really found its voice in its second season. The series owes an obvious debt to “The Cosby Show,” which it acknowledged in a late-season episode that dealt with Cosby’s legacy, both good and bad.
That distinction became sharper this year, particularly in the episode “Hope,” which found the Johnson family gathering in their living room to watch the news and see if police officers will be indicted for killing another unarmed black man. The episode handled the hot-button topic with honesty and dark humor, evolving into a nuanced look at how black parents talk to their children about the American justice system. This was exceptional, cathartic television. I can’t see how it won’t win the Emmy this year.
In fact, just writing about “Hope” makes it a bit weird to transition into the topic at hand — the Emmy comedy races! But that’s today’s business. Here’s how the categories are shaping up ...
“Master of None”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Analysis: These are the seven nominees. End of discussion. Sure, maybe one of the Chuck Lorre CBS multi-cam shows — "Mom” or “The Big Bang Theory” — could make it in, probably “Mom” for the way it negotiates the line between broad comedy and the serious struggles of its characters. (Jim Parsons didn’t even earn a nomination last year, signaling that “Big Bang’s” time has probably passed.)
As you read on, you’ll learn that I’m a big fan of both “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but I’ll save my blind optimism for the shows’ leads. A nomination for either series here would be as likely as Jane’s “immaculate” conception. Stronger bets for upset nods: Hulu’s sharply observed relationship dramedy “Casual” and Amazon’s exhilarating, shockingly funny “Catastrophe.”
Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”
Anthony Anderson, “black-ish”
Aziz Ansari, “Master of None”
William H. Macy, “Shameless”
Will Forte, “The Last Man on Earth”
Gael Garcia Bernal, “Mozart in the Jungle”
Analysis: This category included seven last year, with Emmy favorites Don Cheadle, Louis C.K. and Matt LeBlanc nominated with Tambor, Anderson, Macy and Forte. LeBlanc and C.K. won’t be back as “Episodes” and “Louie” didn’t have new seasons, creating at least a couple of openings. Ansari, so funny and endearing, should earn a nod so long as voters don’t dismiss his work as being too close to his established persona. And Bernal deserves consideration too for his needy, brilliant dictatorial maestro in “Mozart.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Amy Schumer, “Inside Amy Schumer”
Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Tracee Ellis Ross, "black-ish”
Gina Rodriguez, “Jane the Virgin”
Rachel Bloom, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
Analysis: These picks represent a certain amount of wishful thinking on my part, banking/hoping that Television Academy members will someday realize that they can give a CW series a nomination and be lauded, not ridiculed. (Just ask your [grand]kids!) Rodriguez and Bloom are, arguably, the top of the class here, anchoring shows that feature confident, compulsively watchable storytelling. They’ve won the last two Golden Globes for lead comedy actress. Is it too much to ask for a mere nomination? (That was a rhetorical question. I fear I know the answer.)
With Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) and Edie Falco (“Nurse Jackie”) having left the landscape, the category does seem ripe for renewal. Certainly Kemper, another grievous omission last year, will earn a nod. And while you can’t discount the chances of past nominees Lily Tomlin (“Grace and Frankie”) or Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”), I’d advocate for the frothy (but not inconsequential ... forget I used that word!) CW shows or Constance Wu’s hilarious work as the scene-stealing mom on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
COMEDY SUPPORTING ACTOR
Tony Hale, “Veep”
Tituss Burgess, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Ty Burrell, “Modern Family”
Louie Anderson, “Baskets”
Keegan-Michael Key, “Key and Peele”
Laurence Fishburne, “black-ish”
Analysis: All six of last year’s nominees, including the very deserving winner Hale, are back in play this year. Perhaps it’s foolish to bet against three-time nominee Adam Driver. Perhaps I still can’t get over that punk move he pulled on Han Solo. Or maybe, just maybe, I was more taken with the comic vulnerability that Anderson brought to “Baskets” and think Fishburne’s impossible Pops on “black-ish” is too good to ignore. You decide. There’s no shortage of worthy candidates here, including Jay Duplass (“Transparent”), T.J. Miller (“Silicon Valley”) and David Alan Grier (“The Carmichael Show”).
COMEDY SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Allison Janney, “Mom”
Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep”
Jane Krakowski, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Judith Light, “Transparent”
Gaby Hoffmann, “Transparent”
Analysis: Last year, this crowded category sported eight nominees — eight! — and they’re all returning. But I’m thinking that space must be made for Light, who had a much bigger role this season on “Transparent,” including that intimate scene of bathtub ecstasy with costar Tambor. If you saw it, you won’t forget it. And that’s how Emmy nominations are born.