If I Had An Emmy Ballot 2014: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Senior Television Writer
06.17.14 34 Comments

The Television Academy of Arts & Sciences released this year’s Emmy ballots last week. Now that the ballots are out, it’s time for our annual two-pronged experiment, in which Dan tries to predict the likeliest nominees in each major category, while I pretend that I’m an actually TV Academy member and pick the six nominees that would make me the happiest.

We are, as always, playing by the Emmy rules, which means we can’t argue for someone who didn’t submit themselves (say, Alan Cumming for “The Good Wife”), can’t move someone from lead to supporting or vice versa, and can’t declare that “True Detective” is a miniseries and therefore clear more room in the drama categories. I’m also obviously limited by what I watched and what I haven’t. I think I saw maybe three episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” this season, for instance, and while I like the show a lot, the sample size wasn’t enough.

It’s time to discuss Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Dan’s analysis is here, and mine is coming right up.

Because many of the great recent dramas have been so male-focused, there have been times in doing this exercise where I’ve struggled to come up with six names I feel genuinely happy about, rather than 3 or 4 I like and another few to fill out the ballot. We’re getting a bit more gender balance these days, though, and even with a bunch of potential candidates being submitted elsewhere (Emmy Rossum and Taylor Schilling over in comedy, Allison Tolman in miniseries, and as a supporting actress), I could still put together a very respectable alternate ballot for this category featuring the likes of Kerry Washington, Nicole Beharie (carrying a lot of what shouldn’t work about “Sleepy Hollow”), Claire Danes (doing the best she can with an increasingly untenable character), Diane Kruger, and a few others. (I don’t like “House of Cards,” for instance, but Robin Wright is excellent in it.) It’s a category that a year ago had seven actual nominees due to ties, and even with those seven still didn’t have room to recognize all of the great female performances on TV right now.

One of the people not recognized a year ago was “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, who continues to effortlessly shift between multiple roles – and to play various clones impersonating each other so that you can see how much deeper the performances go beyond hair and wardrobe choices – and who can, thanks to the show’s increased technical confidence, interact with herself more than ever. (The terrified hug in the bathroom at the end of episode 4 was incredible.) It’s not a gimmick performance, but simply a half dozen different compelling performances by the same actress in one show, that all feel connected not only by her presence, but by the notion that these people all started with the exact same DNA.

I binge-watched “Bates Motel” season 2 a couple of weeks ago, and will hopefully find time to write about it at some point soon. The short version is that I thought it ended very well but had some bumpy patches along the way, where I was watching mainly to see what Vera Farmiga would do next as crazy Norma Bates. At times it feels as if the writers are just trying out things to see what Farmiga can pull off – Can she sing? Can she make anyone care about a highway bypass vote? Can she make Michael Vartan interesting? – and she handles all the strangeness with aplomb, while also helping to point the way to what Norman is becoming as a result of his mother’s unhealthy, inexhaustible love for him.

This was another excellent “Mad Men” season for Elisabeth Moss, even if it seemed for quite a while like it was going to be a terrible one for Peggy. Whether playing Peggy’s low moments (crying in the apartment, whining about Shirley’s flowers, assigning grunt work to Don) or her high ones (the “My Way” dance, the Burger Chef pitch, hugging Julio), Moss was wonderful as always. Somehow, we’re going to get to the end of “Mad Men” without her, Jon Hamm or any other actor from the cast having won an Emmy, which says something about how silly this awards business is.

At “The Americans” panel I moderated at the TV Academy, we had some fun with the notion of wee little Keri Russell being such a menacing figure, even while carrying a crowbar. But the fact is that Russell does come across as authoritative and threatening and absolutely unyielding in her portrayal of KGB sleeper agent Elizabeth Jennings, and she got to do some terrific work in season 2 as Elizabeth’s relationship with Philip become both more real and far more complicated. Great work on a show I really hope Emmy voters are aware exists.

Because “Masters of Sex” is based on a book based in part on extensive interviews with Virginia Johnson, and because so many of the characters on the show are either falling in love with her or falling over themselves in admiration for her many skills, there is a danger that the character could come across as a Mary Sue in her own story, and be too perfect to function as an interesting dramatic character. Fortunately, the show has Lizzy Caplan to play Virginia, and to make her both someone who can live up to all the praise and lust, and who can seem far more complicated than just being the sympathetic yin to Michael Sheen’s cold and mysterious yang.

In the best “The Good Wife” season to date, Julianna Margulies also consistently had her best material to date. There have been times in the series where Alicia Florrick has been a very passive character; Margulies is excellent at playing her silent, cryptic reactions to the antics of the people around her, but she’s able to show so much more range and charisma and depth when Alicia is taking as active a role as she did this season with the split from Lockhart Gardner, the ensuing war with Will and Diane, and then her actions in the wake of the courthouse shooting. An excellent performance year in and year out, but this year with more exciting material to play.

What does everybody else think? What would be your ideal six in the category?

Previously: Outstanding Drama Series Outstanding Comedy Series Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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