If the best of television holds up a mirror to society, warts and all, then this year’s Emmy noms definitely embraced the darker side of human nature — at least in the lead actor categories. For every nice guy (think Richard Jenkins’ conflict-hating husband in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge”) there were several deeply flawed antiheroes, ranging from the ruthless, Machiavellian Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s “House of Cards”) to the matricidal psychopath Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo in HBO’s “Nightingale”).
On the surface, Snowden couldn’t seem further from the actor’s heralded portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” and yet Oyelowo sees parallels. “Both are extremely complex characters, and that’s what makes them interesting to watch and certainly interesting to play,” he explains.
For Oyelowo, characters that are easily categorized as “the good guy” are less easy for audiences to relate to, “because you may be ‘good’ outwardly, but if everyone’s honest with themselves, there are parts of their inner landscape that they’re ashamed of and would far rather keep well-hidden.”
Even ostensible bad guys with duplicitous motives can change their stripes, argues “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk. His “Breaking Bad” lawyer Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman) came just in time thanks to AMC’s prequel series.
“He’s a far more sympathetic character than he was in ‘Bad,’” Odenkirk says. “I was definitely taken aback by how much people like him now, but I feel he’s been re-imagined.” The actor goes on to note that, “Oftentimes, the ‘hero-hero’ can just be this blank slate, a cipher who carries the audiences wishes and dreams, and I suspect it can be a bit boring to play, although I’m — rightfully — never offered those roles.”
By contrast, Jenkins is invariably cast as a good guy, and says, “As long as the writing has depth and complexity, and the character’s not a caricature, then a kind, attentive man like Henry Kitteridge can be wonderful to play. In fact, I’ve played few people as complicated as Henry.” The actor points out that the four-hour running length of the miniseries “really lets you see the intricacies and inner life of the character. It’s not flashy, but it feels truthful to me.”
Equally unflashy is Ricky Gervais’ Derek. “Derek’s clearly the first ‘nice’ character I’ve ever played,” he says. “He and some of the others (on the show) may seem like a bunch of losers on the surface, as he’s scruffy and not that bright, but I wanted kindness to come along and trump all that. And I made the show morally ambiguous, because no one’s perfect. But I’ve embraced the flaws.”
While flawed antiheroes are the lifeblood of dramas, they also occupy center stage in the comedy category this year, thanks to a trio of perfs on Showtime series: William H. Macy’s turn as the alcoholic, morally deficient Frank Gallagher on “Shameless”; Don Cheadle’s scheming Marty Kaan in “House of Lies”; Matt LeBlanc’s arrogant alter ego in “Episodes”; as well as Will Forte’s selfish Phil Miller in Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth.”
“I tried to present a character that you’re sympathetic towards, but that’s also flawed in realistic ways,” says Forte, whose character has attempted to cheat on his wife and lied about the existence of fellow survivors. “So we thought up ideas for him and then went where the comedy was in each situation. But we realized that in order to do some of those things, we’d have to make him less likeable from time to time, and we were comfortable trying to do that — even if audiences weren’t comfortable watching it.”
In the comedy category, only Jeffrey Tambor’s timely transgender character Maura in Amazon’s “Transparent” and Anthony Anderson’s harried dad Andre in ABC’s “Black-ish” seem to have no hidden agendas.
“Andre’s a decent, regular guy, and it’s not hard to play ‘nice’ or keep him interesting, because it’s so rooted in reality,” notes the comedian. “It’s not your old sitcom where the plot’s ‘My boss is coming over and you burned the roast.’ We deal with topical issues and situations, and in a real way. And most of the stories come from our own lives. Andre is probably closer to me than any other character I’ve ever played.”
So can the nice guys triumph this year?
“I think we’re good deep down, which is why we love seeing good guys save the day, and villains get their comeuppance or redeem themselves,” Gervais says. “We don’t mind someone saying ‘sorry’ and changing. It’s all role-playing for the soul, and drama and comedy at their best lets us know that we’re all a bit rubbish, and that’s OK.”