The 2016 Emmy Awards arrive Sunday, September 18, to honor the best television of the 2015-’16 TV season. And predicting them, sadly, is a bit of a cinch.
Before the 2015 Emmys, it was generally possible to make predictions based entirely on which episodes the various nominees submitted for voting consideration. The system wasn't foolproof, but it usually allowed you to narrow the field to a handful of plausible winners based solely on the work being judged.
But everything changed when a new, less exclusive voting system lessened the importance of exactly which episodes are submitted. (Read more about the system here.) And in 2015, that meant Game of Thrones won nearly every prize it was up for, and Jon Hamm finally took home an acting Emmy for Mad Men after eight Lead Actor nominations.
Now buzz matters a lot more than it used to. Indeed, it’s possibly the most important factor to consider when predicting who will take home a trophy on Sunday.
In that same vein, the network your show airs on also matters more than it used to; if your network has lots of voters in the Academy — as HBO does — that means lots of potential ballots with a checkmark next to your name.
Judging from the winners at the recent Creative Arts Emmys (which reward technicians, guest stars, and others whose names usually appear in the end credits), we could be in for a repetitive evening on Sunday.
The Americans’ Margo Martindale won her second consecutive Emmy for Guest Actress in a Drama Series, for a submitted episode where she appeared onscreen for two minutes. And Game of Thrones won nine prizes — one more than it won at the Creative Arts Emmys in 2015.
As such, we’re betting on a night full of repeats, though we can always hope for something a bit less predictable. Here’s who will — and who should — win at the 2016 Emmy Awards.
Outstanding Drama Series
The Americans is just happy to be nominated. Better Call Saul is great but has yet to inspire the excitement of its parent series, Breaking Bad. Homeland had its best season since its (Emmy-winning) first, but it would be really weird for it to suddenly win again. And Mr. Robot’s drop in buzz in season two should siphon off a few votes, even though the show is nominated for season one.
That leaves three real contenders. Game of Thrones won last year and remains TV’s most widely discussed show. House of Cards is Netflix’s flagship series and feels like something that would win an Emmy, with its White House setting and prestigious cast. And Downton Abbey is nominated for its final season, which might prompt nostalgia votes.
Nostalgia rarely rules at the Emmys, and though House of Cards always garners major nominations, it has yet to match them with major wins, despite copious opportunities. Expect a repeat for Game of Thrones.
Will win: Game of Thrones
Should win: The Americans. C’mon! It’s the best show on TV!
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
- Kyle Chandler, Bloodline
- Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
- Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
- Matthew Rhys, The Americans
- Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
- Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Since John Hamm isn’t around, a repeat is impossible. Furthermore, nobody in this category has won it for the role they’re currently nominated for (Chandler won in 2011 for Friday Night Lights), so it’s guaranteed to feature new blood.
The three most likely contenders here are Malek (whose performance is the most acclaimed thing about a new show that made a big Emmy splash), Odenkirk (whose network has won this category five of the past eight years), and Spacey (who has two Oscars and plays a very hammy role).
Our guess is Malek, who submitted the Mr. Robot pilot and is the one thing even people who don’t like Mr. Robot like about Mr. Robot.
Will and should win: Rami Malek
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
- Claire Danes, Homeland
- Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
- Taraji P. Henson, Empire
- Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
- Keri Russell, The Americans
- Robin Wright, House of Cards
Last year’s winner, Viola Davis, is nominated once again. But she’s the only major nominee from her show for the second year in a row — and it’s hard to win for a show that Emmy voters don’t seem to be enjoying enough to nominate elsewhere.
The safe money is probably on Davis, but she’s also ripe for an upset. Of the other nominees, Wright and Russell have the best submission tapes, and they’re on shows with plenty of buzz.
We’re giving the edge to Russell, since The Americans vaulted into major categories in season four after being ignored for its first three seasons. That suggests voters are actually watching it — and if they are, they’ll know how good she is.
Will and should win: Keri Russell
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
- Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
- Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
- Kit Harington, Game of Thrones
- Michael Kelly, House of Cards
- Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline
- Jon Voight, Ray Donovan
By all rights, Peter Dinklage will be repeating his win last year. (He also won this category in 2011, for the same role in Game of Thrones’ first season, and has been nominated every year since.) He’s on a huge, beloved show, and he’s a much-loved actor, playing perhaps the most loved character on his series.
