Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Emmy Ballot: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

Tatiana Maslany should own this category for "Orphan Black"

The Emmy nominations will be announced tomorrow and we’re down to our last acting category and it’s somewhat fitting that we should end with the category that typically sees the most change every year: Lead Actress in a Drama.  It’s actually kind of amazing how many different women have gotten recognition in this category over the years.  Lead Actress in a Drama has had ten different winners since 2000 and no woman has won more than two trophies.  Twelve different women have been nominated in the last three years.  Even traditional stalwarts often have had trouble maintaining nominations in recent years.  Mariska Hargitay had earned eight consecutive nominations and a win before being shut out the last two years.  Julianna Marguiles won in 2011 but wasn’t nominated in 2013.  There has been a lot of turnover in this category recently and last year’s surprise nominees could mean the same for 2014.

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:
Claire Danes (Homeland)
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black)
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)
Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs)
Keri Russell (The Americans)
Katheryn Winnick (Vikings)

Actual 2013 Nominees:
Connie Britton (Nashville)
Claire Danes (Homeland) – 2013 Emmy Winner
Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey)
Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel)
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)
Kerry Washington (Scandal)
Robin Wright (House of Cards)

The first thing to note about last year’s nominees is that there were seven of them.  There is a quirk in the nominating process that allows for a seventh nominee if the person is within a certain percentage of the sixth place nominee, so while it’s possible we could see seven again next year, it’s unlikely.  That already leaves us with one fewer spot to deal with and only one clear favorite to return.  Despite my rantings about Homeland in previous Emmy articles, Claire Danes is a lock.  It’s the biggest role on the show and she’s consistently given the most to do, even if her good performance is in service of crappy storylines.  Britton, Farmiga, and Washington were all somewhat surprising nominations last year and could easily stay or go.  Dockery and Moss are both great actresses on shows with fading cultural profiles.  And, while Wright will likely return, the mantle of “Prestige Netflix Series” may be shifting from House of Cards to Orange Is the New Black. 

Not only were there a lot of new actresses and surprising actresses nominated last year, there are a number of women with great performances looking to replace them.  Lizzy Caplan was amazing in Masters of Sex last fall.  Julianna Marguiles seems certain to return after a strong year for The Good Wife.  Then there are critical favorites like Tatiana Maslany and Keri Russell who might be able to score nominations after increasing cultural discussion around their strong sophomore seasons.  This category is wide open and it feels like anybody could win.

I’m going to start with the actress who probably has the least chance of scoring a nomination, Sleepy Hollow’s Nicole Beharie.  Sleepy Hollow was the surprise hit of the fall, succeeding both commercially and critically and most of that success was thanks to the wonderful relationship between Beharie’s detective Abbie Mills and Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane.  The show itself was a rather straightforward supernatural drama, but the relationship at the center held everything together.  I couldn’t find a spot for Mison in my Lead Actor piece, but Beharie has no problems earning a nomination here.

My favorite new show of 2013 was Masters of Sex and Lizzy Caplan was the best part of that show.  It’s still far too uncommon to see a career-minded, socially liberated woman on television, so to have this woman in a show set in the 1950s and 1960s is all the more strange.  Caplan seems born for this part, sliding effortlessly into the role.  She’s capable of playing the harried mother, the ambitious student, and the Siren.  This feels like the kind of role that is built to earn Emmy nominations and Caplan is more than up to the task.

I’ve been down on Downton Abbey recently, but one of the highlights of last season was Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary and her attempts to enter the world of men, overseeing and maintaining the estate in the wake of her husband’s death.  It was a slow build and she was still burdened with a potential love triangle late in the season, but Lady Mary and Dockery were at their best when allowed to think and act for themselves.  I may have a soft spot for women seeking power in a man’s world (as this list no doubt shows), but Dockery plays that part well.  Were she not burdened with all of the love stuff, which she appears bored with at this point, I’d consider this performance even more highly.

My wife made the perfect argument for Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany during an episode a few weeks ago when she remarked, “I just forget that they’re all the same person.”  That’s really what separates Maslany from the rest of the actresses here.  While Orphan Black may not have been as good of a show in its second season as it was in its first, Maslany may have been better.  It’s not just that she plays five different regular characters, but that she’s capable of distinguishing between all of them in actions and mannerisms beyond even the hair and wardrobe.  And then you have scenes like in the second season premiere where she’s playing Sarah pretending to be Cosima and you can see the subtle differences she adds to distinguish the performances.  It really is a tour de force unlike anything television has ever seen.

Just as I was amazed that Jon Hamm could go this long without an Emmy win, it’s becoming more and more likely that the same fate will befall Elisabeth Moss.  She’s been nominated five times (six if you count her miniseries nomination for Top of the Lake) and been denied every time.  The first half of Mad Men’s seventh season had many more great moments for Peggy, whether she was being despicable (and a complete ass on Valentine’s Day with her secretary’s flowers), loving (watching TV with Julio), or horrified (receiving Ginsberg’s nipple).  The truth is, no Mad Men actor has yet received an Emmy award, a fact that becomes more unbelievable every year.

My final nomination would go to Keri Russell, who put on a stellar performance in the second season of The Americans.  As with Hannibal, The Americans made a huge leap in its second year, transitioning from great drama to must watch television.  What makes the show remarkable is the way it handles its central marriage and family.  The back-and-forth of the Jennings’s relationship took a backseat in the second season as their relationship became stronger.  But that deepening relationship began to cause other problems with their work lives, culminating in the stunning and almost horrifying scene when Elizabeth asks Phillip’s alter ego Clark into bed.  I doubt many Emmy voters even know The Americans exists, but they really should.

Others meriting consideration: Claire Danes, Diane Kruger

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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