Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Emmy Ballot: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama

Bryan Cranston will have to fight off Matthew McConaughey for his fourth Emmy.

Now we come to the big guns.  Not to disparage the other categories, but the drama lead actors probably have the strongest performances of any individual group.  They may not have the depth of the drama supporting actors or the performance diversity of the comedy lead actresses, but here you will often find the hands-down best performances of the year.  2014 felt like it was going to be the coronation for Bryan Cranston and Breaking Bad, but then, this winter, True Detective happened, throwing everybody for a loop.  Now, it feels as though this once shoe-in category is up for grabs.

A couple of caveats before we start.  First, I’m working from the actual Emmy Performer Ballot, so I can’t move somebody from lead to supporting (Woody Harrelson), nor can I call True Detective a miniseries or Orange Is the New Black a drama, nor can I nominate somebody who didn’t submit themselves (like Alan Cumming in The Good Wife).  Also, I’m only including actors from shows I watch regularly, so if your favorites from House of Cards, Parenthood, The Good Wife, or Scandal aren’t here, that’s why.

My 2013 Choices:
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
Hugh Dancy (Hannibal)
Michael Emerson (Person of Interest)
Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Damian Lewis (Homeland)
Timothy Olyphant (Justified)

Actual 2013 Nominees:
Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey)
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) - *
Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Damian Lewis (Homeland)
Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)

* I refuse to acknowledge that Jeff freaking Daniels won this award last year over that collection of actors.  And that’s coming from somebody who actually enjoys The Newsroom.

I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen with this category.  History says we can expect to see Cranston and McConaughey here without too much doubt, but the other four spots all appear to be up for grabs.  I can think of a dozen men I’d nominate before Jeff Daniels, but he was last year’s surprise winner; you can’t rule him out.  Homeland was pretty bad last year while Downton Abbey and House of Cards appear to have fallen out of the cultural zeitgeist, but as I said before, you’ll never lose money betting on the Emmys to continue recognizing fading shows for two years too long.  Jon Hamm seems like he should be guaranteed a chance to lose his sixth straight Emmy contest, but it’s entirely possible that the academy has just soured on Mad Men to the point where he doesn’t even get nominated.  That’s what happened at the Golden Globes, where Michael Sheen, Live Schreiber, and James Spader all earned nominations over Hamm.

As for the potential winner: Who knows?  Anything is possible after last year.  Michael Sheen could earn a surprise win for Masters of Sex.  Woody Harrelson could steal the award from his screen partner McConaughey.  Steve Buscemi and Timothy Olyphant are both former nominees who could find their ways back into the field.  And, obviously, anybody mentioned above could walk away with the trophy.  I still think it comes down to Cranston and McConaughey, but I thought it was Cranston’s to lose last year.  Anything can happen.

I generally do these lists alphabetically, but it’s always nice to be able to start with my favorite, and here that is Bryan Cranston.  Breaking Bad will go down in history as one of the all-time great dramas and Walter White as one of television’s great anti-heroes.  I don’t know that the second half of Bad’s final season was its creative peak (I’d probably argue for season three or four), but Cranston was certainly at his peak, portraying a Walter desperately trying to keep his world from spinning out of control.  In particularly, the trio of closing episodes, “Ozymandias,” “Granite State,” and “Felina” were probably his best work in the entire series.  Cranston already has three statues and has a good chance of walking away with a fourth.

Hannibal made The Leap in its second season, transitioning from an intriguing, beautifully-made television show to a true work of art.  And nowhere is this more obvious than in the performances of Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen.  The two waged a season-long game of one-upmanship, constantly bringing deeper and more nuanced performances to the table.  That I would actually believe for even a second that Will Graham could fall under Hannibal Lecter’s spell is a testament to the strength of Dancy’s work.  He was required to play a huge range of emotions this year, from desperate, to vengeful, to resigned, to determined, and even a bit of villainy.  Mikkelsen, meanwhile, maintained his aloof and alien presence.  Stepping up from supporting actor, what consistently surprised me about Mikkelsen’s performance is that you can always see why people fall for his illusion.  He’s a strange figure, but he is alluring in a way, drawing people in and disarming them with his intelligence and his food.  It’s difficult to play a character that both repels and attracts the way Lecter does, but Mikkelsen does so fantastically.

It seems increasingly likely that Jon Hamm will end up playing Don Draper for eight years and have only a single Golden Globe and a couple of critics awards to show for it.  It seems unbelievable that the man who has been such a dramatic force on television for nearly a decade will not have won more awards.  Granted, he’s been going up against Bryan Cranston for much of that time but still, you would think that just once he could have broken through.  The first half of season seven was, perhaps, not the best showcase of Hamm’s talent, as Don was forced to tiptoe around pretty much everybody in his life in order to keep everything from falling apart, but you never once feel like Don is acting out of character because Hamm sells it all so well.  He won’t win the Emmy this year, and may not even be nominated, and there’s something a little sad about that.

Finally, the duo of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey came out of the box swinging in True Detective.  McConaughey is the favorite here and it’s easy to see why.  He has the showy part, with the existential angst and the minutes-long monologues.  That’s not to say his performance is all the result of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing.  McConaughey had to turn the same person into, essentially, two different characters, as the Rust Cohle of 2012 and the Cohle of 1995 are fundamentally different people.  It really was a marvel to watch him bounce back and forth between the two men in each episode.  Harrelson may not have had the showy part, but he was still just as effective in the more straight-man role.  Because of the nature of the role, Harrelson is required to react to McConaughey much more often than he’s allowed to be active, so it would have been easy for him to submit himself as a supporting actor in order to stay away from McConaughey.  I’m glad to see him submit as lead, however, because it really was a lead performance and it would be great to see him recognized alongside his co-star.  Could the pair submitting as leads steal votes from each other?  Possibly, but I doubt it.  McConaughey was strong and his role so big that he should be able to stand out on his own.

Others meriting consideration:  Demian Bichir, Steve Buscemi, Jim Caviezel, Travis Fimmel, Jonny Lee Miller, Tom Mison, Timothy Olyphant, Matthew Rhys, Michael Sheen

So those are my Emmy choices.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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