If I had an Emmy ballot 2012: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Senior Television Writer
06.22.12 40 Comments

Time for part 5 of our look at the Emmy nominations process for 2012. As always, Fienberg and I are going to approach things in two ways. I’ll pretend that I have an Emmy ballot and make my picks for the six actors or shows I would put on my ballot, while Dan will rank the potential nominees from most likely to least. And, as always, we are working off of the actual Emmy ballot, so we can’t consider people who didn’t submit themselves, nor can we reassign anyone to a more suitable or easier category.

We’ve now wrapped up our picks for the supporting actor categories, so it’s time to move onto Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Dan’s predictions are here, and my preferences are coming right up…

With the rise of female-driven and/or ensemble-driven comedies, this category hasn’t been incredibly deep in recent years. This year, though, I quickly came up with nine names I’d be happy to see get a nomination, and wrestled for a long time to cut that down to six, eventually dropping Jim Parsons (Sheldon feels just a little tired at this point, and since the guy has two Emmys, I’d rather nominate others if the talent gap is this small), Zachary Levi (he had better/more versatile overall showcase seasons than the stretch run of “Chuck”) and Larry David (both he and “Curb” have had stronger overall years) in favor of these six:

Like Parsons, Alec Baldwin already has two Emmys sitting on his mantel, but “30 Rock” had a much stronger season than “Big Bang Theory,” and Jack Donaghy was more integral to the best moments of his show this year than Sheldon was to his. I wouldn’t have expected that, six seasons in, there are any surprises left to Baldwin’s performance, but the warmth and vulnerability that Jack displayed about his daughter, and his friendship with Liz, was marvelous, and only augmented the humor in the scenes where we got a more classic Donaghy.

Because Louis C.K. holds down so many jobs on “Louie,” and because he’s playing a version of himself, it might be easy to overlook just what a good performance he’s giving – or it would be if he didn’t keep writing himself such great material, and directing such strong, emotional, funny work from himself. Whether TV Louie was futilely confessing his love to Pamela, reacting to unexpected situations in Afghanistan or trying to talk his old friend Eddie out of committing suicide, C.K. was fantastic. I have no idea if he can be this good playing a less comfortable role, reciting another man’s words, etc., but in this part, on this show? Great.

A year ago, my only reservation about picking Martha Plimpton for a comedy lead actress nomination was that I didn’t feel like she was the female lead on “Raising Hope” – or, at least, that she was equal in stature on the show to Garret Dillahunt, who had put himself up in the supporting category. Well, this year, Dillahunt submitted himself as a lead (as did Plimpton and Lucas Neff, whom I also enjoy), and he continues to be extremely funny while also managing to keep Burt Chance from being a complete cartoon character. (Even if, in the clip below, he’s playing Charlie Brown.) There’s just enough humanity to Burt and the rest of the family that “Raising Hope” never really feels like it’s mocking them, and while some of that comes from the writing, just as much comes from the warmth of Dillahunt and company. I’ve been revisiting his work on “Deadwood” season 2 this summer, and it’s hard to imagine the same man could play both Francis Wolcott and Burt Chance. Acting!

Though “Community” is by design an ensemble, Joel McHale was clearly the first among equals when the series began. Then the writers began realizing what his lesser-known co-stars could do, and McHale would wind up spending long stretches playing (very effective) straight man to Danny Pudi, Donald Glover and company. But there have always been suggestions that Jeff is just as damaged as Abed, Britta and the rest of the study group, and some of the best moments of season 3 involved Jeff dropping his cool guy persona and letting his demons – or, in one case, his inner Hulk – out.

Speaking of sitcom straight men who get to be incredibly funny anyway, Adam Scott gets singled out for praise by his “Parks and Recreation” boss Mike Schur, who in an A.V. Club interview marvels at how often Scott gets laughs from the way he delivers lines that were not intended in any way as jokes. (Responding, for instance, to Joan Callamezzo’s Val Kilmer story by insisting, plainly, “That didn’t happen.”) And that alone is impressive, but Scott was also terrific when he was given more overt comedy to play, like Ben’s stop-motion-filmmaking depression (see below) or his nerdy embrace of the Model U.N. On top of that, he got to be an even stronger romantic lead this year than last; I still smile thinking of the way his face practically flies into Leslie’s face to kiss her at the end of “Smallest Park.”

Everyone else I’ve mentioned has been discussed in one of these posts before and/or will be eligible again for the same role next year. The one exception is David Walton from “Bent,” which NBC more or less pre-canceled by scheduling its six episodes over three weeks. “Bent” wasn’t a great show, and certainly not a novel one, but it had a lot of charm thanks to the chemistry between Walton’s surfer dude contractor and Amanda Peet’s uptight lawyer, and simply from the way that Walton’s Pete seemed simultaneously aware and pleased of how close he was to caricature. I’d enjoyed Walton in other shows before (he was the funniest part of NBC’s similarly short-lived “Perfect Couples”), but with “Bent” he went from someone I’d be happy to see playing the hero’s goofy friend to someone who legitimately, and amusingly, worked as the hero himself.

Also considered: Will Arnett from “Up All Night,” Don Cheadle from “House of Lies,” Larry David from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Neil Flynn from “The Middle,” Thomas Jane from “Hung,” Zachary Levi from “Chuck,” Lucas Neff from “Raising Hope,” Jim Parsons from “The Big Bang Theory” and Elijah Wood from “Wilfred.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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