Part 5 of our journey through the Emmy ballot brings us to our first lead category: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. As always, Fienberg will attempt to rank the contenders from most likely to least likely to be nominated, throwing in a bunch of preferential wild cards along the way. And, as always, I will pretend that I am an actual Academy member who has a ballot and therefore has to narrow his choices down to six people.
Same rules apply: we are working off of the actual Emmy ballot, so we can’t nominate people who didn’t submit themselves (like if I wanted to nominate Tony Hale for “Arrested Development” rather than “Veep”), and we have to consider people in the category they submitted themselves for, even if that means supporting actors submitting as leads (Rob Lowe, every year) or vice versa (Amy Schumer as supporting for a show that’s named after her).
Dan’s exhaustive analysis is here, and embedded below (click Launch Gallery to see it), and my picks are coming right up.
This is another one of those categories so deep – albeit not to the absurd degree of its supporting actor counterpart – where I would be perfectly happy if the nominees featured six people who are not on my fictional ballot: let’s say Andre Braugher for his usual Braugher-ian gifts of gab on “Last Resort,” Steve Buscemi for believably embracing Nucky’s inner gangster on “Boardwalk Empire,” Peter Krause for expertly balancing Monica Potter in the big “Parenthood” cancer arc, Timothy Olyphant for probing Raylan Givens’ complicated relationship with the father who hates him, Kevin Spacey for enjoyably chewing scenery on “House of Cards” and William H. Macy for some beautiful work on “Shameless.” And even that ballot would be leaving off a bunch of people who did great work during the eligibility period (see the Also Considered list below).
But I felt very comfortable with my final list, which included two perennial nominees, the reigning winner, and three newbies.
First, Bryan Cranston is easy. You could give Cranston this award for every year he’s played Walter White – and last year was the first time he was eligible and didn’t win – and you would not be wrong. The first half of “Breaking Bad” season 5 was a particularly chilling one for Walter White, and Cranston expertly played Walt’s growing arrogance and cruelty. Role of a lifetime, and he continues to make the most of it.
I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that Jon Hamm‘s never going to win an Emmy for playing Don Draper. He’s now had two different opportunities when Cranston didn’t win – one of them when Cranston wasn’t even eligible, and Hamm had “The Suitcase” as his submission – and voters went a different way each time. But continues to do incredible work playing this iconic character, and this season dug very deep to play a particularly reckless, monstrous incarnation of Don Draper. And if he never wins, he’ll be in good company with Jackie Gleason, Martin Sheen, Hugh Laurie, Steve Carell, Jason Alexander…
For all of the narrative problems “Homeland” had in its second season, Damian Lewis remained superb as Nicholas Brody, and his performance in “Q and A” was one of the single best anywhere of the year. Assuming he doesn’t get Chiklis’ed and abruptly dropped from the nominations (and even Chiklis was nominated one more time, the next year after he won), you have to consider him the frontrunner. It’s great acting (with the occasional lapse into bug-eyed hamminess) in search of some more narrative coherence.
Of my newcomers, Matthew Rhys of “The Americans” is the only one I expect to have even a vague shot at cracking a field where all of last year’s nominees are still eligible, and where a two-time Oscar winner in Spacey is entering the field. (Emmy voters are impressed by both movie stars and their hardware.) It’ll come down to how much broad support there is for “The Americans,” and then whether viewers preferred Keri Russell’s steely performance or Rhys’ more heated one, or liked them both. For me, he’s an easy call in this category, because he had to play so many emotional shifts in such a subtle fashion that you would never wonder why Stan or Martha or anyone who didn’t know Philip (or “Clark”) was really a KGB spy wouldn’t immediately realize something was wrong here. A great performance, even if you take away the wigs, glasses and other spy props.
It would be cool to see Hugh Dancy nominated on the same night as his wife Claire Danes (we’ll talk about her next time), but I have a suspicion that “Hannibal” exists entirely below Emmy’s radar. Low-rated, premiered very late in the year with minimal promotion, and its one notable media moment was for pulling that episode with Molly Shannon. But good lord, people: Hugh Dancy went into a Hannibal Lecter story – and a Lecter story where Hannibal is on screen for significantly more time than in either “Manhunter” or “The Silence of the Lambs” – and came out the other side as a figure just as compelling as Hannibal the Cannibal himself. Great, unexpected work.
Finally, we have Aden Young from Sundance’s marvelous “Rectify.” This is a show built around silence and atmosphere, where it feels like we go through long stretches where Young’s Daniel is just staring at a grassy field, or a Walmart rack of flip-flops. That would be deadly – or play like self-parody – without an actor with the incredible screen presence and sense of focus that Young brought to the role.
Also considered: Braugher, Buscemi, Jeff Daniels, Ted Danson, Travis Fimmel, Kelsey Grammer, Michael C. Hall, Charlie Hunnam, Krause, Andrew Lincoln, Macy, Jonny Lee Miller, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Spacey
What does everybody else think? Who would your top 6 be in this category?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com