But Dinklage’s submission is a weaker episode for him ("No One," in which he didn’t really do anything), while his fellow castmate Kit Harington submitted "The Battle of the Bastards," an action epic that rests entirely on Harington’s shoulders. Harington is not nearly as good an actor as Dinklage, but these submissions suggest HBO is pushing Jon Snow over Tyrion Lannister this year.
(In terms of non–Game of Thrones actors, look to Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks, though we wouldn’t peg him as anything more than a dark horse.)
Will win: Kit Harington
Should win: This is an incredibly weak category, with a lot of nominees who seem to be coasting (like Mendelsohn, who barely did anything in Bloodline’s second season). We’d probably vote for Banks.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
- Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
- Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
- Dame Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
- Maura Tierney, The Affair
- Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones
- Constance Zimmer, UnReal
Last year, Uzo Aduba won for Orange Is the New Black — and then was promptly left off this year’s list. Yet we think this category is a cinch to predict: One of these days Lena Headey is going to win an Emmy for playing the villainous Cersei Lannister, so why not now? (The dark horse contender is likely Dame Maggie Smith, who has won this category before, but not for many years.)
Will win: Lena Headey
Should win: Constance Zimmer, who was an acid delight in UnReal season one.
Outstanding Comedy Series
After five straight wins, Modern Family finally ceded its Emmys crown to Veep in 2015, opening up the race in a newly exciting way. Netflix’s Master of None is a newcomer to this category, as is ABC’s Black-ish, which had a particularly good second season. Overall, it’s an especially strong batch of nominees, and just about all of them have a claim to the ultimate prize.
But unless Modern Family makes some sort of weirdo comeback, it’d be surprising if Veep — a newly crowned Emmy favorite — didn’t take this trophy again for its solid fifth season of comedy about political ineptitude at a time when that topic feels more relevant than ever. It also earned 17 nods, making it 2016’s most nominated comedy.
As for an upset: Transparent had a wonderful second season, but our bet on a surprise here is on Black-ish, which ABC has been pushing hard.
Will win: Veep
Should win: Black-ish
Best Actress in a Comedy Series
- Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
- Laurie Metcalf, Getting On
- Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish
- Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer
- Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie
If the Emmys are looking to reward something new after giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus four statues in a row, they’ll go with Laurie Metcalf — who’s nominated in no fewer than three categories this year — for HBO’s criminally low-rated Getting On.
But "rewarding something new" isn’t exactly the Emmys’ jam, and this season of Veep gave Louis-Dreyfus exactly the kind of meaty, viciously funny material that makes for great Emmy reels, anyway.
Will win: Julia Louis-Drefyus
Should win: Laurie Metcalf or Tracee Ellis Ross
Best Actor in a Comedy Series
- Anthony Anderson, Black-ish
- Aziz Ansari, Master of None
- Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth
- William H. Macy, Shameless
- Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
- Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
This category could go a couple of different ways. Though Jeffrey Tambor won in 2015 for Transparent, his character, Maura, had a far smaller arc in the show’s second season, meaning voters could be a little less impressed this time around. That could leave room for someone else to break through — like Aziz Ansari, who is a first-time nominee.
However, chances are the voting rule changes will make an upset less likely, so don’t be surprised by a Tambor repeat.
Will win: Jeffrey Tambor
Should win: Anthony Anderson
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
- Anna Chlumsky, Veep
- Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent
- Allison Janney, Mom
- Judith Light, Transparent
- Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
- Niecy Nash, Getting On
Take a quick look at this batch of talent and feel a twinge of pity for Emmy voters, if you can. Every actor on this list does fantastic work on her respective show, making this one of the tighter acting races on here.
Allison Janney has won the past two years for Mom, and again, the Emmys are primed for repeats. But we’re gonna go out on a limb and say that Judith Light takes this one, based on Transparent’s solid standing with the Academy, Light’s increased role in the show’s second season, and her stature within the industry.
Will and should win: Judith Light
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
- Louie Anderson, Baskets
- Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
- Titus Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
- Ty Burrell, Modern Family
- Tony Hale, Veep
- Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele
- Matt Walsh, Veep
Recent winners of the Supporting Actor in a Comedy category have been linked to the winners of Best Comedy, with Modern Family actors Eric Stonestreet and Ty Burrell taking turns from 2010 to 2014, before Veep’s Tony Hale broke through in 2015 when the show did the same.
