Wednesday, July 15, 2015

If I Had an Emmy Ballot 2015: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

Can Cookie Lyon's outsized personality earn Taraji P. Henson an Emmy?

The 2015 Emmy nominations will be announced tomorrow morning.  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 Scandal or The Good Wife 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, Supporting Actress in a Comedy, and Lead Actor in a Drama.

I want to believe that this could be the most competitive category this year.  I want to believe that television’s diversity expansion will translate into this category, so that Kerry Washington won’t be the only African-American actress nominated in this category since Cicely Tyson now twenty years ago.  And it really feels like this could be the year.  Viola Davis and her role in How to Get Away with Murder seem tailor-made for Emmy wins and Taraji P. Henson was the star of television’s biggest runaway hit in years.  Change is slowly creeping over the television landscape and it would be nice to see it reflected here.

Looking at recent Emmy history, though, I don’t see much room for that change.  Every actress nominated in 2014 is eligible again.  Julianna Marguiles has received four nominations in the last five years, with two wins.  Claire Danes, Michelle Dockery, and Robin Wright have been nominated for every season in which they’ve been eligible, with Danes taking home two trophies.  And Washington and Lizzy Caplan are both young stars with very showy parts.  Barring voters suddenly catching up to the fading cultural opinion of Homeland, Downton Abbey, or House of Cards, it feels like Caplan’s spot is the only one really up for grabs, which is a shame because she’s great in Masters of Sex.  There’s a lot of potential for new faces in this category, but not much room for them.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Masters of Sex season two, but that didn’t make Lizzy Caplan’s performance any less amazing.  The “other woman” is never an easy part to play, especially when she’s the main character and meant to be sympathetic.  But Caplan brings strength and confidence to Virginia Johnson.  She makes clear that this is a woman with her own wants and desires and that she won’t let anybody control her.  Caplan was one of my favorite actresses last season and she was just as good this past year.

As I said above, Viola Davis’s role in How to Get Away with Murder is tailor-made for Emmy consideration.  Annalise Keating is strong, but vulnerable and is prone to giving soaring speeches.  But Davis brings an extra level of gravitas to what is, at heart, a soapy series.  She is capable both of being the most powerful person in the room and breaking down as she removes all of the trappings that seem so often to be required of a woman who reaches her status.  Julianna Marguiles has to be considered the favorite to win this award for the second year in a row, but Davis is a close second, assuming she submits “Let’s Get to Scooping” as her episode anyway.

Empire was a breakout hit this year, not least because of the bombastic presence of Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon.  Her outsized presence was magnetic, drawing viewers to her in every scene.  Yes, there was a fair amount of scenery chewing, but Henson’s performance always reminded us that she cared.  Yes, she helped her husband run drugs and yes, she served time for it.  But she is a family woman at heart, and wants little more than to bring her family back together (with or without Lucious, depending on the day).  It’s that emotional anchor that lets Henson shine through drama and the soap.

The greatest compliment I can give Tatiana Maslany at this point is that, when watching Orphan Black, I often forget that I’m actually watching the same actress playing all of these different roles.  That’s the power of what Maslany is doing here.  It’s not just that she plays a half-dozen different roles distinctly and excellently.  It’s that she does so effortlessly.  The second season of Orphan Black may have been a mess plot-wise, but Maslany was spectacular, as always.  It’s only a shame nobody in the Emmy academy seems to realize that.

I said it about Jon Hamm and I’ll say it about Elisabeth Moss: that we can go eight Emmy cycles without Moss winning an Emmy (or any Mad Men actor for that matter) is a travesty.  She spent seven years being fabulous and 2015 was the same.  Watching Moss take Peggy throughout her journey from secretary to copywriter to copy chief was a wonderful experience.  Sure, her ending was a bit facile and treacly, but it was also well-deserved.  Moss played the part of the woman in a man’s world so perfectly.  There are a lot of deserving actresses in this category this year, but I would not in any way be disappointed to see her walk away with the crown.

Lastly, we come to Keri Russell.  Just as with her screenmate, this is a criminally underappreciated performance on a criminally underrated show.  As usual, in The Americans’ third season, it was the home stories that intrigued me most, as Elizabeth and Philip try to balance their lives as spies with the needs of their children and the need to keep everything a secret.  That said, there were to scenes that were the clear standouts this year: One, in which Elizabeth is attacked and Philip has to extract her broken teeth.  The scene has an almost frightening eroticism to it that all comes down to the actors’ eyes.  The other has Elizabeth finally opening up to an innocent older woman who she knows she will have to kill.  Getting to see Russell finally play honesty was a change of pace that stood out in a season full of great performances.

Others considered: Caitriona Balfe (Outlander), Olivia Colman (Broadchurch), Claire Danes (Homeland), Eva Green (Penny Dreadful), Diane Kruger (The Bridge), Abigail Spencer (Rectify), Olivia Williams (Manhattan), Rose Wilson (The Affair)

Those are my choices for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series.  Having not seen any of The Good Wife, Scandal, or House of Cards this year, it may be incomplete.  But there’s a really solid group of actors here who each would be deserving of a nomination. 

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.  Next time we’ll look at the comedy lead actors.

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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