Part 6 of our journey through the Emmy ballot brings us to Outstanding Lead Actress 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.
For a long time, TV drama was so dude-centric that I’ve had trouble finding six actresses to fill out both this ballot and its comedy counterpart. In recent years, though, the medium that’s celebrated so many damaged men started providing equally great roles about problematic women, meaning I had a really hard time narrowing this down to just six people.
The biggest no-brainer: “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany. I’d never heard of Maslany before this show, and had no expectations for her or it, and I was blown away. That she plays multiple characters – on the ballot, her roles are listed “as Sarah, Beth and others” – and makes each one of them clearly distinct from one another is impressive enough. But she also had to frequently have one character impersonate another, and make each one interesting enough that they could carry scenes and stories independent of the multiplicity gimmick. I could imagine Alison, for instance, functioning just fine as a character on a show without the sci-fi bent of “Orphan Black,” and that’s a credit to the amazing, multi-faceted work of Maslany.
Also an easy pick, and not just because of her first name: Emmy Rossum, who had perhaps her best year yet on “Shameless,” as Fiona had to go to court to get custody of her siblings (and deliver this beautiful, devastating speech to the judge), battled sexual harassment in one new job and culture shock at another, and came to realize that her family will ultimately matter more to her than Jimmy/Steve. Despite Showtime’s success overall at getting its stars nominations (and wins), I fear the grubbiness of the show is ultimately too big a barrier to entry for most Emmy voters. But damn, she is good.
Claire Danes won last year, and even if there’s some kind of backlash against “Homeland” as a series, she’s probably still the frontrunner, especially if she submits “Q and A” or “State of Independence” (the one where Carrie attempts suicide). Danes and Damian Lewis are so compelling, whether separately or (especially) together, that I will watch this show for a very long time, whether it’s able to rein itself in next season or if it succumbs to even greater silliness in the years to come. The performance deserves a more consistent show around it, but “Homeland” as a whole isn’t reason to ignore just how riveting Danes is.
The cuckoo bananas delight that “Scandal” turned into in its second season only works if the woman at the center of it is every bit as charismatic and impressive as the people around her insist that she is. Fortunately, Kerry Washington has lived up to every word that Shonda Rhimes has put in her own mouth and those of her co-stars as they describe the majesty and terror of Olivia Pope. In a field of character actress performances, this is a more straightforward star turn, and Washington owns the hell out of it.
“Bates Motel” had an up-and-down first season, and I still haven’t decided whether the finale makes me more or less interested in what’s coming next. One thing that never wavered, though, was the work of Vera Farmiga as the mother who unleashed Norman Bates onto the world. Norma Bates is a slippery character – at times grounded and at others delusional, at times in command and at others completely baffled – and Farmiga slips comfortably into all those modes. Whether or not the series winds up sticking to the “Psycho” mythology, it’s not hard to imagine Farmiga’s Norma turning her son into the man from the Hitchcock movie.
Those five I felt pretty confident about. The last cut was tough. Keri Russell had more to do on “The Americans” than Elisabeth Moss did this year on “Mad Men” (where she’s the female lead but still a supporting character in Don Draper’s world), and Russell was terrific in her role as the more hard-edged half of her spy partnership and sham marriage. But I ultimately thought Moss was just a bit better; even if she wasn’t as prominent, she absolutely owned the screen when she was on it, as Peggy has spent a season at the mercy of men who seem determined to make choices for her.
Also considered: Russell, Khandi Alexander, Connie Britton, Melissa George, Julianna Margulies, Robin Wright
What does everybody else think? Who would your top 6 be in this category?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org