Apparently this is the year of the antihero. And it’s paying off.
Four of five dramatic actor Emmy nominees play morally ambiguous characters whom most viewers would rather want fighting with them than against them. The fifth commits horrible acts to serve the greater good.
“The Sopranos'” crime boss Tony Soprano is the godfather of TV’s antiheroes, and James Gandolfini’s nuanced portrayal has made viewers sympathize with Tony’s family problems despite his violent business practices. Conversely, in the hands of Denis Leary, “Rescue Me’s” Tommy Gavin is a heroic firefighter who vents his rage on his wife, brother, and people in general while trying in his own dysfunctional way to be a good father.
Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, is a genius diagnostician with little more than disdain for his patients; he abuses prescription drugs, blames others for his problems and is a despicable human being. Likewise, James Spader’s Alan Shore uses his arrogance, brilliance and unconventional — and possibly unethical — approach to the law to win cases at any cost.
Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer is the closest thing to a traditional hero in this category. Yet Bauer kills, tortures and deceives in his quest to save the world. Is he really any different from Soprano, Gavin, House and Shore?
Each actor has been nominated for the same role before; three of the five have won. Gandolfini paved the way for each of this year’s nominees, proving audiences can root for a morally flawed character. And voters have an affinity for them as well.
Show: “The Sopranos”
Emmy pedigree: Three wins plus two other noms
Best scene: In “The Blue Comet,” Tony tells A.J. that Bobby is dead and that he quickly has to pack his bags and get out of the house. Gandolfini attempts to show compassion for A.J.’s situation and addresses him gingerly before flying into a full-blown rage and demanding he start acting like a man. Now.
Why he may win: Many people have played a vital role in the success of “The Sopranos,” but nobody deserves more credit that Gandolfini — David Chase included. He’s practically in every scene and has carried the huge burden of turning himself into a monster while also remaining a husband and father.
Maybe not: He’s won three times previously, and the TV Acad might find it’s time to acknowledge some new blood. And those who disagree with how the show ended may take issue as well.
Emmy pedigree: One nom
Best scene: After a week or two of Dr. Wilson secretly dosing House’s coffee with antidepressants, the results show in “Resignation.” Without diminishing House’s acerbic streak or caustic nature, Laurie offers subtle cues that House is feeling happy — or as close to happy as House gets.
Why he may win: While Laurie has been much lauded for his portrayal of the bitter drug-addicted doc and has turned nasty humor into an art form, it’s the quieter, often nonverbal, scenes of House dealing with more mundane situations where Laurie’s depth really shows.
Maybe not: Voters may want to give Gandolfini a nice send-off.
Show: “Rescue Me”
Emmy pedigree: One nom
Best scene: In “Twilight,” Tommy comes home to find his father started a kitchen fire while cooking eggs, and he realizes that his aging, belligerent and frequently intoxicated father is too much for him to handle and might be better off living elsewhere.
Why he may win: Leary brings a sharp blend of gravitas and biting humor to Tommy Gavin’s struggle with survivor’s guilt, sobriety and a family in chaos. In Leary’s hands, viewers never know what the morally conflicted, hotheaded Tommy might do next: burst into tears or smash someone’s head through a window.
Maybe not: The well-publicized marital rape scene caused quite an uproar when it aired. Couple that with Tommy beating his brother to a pulp at their father’s birthday dinner, and Emmy voters might find the character less than sympathetic.
Show: “Boston Legal”
Emmy pedigree: Two wins
Best scene: In “Nuts,” Alan represents Denny in a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Spader hit all the right notes in Alan’s eloquent and pointed closing argument against Homeland Security’s no-fly list.
Why he may win: The flurry of Emmys for the show’s actors and the show itself means voters really seem to be smitten, and Spader is a huge part of what makes the series work.
Maybe not: He’s already won two Emmys for the same part. The show often veers more to the comedic than dramatic, which might give the edge to nominees with meatier dramatic roles.
Emmy pedigree: One win plus four other noms
Best scene: In ” 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM,” when Jack is forced to shoot Curtis. Sutherland takes Jack from his initial, automatic reaction of doing what has to be done, to shock that he’s killed his friend, to the gut-wrenching realization that he can’t do this anymore. And then he sees the mushroom cloud.
Why he may win: While this wasn’t “24’s” best season, Sutherland added emotional layers and vulnerability to his character, showing the aud that even Jack Bauer has a breaking point.
Maybe not: He won last year for what most critics consider to be “24’s” best season ever, so a second win in a less-acclaimed season might be more difficult than disarming a nuclear warhead.