Vera Farmiga Michelle Dockery

Wealth of nominees underscores range of small screen opportunities for femme thesps

The Emmy ideal is for the nominations to reflect the breadth of the best creative work being done on TV. This year, the lead drama actress category is a microcosm of primetime’s riches, so packed with potential that the race expanded to seven noms.

The field stretches from Vera Farmiga (pictured left) in the psycho-thriller “Bates Motel” to Michelle Dockery (pictured right) in the sublime sudser “Downton Abbey.” Robin Wright impressed beyond expectations as the icy and scheming political spouse in “House of Cards.” Connie Britton was so good in “Nashville” that Acad members couldn’t help but nominate her, even if the show had its ups and downs. Kerry Washington stormed into the competish this year after “Scandal” found its footing — and fostered a fanatical fan base in social media — in its first full season on ABC. And reigning champ Claire Danes kept the intensity meter pushed up to 11 in the second season of “Homeland.”

It’s a testament to the wealth of drama skeins out there that there are a handful of other thesps who would have been worthy of inclusion, notably Tatiana Maslany of “Orphan Black,” Regina King of “Southland,” Keri Russell of “The Americans” and Julianna Margulies of “The Good Wife.” (I’d also make the case that “Boardwalk Empire’s” Kelly Macdonald, “Treme’s” Melissa Leo and “Parenthood’s” Monica Potter could have been considered lead contenders this year.)

The expansion in the number of outlets offering original series has been a boon to thespian employment across the board, but it’s been particularly good for actresses of a certain age at a time when the film business is bifurcated into small indies and mega-budget tentpoles. The former typically don’t offer much in the way of a paycheck and the latter rarely have much in the way of meaty roles for women.

But the small screen’s greatest strength is its ability to serve as a nest for complex characters who evolve over time (two words: Carmela Soprano). The contemporary renaissance in drama series still tends to revolve around male-led shows. But the women are starting to claw out their fair share of screen time. And as evidenced by ABC’s “Nashville” and “Scandal,” nets are even willing to take a few risks with femme-led series.

“I took this great risk for this role,” Britton said of committing to playing country singer Rayna James in “Nashville.”

The character by design was a performer who was at a career crossroads, dealing with the kind of struggles that most women in Hollywood face when forced to age in the spotlight. And it pushed Britton to stretch in areas where she had little experience. “Singing was a big part of the risk, playing a character who sang her entire life when I haven’t been singing,” she said.

“Scandal” is something of a trailblazer as it’s still possible to count the number of primetime drama series led by an African-American woman on one hand. Washington said she’s gratified by the show’s growing popularity outside the U.S., where shows led by minorities have traditionally been a harder sell — which has been a disincentive for studios when it comes to casting and development decisions.

“The fact that the show is doing well makes me proud. It makes us feel like we’re part of a global community,” Washington said. She credits the strength of creator Shonda Rhimes’ vision for the show, part political thriller and part sexy soap, and the character of Olivia Pope, a powerful crisis PR maven who happens to be having an affair with the occupant of the Oval Office.

“It’s amazing to me the range of people who come up to me and talk about Olivia in such impassioned ways,” Washington said. “People embrace her fundamentally because of her humanity — she’s flawed and imperfect. I see that in a lot of the nominees this year — they’re (playing) complicated women. To have this kind of work is what actors dream of.”

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