Is it a simple choice of good versus evil in one of Emmy’s most contested categories? A blunt activist or a psychopathic contract killer? A furrowed brow or Dutch-boy bangs? In a word — yes. The heatseekers in this star-packed race are Mark Ruffalo, for his role as intrepid AIDS activist Ned Weeks, and Billy Bob Thornton, as the malevolent Lorne Malvo. Pity the poor Emmy voters who have to choose between these two, and the others on the list. Ruffalo and Thornton are both very, very good — even if one of them plays a very, very bad man.
“The Normal Heart” is a textbook Emmy magnet. An ultra-high-end production based on an acclaimed play, filled with top stars and tackling an Important Subject. HBO undoubtedly expected Ruffalo to steamroll to the win in this category — until “Fargo” came along. The expectations were low because of the poor track record of movie-to-TV adaptations. Nobody expected FX’s fresh take on the world crafted by the Coen brothers in the 1996 feature to be half as good as it turned out.
Ruffalo makes you feel Ned’s pain as a frustrated writer who stumbles into something much bigger than himself. He captures the character as a leader of a movement, and also as a lover, a brother and a friend who frustrates everyone around him with his bull-headed personality. In “Fargo,” from the first moments of the 10-hour mini, Thornton commands the screen with his menacing monotone delivery, his shifty glances and manipulative way of sizing up everyone he meets with his eyes.
Ned’s yearning to be a fixer of problems shines in the scenes where he briefly gets the wheelchair-bound doctor (Julia Roberts) out of her seat to slow dance, and when he’s throwing vegetables at his lover (Matt Bomer) for indulging in a Twinkie as his illness progresses. Thornton sets the tone in “Fargo” in his first meeting with Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), setting off the plot with a remark he knows will push Lester’s buttons: “If that were me in your position, I would have killed that man.”
Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock: His Last Vow” PBS)
Cumberbatch has been nommed three years in a row, in 2012 and 2014 for his work in the PBS adaptation of the legendary sleuth, and in 2013 for “Parade’s End.” But given the competition, this is not his year.
Idris Elba (“Luther” BBC America)
Emmy voters have shown their appreciation for “Luther” but not enough to give Elba the prize on his second nomination for the role.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Dancing on the Edge” Starz)
He’s had a knockout year with an Oscar nomination for “12 Years a Slave,” but the Starz mini is not high-profile enough to knock out the front-runners.
Martin Freeman (“Fargo” FX)
The British thesp was Ginger Rogers to Thornton’s Fred Astaire, and Freeman more than kept up with Thornton.