While the nominees may be anxious to hear their names called on Sunday, Sept. 18, when the Primetime Emmy Awards are handed out live from Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater, fans still may need to catch up on up some of the finest hours of TV.
With the weekend ahead of us, there’s still time to go back and watch the episodes that earned recognition from the Television Academy. But what’s worth watching? How about a marathon of these eight stellar episodes? ET went behind the scenes to learn about how they came together.
Dale Stern, a longtime first assistant director on the HBO comedy, finally put his foot down and got to direct his first episode, which not only earned him his first Emmy nomination but also earned Julia Louis-Dreyfus her fifth consecutive acting nomination for playing Selina Meyer, plus nominations for writing and editing. In the season five episode, Meyer’s mother is on her deathbed as the president comes to terms with letting go. “There's a scene where the doctor leaves her alone to say her final words to her mother before they pull the plug. She can't find the words to say it, so she reverts back to the greeting card that Ben gave Ken. It was this ridiculous thing,” Stern says. “I could tell she was just going to deliver the goods that day. I fought with my DP to get the camera really close to her, inches away from her face … The range that she possesses is just mindboggling, from trying to find these words and then she breaks into hysterical laughing.”
“Kimmy Gives Up,” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
When you combine the forces of composer Jeff Richmond (husband to Kimmy Schmidt co-creator Tina Fey) and Tituss Burgess, magic is bound to happen, as is the case with this music-filled episode that earned Burgess his second Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. “Obviously theater is something that is very close to me and I know it very well. Any opportunity to visit that on camera, I welcome it,” he says, adding that it’s a “luxury” to work with someone like Richmond. “This man is a genius. I don't know how he cranks out some of these songs. They are so in the center of what they are. If it's a '20s song, there's not a hint of 1930s … We speak the same language, so things move real quickly when him and I get together.”
“Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” Transparent
The second episode of Transparent’s second season proved to be a showcase of talent for Judith Light and Melora Hardin, who were both nominated this year. For Light, who plays matriarch Shelly Pfefferman, it saw the 67-year-old actress getting pleasured in a bathtub by her ex-partner Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor). “The thing about it was Jeffrey and I really needed to spend time talking to each other about what we were both nervous and afraid of,” she says, crediting both Tambor and creator Jill Soloway for creating a comfortable space in which to film. “When I first read it, I was very nervous. I said to Jill, ‘I'm terrified.’ She just heard me and she just let me talk.” In an entirely different scene, Hardin, who plays Sarah Pfefferman’s (Amy Landecker) ex-wife Tammy Cashman, it was a meltdown to top all meltdowns as she raged through a party, tossing their uneaten wedding cake in a pool. “I completely remember the moment where I was like, ‘That was fantastic. You just got yourself an Emmy nomination.’ We're going to do it again,” Soloway says. “What I tried to do as a director there is to not get a performance out of a person, but instead make the party feel real and let Melora stay in connection with her tool, which is her body and her voice, and keep a crucible of safety around her so she knows to go there. Then she did go there.”
“Battle of the Bastards,” Game of Thrones
The showdown between Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in “Battle of the Bastards,” season six’s penultimate episode, proved to be quite popular, easily besting the series’ previous battle episodes and earning both director Miguel Sapochnik and Harington their first career Emmy nominations as well as a writing nomination for series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. But filming the episode proved to be quite challenging. Plagued by “acts of god and a lot of rain” while filming in Ireland, the production was in danger of not completing the episode on time. However, Sapochnik says he was able to improvise a solution to capture the battle’s most dramatic moment: burying Snow alive in a stampede of his men. “It’s rare for filmmaking on that scale to get to follow its nose and improvise,” he says. “I was really pleased with the way it came out, and when David and Dan saw it and liked it, and then the audience saw it and responded so well, it was very gratifying.” Of course, the moment also happened to be Harington’s biggest fear. “When I told Kit, he lit up,” the director continues. “I thought to myself, ‘This idea has legs!’”
“Parents,” Master of None
Not confined to the conventions of a traditional half-hour comedy, co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang made it their mission to push the limits of what their Netflix series could be. “When we were writing the show, Alan and I were thinking to ourselves, ‘Who knows if we'll get a second season or if we'll ever get an opportunity like this [again],’” Ansari says. “Basically, Netflix is letting us do what we want and we have such creative freedom, let's really take advantage of that and do something crazy.” The result was standout episodes like “Indians on TV” and “Parents,” the latter of which, about Dev (Ansari) and his best friend (Kelvin Yu) reconnecting with their first-generation immigrant parents, earned Ansari a nomination for acting and directing while earning both him and Yang a nomination for writing. “We knew that if we were able to pull that story off correctly, it would communicate this emotion that we knew that we felt as children of immigrants,” Yang says of the episode, which was first conceived while they were walking around New York City, coming to the realization of how tiny their problems are compared to their parents’ own struggles. “It's kind of a love letter to our parents and our way of saying we're starting to appreciate all the sacrifices that they made -- and that emotion is very real and very genuine.”
While there were several standout episodes from this past season of Black-ish, none had the impact of “Hope,” which earned Anthony Anderson his second Emmy nomination for playing patriarch Andre “Dre” Johnson Sr. The episode dealt with police brutality in the wake of real-life incidents that have divided America and launched the Black Lives Matter movement. In it, a tearful Dre gives a speech to wife Rainbow "Bow" Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross, who is nominated for another episode) about the fear that he, and many others, had of President Barack Obama being assassinated during his inauguration. “It was a sentiment that Anthony Anderson felt,” the actor says, who managed to land the scene in two takes, the second of which was used in the final episode. “It was so powerful and so moving to me. It had an effect on the work, on the character.” What audiences didn’t see were tears running down Ross’ face as she stood off-screen while Anderson filmed his takes. “We hold each other in those moments, so he has the room to do all the things he does the same way he does for me,” she says. “I was right there with him, crying.”
“The Race Card,” The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
The FX anthology crime series earned 22 nominations, including one for John Singleton -- the Oscar-nominated director of Boyz n the Hood -- for his work behind the camera on “The Race Card.” Sterling K. Brown, a first-time nominee for his portrayal of prosecutor Christopher Darden, says it was a powerful episode from script to air. “Not only having John as the director, but that episode being written by Joe Robert Cole [writer of Marvel’s Black Panther and nominee for scripting this episode], I feel like there was a level of sensitivity to things that were being dealt with,” Brown says of the courtroom scenes that dealt with the use of the N-word. “It made me feel comfortable during the shooting, being in the hands of someone who had dealt with these very combustible issues in his own personal work. It gave me, as an actor, a sense of comfort knowing that people were going to be paying attention to the details -- and nothing was going to be glossed over.”
“Episode 1,” Catastrophe
Admittedly, the pilot episode, which co-creators and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are nominated for writing, is “quite chunky. I mean there's a lot going on in it and I think it ended up like that because it was originally two scripts,” Horgan says of the episode, which sets up the series about two people forced to fall in love after she gets pregnant. “[It] was a real challenge, but it was a good idea that worked out because you get the setup of the relationship. Then you also get to see them fully kind of having made the decision to get on with their lives. Hopefully it ended up a lot more satisfying and denser,” she says. Despite those challenges, “we had fun doing it,” Delaney says.
The 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, will air live on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.