So while this year’s lineup is strong — credit where it’s due to Emmys voters for including Louie Anderson’s wonderful Baskets performance — the safe bet is on Hale winning again.
Will win: Tony Hale
Should win: Titus Burgess, whose passionate Titus Andromedon is frequently the best part of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Outstanding Limited Series
Every single nominee here is worth watching, but sadly, they can’t all win. And with more than 20 nominations across all of this year’s categories, The People v. O.J. Simpson is going to win the Limited Series race handily. It’s unlikely that anything else will even come close.
Will and should win: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
- Bryan Cranston, All the Way
- Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
- Idris Elba, Luther
- Cuba Gooding Jr., The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
- Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager
- Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
This category should boil down to a two-man race between Cranston, an Emmy favorite, and Vance, who was one half of the vicious heart of the year’s best miniseries. But watch out for Cumberbatch, who’s won this category in the past.
And with that said, we’re betting the Emmys will be unable to resist Cranston as LBJ.
Will win: Bryan Cranston
Should win: Courtney B. Vance
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
- Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
- Felicity Huffman, American Crime
- Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
- Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
- Lili Taylor, American Crime
- Kerry Washington, Confirmation
Here’s another category where absolutely every nominee is terrific. Dunst gave the best performance in a tremendous second season of Fargo, but then Paulson came along and turned O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark from a laughingstock into a deeply sympathetic, ahead-of-her-time hero. Plus, Paulson’s never won before, despite six nominations (two this year alone), so this will be an opportunity for the Emmys to right that wrong.
Will and should win: Sarah Paulson
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
- Jesse Plemons, Fargo
- Hugh Laurie, The Night Manager
- David Schwimmer, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
- Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo
- Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
- John Travolta, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
You can game out all sorts of scenarios from this category. Does Schwimmer rise above his O.J. co-stars for being the unlikely conscience of his series? Does Travolta win for being the biggest name in this race? Does Brown win for turning in the best performance of the three from his show that are nominated here?
The truth is, it’s just as likely they’ll split the vote, as will the Fargo guys. And you know who never won an Emmy for House and is the only person nominated in this category from his show?
Will win: Hugh Laurie
Should win: Bokeem Woodbine gave a dazzling, soulful performance on Fargo and just edges out Brown in our book.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
- Melissa Leo, All the Way
- Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Hotel
- Jean Smart, Fargo
- Regina King, American Crime
- Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Hotel
- Olivia Colman, The Night Manager
There are lots of intriguing possibilities here. King won this category last year for the same show, while Leo is playing none other than Lady Bird Johnson. Then you have Bates, another Emmy favorite.
But there’s an even bigger Emmy favorite in the running: Jean Smart. She’s won three Emmys — one for Samantha Who, a show you likely don’t even remember — and was nominated another five times. Plus, giving her a win would be a nice way to recognize Fargo, since it’s going to lose lots of other categories to O.J., which wasn’t nominated here.
Will win: Jean Smart
Should win: Olivia Colman, whose work as a beleaguered spymaster on The Night Manager showed off her incredible range.
Outstanding Variety Talk Show
- Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
- Jimmy Kimmel Live
- Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
- Real Time With Bill Maher
- The Late Late Show With James Corden
- The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
This is the most variety that the Variety Talk category’s seen in a hot minute, especially since usual stalwart The Daily Show didn’t make the cut. James Corden’s had a big year, mostly thanks to his hugely popular Carpool Karaoke series. But with all the buzz the fantastic Last Week Tonight has gotten in its first two years — not to mention the fact that the show won for writing at the Creative Arts Emmys last week — it’s probably a lock.
Will and should win: Last Week Tonight
Outstanding Variety Sketch Series
- Documentary Now!
- Drunk History
- Inside Amy Schumer
- Key & Peele
- Saturday Night Live
Splitting up the Variety Talk category into two separate races in 2014 was a big deal for shows that wound up in this new category, as any sketch show that wasn’t SNL previously had almost no shot. This year’s race could go a couple of different ways, but even though Inside Amy Schumer’s general buzz has waned, it will probably still take the trophy.
Will win: Inside Amy Schumer
Should win: A close call between Key & Peele’s final season and Documentary Now!’s pitch-perfect parodies.
The 68th annual Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 18, at 8 pm Eastern on ABC.
Corrected to reflect that 2016 isn't the first time Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Anthony Anderson have been nominated for an Emmy.