Welcome to part six of our journey through the Emmy ballot on HitFix. Once again, Fienberg and I are approaching each category from two directions, with Dan as the pragmatist and me as the optimist. So as we move onto the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama category, Dan has his usual exhaustive photo gallery of potential nominees, starting with the most likely candidates before eventually moving onto a bit of wish fulfillment, while after the jump, I continue to pretend that I’m a voting member of the TV Academy and have to pick six nominees for this category. (And, again, actors determine what category to submit themselves in, or whether to submit at all. You can download the full performers list here.)
In terms of the winner, this may be the most wide-open of the major acting fields, simply because “Breaking Bad” didn’t air during the eligibility period and three-time winner Bryan Cranston therefore will have to wait at least a year for another trophy. In terms of nominations, though, this is going to be a very tough category to crack, as four of the six nominees return, along with Gabriel Byrne (who was nominated for both of the first 2 seasons of “In Treatment”). If you bank on the usual Emmy voter complacency, that leaves one spot, and that’s almost certainly going to Steve Buscemi (movie actor + HBO prestige project usually equals a nomination). My list is slightly more eclectic, though several of those returning nominees absolutely deserve to repeat, if only because they’ve all been deserving in their own way, and had the poor timing to be up against the genius of Cranston.
And top of that list is Cranston’s AMC comrade Jon Hamm, who had arguably his bet season ever, and inarguably his best Emmy submission episode ever, with “Mad Men” season four and “The Suitcase,” respectively. Don Draper’s drunken shame spiral was a gift to Hamm, who got to break down his master of the universe character, slowly build him back up, then show how the new Don Draper was perhaps not improved. Fantastic work throughout, and if he submits “The Suitcase” – in which he got to play every note of an acting symphony – it’s hard to imagine anybody beating him. (Note on the clip: yes, it’s the same one I used for Elisabeth Moss the other day, but every day is a good day to find out what the money is for.)
In terms of our next repeater, I had a conflicted feeling a year ago when Kyle Chandler finally, improbably cracked the nominations field. On the one hand, I was glad Coach was finally being recognized for one of the best performances on television in the last decade. On the other, “Friday Night Lights” season 4 was, while not a poor showcase for Chandler, certainly not the showiest season he’s had. Season 5, though, featured some of his best work of this great, great series (most, but not all, of which has aired on NBC already), as Coach Taylor has had to deal with the pitfalls of winning with an outlaw team: ego, dirty play, envy and pushback from the football institutions. His work with Michael B. Jordan in particular has been so tense at times, and moving at others.
Gabriel Byrne was, indeed, incredibly deserving in those first 2 “In Treatment” seasons. He has a workload unlike any other lead actor on television, carrying 2 hours or more of drama each week, memorizing massive chunks of dialogue in short order, having to convey so much about his character in how he listens and reacts to others, etc. The series’ third and final season was more flawed/repetitive than the first 2, with Byrne’s Dr. Paul Weston going through many of the same problems over and over, but the nightly acting duets between Byrne and the likes of Irrfan Khan and Amy Ryan were still riveting.
Our last repeater, Michael C. Hall, is the only one in this category whose show I don’t enjoy overall anymore. But in the case of “Dexter,” Hall is just so good that I will watch for him, even as the rest of the series is in a safe, dull familiar story cycle. Hall was especially good early in the season, as Dexter went through the early stages of grief (or his sociopathic understanding of grief) in the wake of his wife’s murder, and if the overall beats remain the same (Dexter almost gets caught, just barely gets away, straps the big bad to a table, lather, rinse, repeat), he never lets Dexter himself seem bored with it.
Of my two novice nominees, one is a longshot for a nomination and one unfortunately has no realistic chance at all, even though he should, and both are from FX shows.
The longshot is Timothy Olyphant, who in “Justified” season 2 found a way to mix the swagger of Raylan Givens with some genuine vulnerability and pathos. Again, it’s hard to see anyone beating Hamm with “The Suitcase,” but if Olyphant were to somehow get a nomination and then submit the season’s penultimate episode (Raylan deals with what happened at Aunt Helen’s house), I could at least see a voter having to think about it for a moment. (Also, because FX shows tend to be badly represented clip-wise on Hulu and even worse on YouTube, the best Raylan clip I could find was this season 2 promo, which at least has the swagger down.)
The no-hoper who deserves better is, of course, Donal Logue, star of a show (“Terriers”) that deserved better all around. As bottom-feeding private eye Hank Dolworth, Logue had to play light, and dark, and everything in between, and make the show’s blend of shaggy dog buddy comedy and dark film noir all make sense. Oh, and he also had to have so much chemistry with co-star Michael Raymond-James, and also make us both love and pity a character who could be incredibly selfish and/or self-destructive. Such a great performance, which unfortunately was on a show nobody watched, on a network that has an iffy Emmy track record, in a genre that’s hard to get any kind of Emmy love from. Sigh…
Tough omissions: When Steve Buscemi gets his inevitable nomination as icy budding mob boss Nucky Thompson, it will be totally deserving, even if I had him just a hair behind these six. (The pause as he tells the story of his baby in the finale is almost award-worthy on its own.) Ray Romano continues to do surprisingly delicate, powerful work as the center of TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age.” Sean Bean helped ground the fantasy world of “Game of Thrones” with his usual nobility and gravity, even if Ned Stark seemed like such a colossal fool at times. James Badge Dale embodied all the cerebral, paranoid qualities that made “Rubicon” so effective for most of its short run, and was the rare actor I’d pay just to watch think. Nathan Fillion and Michael Imperioli both did better-then-required work on ABC crime procedurals, but only Fillion’s show (which plays more to his comic gifts) will be back next season. I had a lot of problems with this season of “Sons of Anarchy,” but Charlie Hunnam‘s performance was strong throughout, even in service to a plot that didn’t work. Holt McCallany carried another FX drama that deserved better in “Lights Out.” Peter Krause tends to operate more in the serious corners of “Parenthood” – and is terrific at that, especially in scenes with or about Max Burkholder – but he also on occasion got to have fun on the show’s lighter side, like the episode where he accidentally got stoned on his new boss’s special lollipop. Finally, Hugh Laurie is likely a lock for a nomination, but unlike with Hall and “Dexter,” his performance wasn’t enough to keep me watching a show I had completely tired of, so the best I can do is to mention him here.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com