|Jon Hamm leads this year's potential nominees.|
The 2015 Emmy nominations will be announced on Thursday. As I’ve done each of the last two years, I’ll take a look at the past year in performances and give my thoughts on the actors, actresses, and shows I thought were best.
Two notes before we begin. First, I'm working from the actual Emmy performer ballot, so I won't make any changes like putting Keegan Michael-Key or Jordan Peele in lead actor categories or move Orange Is the New Black into the comedy category, where it was last year. Second, I'm only going to nominate people and shows that I've seen a good chunk of this past year. For the purposes of this category, that means no Sons of Anarchy or Boardwalk Empire actors, among a few others. Previously, we looked at the categories of Supporting Actor in a Drama, Supporting Actress in a Drama, Supporting Actor in a Comedy, and Supporting Actress in a Comedy.
Lead Actor in a Drama is often the category where the big names (and Jeff Daniels) come to play. It’s typically filled with the top-billed actors from all of the Outstanding Drama series (and Jeff Daniels). It’s where we see names like Bryan Cranston, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Hugh Laurie (and Jeff Daniels). But thanks to the retirement of Breaking Bad and the production delays in True Detective’s second season, this seems to be the most wide open field in years. Among the men I would have nominated last year, five are not eligible this year, thanks to the moves of True Detective and Hannibal to the summer and the finale of Breaking Bad.
The loss of Cranston, McConaughey, and Woody Harrelson also opens things up in the actual field. There are a few past nominees who could find their way back in (namely Steve Buscemi, Hugh Bonneville, Damian Lewis, and Timothy Olyphant), but this seems like the kind of year that could bring a few surprise nominations. Clive Owen and Michael Sheen seem like obvious options, with Justin Theroux and Aiden Young as less likely. And then there’s always Dominic West, depending on whether the Emmy academy loves The Affair as much as the Hollywood Foreign Press did when they gave it the Golden Globe for Best Drama.
Losing so many actors from this category this year allowed me to highlight several men I’ve had to pass up before, including The Bridge’s Demian Bichir. Unfortunately, The Bridge was canceled and won’t be getting a third season, but that doesn’t make Bichir’s performance any less remarkable. He was saddled with the occasional weak storyline, mostly involving the serial killer who murdered his son, but even then, he brought gravitas to the role and made the best and worst material better. He has almost no chance of earning an actual nomination, but he would certainly be deserving.
If Jon Hamm hasn’t won an Emmy yet for playing Don Draper in Mad Men, there’s almost no way he can now, which is a damn shame. No performer has put out better, more consistent work over the last eight years than Hamm and the final season – or half season, whatever you want to call it – of Mad Men was no different. Draper once again orchestrated a rescue for himself and his firm, this time selling out to the larger McCann Erickson, only to find himself as just a cog in the machine, the trophy mounted on McCann’s wall. Hamm has mastered the art of disillusionment, and with Don feeling it in both his life and work now, he had all the material he needed. If there’s any one candidate I want to see win this year, it’s Hamm. Even if it is just a lifetime achievement award, nobody deserves it more.
I was incredibly wary of the prospect of a Breaking Bad spinoff. That wariness only grew when I learned that it was going to be a prequel and that it would be based on the life of Saul Goodman. I mean, I liked Bob Odenkirk in Breaking Bad, but his character was largely used for comic relief and I had no idea how they could make him the star of a new series. So I was pleasantly surprised when, not only did Better Call Saul turn out to be good, but both he and the show were legitimately great. By framing Saul as the journey of a decent man who allows himself to be slowly corrupted by those around him, Bob Odenkirk was given the opportunity to deliver a slightly different take on the character. I’ll be interested to see how the academy treats Better Call Saul and whether it just fill the spots vacated by Breaking Bad. Seeing Odenkirk make a dramatic turn after a career largely comprised of comedy was thrilling and I’m hoping that Emmy voters will reward it.
Justified was not a perfect show. Its highs were very high but its lows could go very low. But whether the show was great (as it was this year) or mediocre, Timothy Olyphant was always the best performer on the screen, a real compliment, given how many great actors he was usually surrounded by. Justified went out with a bang in 2015, with perhaps its best season since its second, in no small part because of Olyphant. It’s easy to lump him in with the other white, male antiheroes of the last several years, but Raylan Givens was something just a bit more. Sure, Olyphant brought the wit and charm, but he also brought depth, showing us time and time again that Raylan was fundamentally a decent person. Or, at least, the least bad man.
The Americans has probably been the most criminally underrated show of the last two years, and with it Matthew Rhys. Rhys’s performance as a Russian spy disguised as an American citizen has been stunning, not least because of the layers upon layers he’s asked to portray. There are performances on performances here, with Rhys’s Philip asked to put on all manner of faces, all while constantly reminding us who he is. He’s a father, a husband, a spy, a travel agent, a hippy, a government agent, whatever he needs to be. Rhys anchors the performance with a sorrowful resignation, as though Philip is always reluctant to do what’s asked of him.
Lastly, we come to another brilliant, if microscopically rated show, Rectify, and its star, Aiden Young. Rectify is a slow show. It’s often criticized (or complimented) for its lack of progression. But that slowness means that every step forward needs to be that much more deliberate. Every decision needs to be anchored in a believable character, and that’s what Young provides. His Daniel Holden is still, going into the show’s third season, only a couple of weeks removed from a death row prison sentence. We don’t know if Daniel really killed the girl he was sentenced to prison for killing, but the show is entirely unconcerned with finding that truth. In fact, in the second season finale, Daniel “confesses,” in exchange for never having to go back to prison. That speech alone, could earn Young a nomination – the way he never once gives in entirely to the story but is still convincing enough to make you believe that maybe, just maybe, he really did do it. It was a fantastic year for both Rectify and Young, and hopefully they’re rewarded for it.
Others considered: Charlie Cox (Daredevil), Richard Dormer (Fortitude), Travis Fimmel (Vikings), Josh Hartnett (Penny Dreadful), Tom Mison (Sleepy Hollow), Clive Owen (The Knick), Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex), Anthony Starr (Banshee), Justin Theroux (The Leftovers), Dean Winters (Battle Creek),
Those are my Emmy choices. They may be lacking in top-billed talent, but removing those big names from the marquee just goes to show how deep this category is. There are easily a half dozen other names I could put up here. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV. Next time we’ll look at the drama supporting actresses.
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.