The high interest that naturally accrues to this hugely competitive category is somewhat muted by the TV Academy’s tendency to repeat itself.
Brian Cranston, for example, has won the Emmy for lead actor in a drama for the past three years running. Yet with Cranston and “Breaking Bad” off the table this year due to an air date that missed the eligibility window, voters did open the door to a couple of newcomers.
Timothy Olyphant, the charismatic star of FX’s sophomore series “Justified,” is a first-time nominee. Steve Buscemi also made the cut for “Boardwalk Empire,” but that felt inevitable, given the outpouring of Emmy accolades for the freshman HBO series, which nabbed 18 noms overall. A second nom for “Friday Night Lights” star Kyle Chandler was a welcome indication that voting members really do watch television, including low-rated but critically embraced shows in their final seasons.
For the remaining three noms, the Academy was more true to form, recognizing Hugh Laurie (“House”) for the sixth time, while Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) and Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) were each given the nod for the fourth consecutive year.
With Cranston out of the picture, a case can be made for any of these returnees. Laurie has long drawn praise from critics and viewers for his turn on “House” while Hall won a Golden Globe in 2010 for his perf as a serial killer.
Hamm has never been able to cash in the “Mad Men” Emmy momentum and if voters believe the actor is a critical component of why the show has won top drama series three years in a row, this may finally be his time.
Best scene: When Nucky Thompson burns down his childhood home, a powerful personal statement if ever there was one. But the vulnerability Thompson revealed in the season finale also made a big impact.
Why he might win: Rose to the occasion and won over doubters who thought his slight build and bug-eyed looks would make him unpersuasive in the lead role as a Prohibition-era shotcaller in a seaside resort lousy with gangsters. Breaks out new colors in this remarkable showcase after years of sterling character work, including in “The Sopranos.” Won the Golden Globe and SAG Award. Could this be his Triple Crown?
Maybe not: “The Good Wife’s” Julianna Margulies bagged those same two trophies last year, and still lost the Emmy to Kyra Sedgwick. The TV Acad tends to reward its own, and Buscemi’s done most of his work in indie films.
“Friday Night Lights”
Best scene: At a restaurant, in the series finale, when Coach Taylor realizes the irony of lecturing daughter Julie about how marriage requires compromise, then follows his upset wife (Connie Britton) outside to comfort her while still struggling with his dilemma.
Why he might win: It’s hard to imagine this isn’t the role of a lifetime for Chandler. He owns it that completely, imbuing his small-town, underdog football coach with a steady decency and quiet heroism that’s come to define the essence of the show. An Emmy win would make an amazing send-off for a sentimental favorite that just ended.
Maybe not: That underdog stuff might work on the football field, but the Emmys are often a different game.
Michael C. Hall
Best scene: The Jekyll and Hyde displayed in the episode “Teenage Wasteland,” when Dexter deals out brutal physical punishment to a child molester while describing each of the man’s organs as he hits them. That’s followed by a poignant scene with his stepdaughter Astor, a friend of the victimized girl.
Why he might win: Golden Globes voters pushed him to the top of their heap last year. The fifth-year show has mostly held its audience, and it’s a (pardon the pun) killer showcase for an actor the Academy clearly loves.
Maybe not: The buzz on the show has clearly faded and so may have Hall’s chances.
Best scene: Standouts run pretty much the length of the episode called “The Suitcase,” perhaps peaking when Don unleashes his trademark intensity on Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) during a heated exchange about why she should be grateful merely to work for him.
Why he might win: Voters have continually embraced this show, which this season drilled ever more deeply into the enigma that is Hamm’s character, giving him some of his strongest scenes yet. If there’s a time for a perennial favorite to have his turn, it’s arrived.
Maybe not: Hall and Laurie have been nominated more often, so if the Acad wants to make sure their achievements are recognized, Hamm might be the odd man out.
Best scene: In the season finale “Moving On,” when House finally acts out his rage over his break-up with Cuddy by crashing his car into her house in order to return a hairbrush.
Why he might win: Episodes like that one, and the one where he cut his own leg, took the crotchety M.D. ever deeper into the darkness that sets him apart.
Maybe not: The show itself wasn’t nominated, and it’s growing long in the tooth. Network procedurals like this medical mystery aren’t exactly in vogue. Voters have gone another way five times running.
Best scene: When U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens joins forces with outlaw Mags to try to prevent the pregnant young Loretta from pulling the trigger — and becoming like the two of them — in the season finale, “Bloody Harlan.”
Why he might win: Olyphant’s foxy lawman brings movie-star panache to this backwoods procedural, and don’t think everyone hasn’t noticed. And this season, his game was elevated when he got to play off the likes of Margo Martindale and Walton Goggins, as the increasingly present Boyd Crowder.
Maybe not: The series itself wasn’t recognized, and given its youth and procedural nature, this might be a case where it’s an honor just to be nominated.
Actors look to play characters unlike themselves
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