It’s not always an obvious choice. This year, Giancarlo Esposito was nominated for supporting actor for his work as drugpin Gustavo Fring on “Breaking Bad.” Esposito was so amazing throughout the season, it couldn’t have been easy to pick just one episode. He had one line in the fourth season premiere, yet still commanded the entire episode. He ended up going with the episode titled “Hermanos,” in which we flashback to see Fring 20 years ago—a very different man than in the present. It’s a good choice, showing the exposition between the controlled, powerful Fring we’ve come to know as a monster, then actually creating sympathy for him.
It was a great choice because Esposito got to show real range, and because the episode centered on his character. But in many cases, an actor’s best episode isn’t the show’s best. And judges want to reward a great show as much as the actor. So it becomes about finding a balance between a good representation of the show, that also showcases the individual actor work.
This can be tough when the best episode goes against the category itself. Last year, Chris Colfer of “Glee” chose “Grilled Cheesus,” in which his character copes with his father’s heart attack. It was a beautiful, touching performance—in the comedy category. Colfer didn’t win, though that might have had more to do with the “Modern Family” juggernaut than his episode of choice.
There are some good rules of thumb for actors when making their selection. In general, stand-alone and “bottle episodes”—in which characters are trapped in one location and given lots of dialogue—are great. It certainly worked for Bryan Cranston on the season three of “Breaking Bad” entitled “Fly,” set almost entirely in his character’s underground meth lab. “Special” episodes—dream sequences, fantastical plots, and parodies—don’t tend to fare as well, which may be why shows like “Community,” who specialize in such episodes, tend to get ignored in acting categories. Special episodes rely on a viewer already being familiar with the character in order to appreciate the behavior—think of Roger Sterling tripping on LSD on “Mad Men” this year. John Slattery was brilliant, but if you’d never seen an episode of “Mad Men,” much of the joke would be lost on you.
But perhaps the smartest move is to make sure the episode itself isn’t too confusing. This poses a problem for Damian Lewis and Clare Danes, the stars of Showtime series “Homeland” about a POW who may or may not be a traitor and the agent who suspects him of being a terrorist. While both actors had some wonderfully juicy scenes in the finale, even those who love the show had trouble keeping track of all the double-crosses and reveals. Many of the mid-season episodes are also difficult to jump right into because “Homeland” isn’t really built for stand-alone episodes. So it might make sense to submit the pilot episode, which they are both excellent in, and hope voters are intrigued enough to watch more of the series. That way, you not only walk away with a vote, but a future viewer.