If I had an Emmy ballot 2011: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

Welcome to part two of our journey through the Emmy ballot on HitFix. As I explained on Monday with my post on my ideal nominees for drama supporting actress, 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 Supporting 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.)

This is, as always, an absurdly loaded category. I could fill out a second ballot with six other performers – hell, I could fill out a third ballot with still six other performers – and feel like every single person was deserving of recognition. Last year, I felt the category was so packed, in fact, that I deliberately restricted myself to one actor per show. I’m not bothering with that idea this year, though my final six did wind up being from six different series.

The first of those is Irrfan Khan, who was by far the highlight of the third and final season of “In Treatment.” That series is designed as an actor’s showcase, and I would put Khan’s work – as a depressed, bitter immigrant with a hidden agenda – among the very beast the show ever featured. Everything about him was fascinating, on down to the way Khan used his hands. What’s especially striking, in hindsight, is that the performance seems even better once you discover what Sunil was really up to, because you can read all of it as sincere, or none of it, or (most likely) somewhere in between, and it all still makes sense. Truly mesmerizing work.

One of the things that often sinks TV’s attempt to do epic sci-fi or fantasy is a determination to take the material so seriously that the humorlessness becomes its own form of self-parody. Thanks to Peter Dinklage‘s work as impish Tyrion Lannister, “Game of Thrones” never has to worry about it. Dinklage is having such a marvelous time – as if he can’t get over having a role so perfectly tailored for him come from a book that was published a long time before anyone had seen “The Station Agent” – and his joy is infectious. And yet Tyrion’s not a clown, nor simple comic relief. He’s cunning and melancholy, and so much of his persona is just armor to protect himself in a world that has little use for dwarves. Of the many excellent performances on display in “Game of Thrones,” Dinklage’s rightfully seems the one most likely to get love from the actual Emmy voters.

This season of “Justified” featured a performer who already got a hypothetical Emmy vote from me in Margo Martindale, and it has one of TV’s best, most charismatic lead performances from Timothy Olyphant. It would be so easy for any other actor on that show to get lost in the shuffle between those two, especially as this second season was about the feud between those two characters. But Walton Goggins has never made things easy – not for the producers who couldn’t handle letting his character die at the end of the series pilot, and not for the fans who often get their loyalties torn between Olyphant’s Raylan Givens (for the most part a traditional hero) and Goggins’ morally-complicated Boyd Crowder. Goggins is so electric in his own right that’s easy to imagine the series flipping its perspective and becoming the story of a brilliant (and occasionally reluctant) Kentucky outlaw, with Raylan as the uptight antagonist.

In its one and only season, “The Chicago Code” never quite turned out to be the show I hoped it would be, given that it was another cop show from “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan. There were strong moments and weak ones, and overall a sense that this was a series still figuring out what it was. (And it got canceled before it could come up with a definitive answer.) But one part that was consistently great – and would likely have been a model for how the show worked going forward – was the performance of Delroy Lindo as villainous Alderman Ronin Gibbons. Lindo just oozed charm and menace in equal measure, so that you could understand how this guy was the most powerful politician in Chicago, and also why Jennifer Beals and Jason Clarke’s cops were so determined to slap bracelets on him.

Steve Buscemi was the big name star going into “Boardwalk Empire,” and Michael K. Williams had the adoration of HBO fans for his work on “The Wire,” but the series’ breakout star turned out to be Michael Pitt. Where Buscemi largely had to play it cool and buttoned-down in the central role, Pitt got to be all electricity and frayed nerves as haunted World War I veteran Jimmy Darmody, and he was fantastic in both the scenes where Jimmy’s temper exploded and the quieter, more self-loathing ones. Pitt’s arguably only in this category because he’s not as famous as Buscemi, but give him time – and a second season that looks to have the two characters working against each other – and he’ll be perceived as every much the star.

I go back and forth on how much love I have for “Fringe” as a whole, but one feeling that never wavers is the tremendous affection and respect I have for John Noble and his tragi-comic performance as Walter Bishop. (And, this season, as his more successful/evil mirror-universe counterpart, Walternate.) Whether “Fringe” is powering full-steam ahead story-wise or puttering around in silly ideas like Anna Torv impersonating Leonard Nimoy, Noble brings so much fragile pathos, and such giddy, strange comedy, that he makes the entire rest of the series bonus value for the chance to watch him work.

Tough omissions: God, where to begin? With all due respect to Noble (who is, again, spectacular), he might not have made the final cut if I’d been able to decide between versatile “Men of a Certain Age” co-stars Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher. For that matter, I could have easily gone with Brent Sexton, who’s been every bit as powerful (and ill-served by “The Killing” writers) as Michelle Forbes (who got on my supporting actress ballot) as the grieving father of Rosie Larsen. Michael B. Jordan was superb in the final “Friday Night Lights” season, to the point where I ultimately felt as much attachment to him as to most of the original teen characters. Alan Cumming remains a pleasure to watch as “The Good Wife” fixer Eli, who this year developed a bit of a heart, but not enough to ruin what makes him fun. I could easily have chose one or both of Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce from “Treme,” though the show’s real powerhouse dramatic material has gone to its female performers this year. Few TV characters make me as happy as John Slattery‘s Roger Sterling, and he got to do some fine understated dramatic work in his scenes with Christina Hendricks this year. Max Burkholder remains the not-so-secret weapon of “Parenthood,” always kicking that show up a notch when it focuses on his Asperger-y alter ego. Michael Raymond-James was half the charm of the brilliant but canceled “Terriers.” Mark Addy was great in his bursts of screen time as the drunken, bitter “Game of Thrones” king, and Jeremy Allen White has been one of the best discoveries of the young “Shameless” cast. Dallas Roberts turned out to be the twitchy, vulnerable heart of AMC’s flawed-but-fascinating “Rubicon.” And I wouldn’t put Michael K. Williams above Michael Pitt, but I had to at least consider him, if only for the “I ain’t buildin’ no bookcase” speech.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com