Emmy Lead Actor Race Analysis: Jeffrey Tambor vs. Anthony Anderson

Anthony Anders vs Jeffrey Tambor Emmy Race
peter strain for Variety

Last year there was no question. Jeffrey Tambor was destined to win his first Emmy (in a remarkable TV career that includes “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Arrested Development”) for his transformative performance as Maura Pfefferman on Amazon’s freshman sensation “Transparent.” This year, there’s a decent chance he’ll repeat. But the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series race doesn’t feel nearly as cut and dried. Five formidable competitors stand in his way, each with his own strong case for a win. Just don’t be surprised if it boils down to a battle royale between the Pfefferman family matriarch and Anthony Anderson’s Johnson family patriarch.

Given Emmy’s fondness for repeat winners, and the continued excellence of his performance, Tambor remains the safe bet by a mile. But there’s always the chance that someone sneaks in for an upset, and the field is full of rich possibilities. If voters decide they want to vote for the performance that made them laugh the hardest, Tambor would still have a shot, but his odds would be considerably reduced. And among all the competition, it could be “Black-ish” leading man Anthony Anderson who reps the best shot.

Sure, he won last year, but the Emmys have never been shy about honoring the same performance more than once (see: Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Tambor gave voters plenty of reasons to go back for more as the second season pushed his character to new highs and lows in her search for self. The show is at the forefront of a social revolution in trans acceptance, but Tambor’s quiet, dignified, performance never feels like grandstanding. He simply disappears into the skin of a seventysomething woman coming into her own.

Last year, Anderson was the only nominee for ABC family comedy “Black-ish.” This year, he’s joined by co-star Tracee Ellis Ross and the show itself landed in outstanding comedy. Those are good signs the TV Academy likes what they see, and the series’ mix of traditional family comedy with very contemporary explorations of race, class, and social issues hits the sweet spot between old- and new-fashioned voters. Added incentive: Only one black actor has ever won this category, Robert Guillaume for “Benson” in 1985.

Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”)
A quadruple threat this year (he’s also nominated for writing and directing the episode “Parents” and producing the show), Ansari graduated from “Parks and Recreation” supporting player to self-assured leading man. He could factor into the race for seasons to come.

Will Forte (“The Last Man on Earth”)
Headlining one of TV’s most-underrated comedies — the post-apocalyptic farce gelled into a marvelous ensemble showcase in season two — Forte pushed himself to extremes few actors would dare. (Just Google “Will Forte hair” for proof.)

William H. Macy (“Shameless”)
With three consecutive nominations, he’s suddenly the category veteran. And the two-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee remains one of the most respected actors in the business.

Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”)
A first-time nominee this year, the hilariously twitchy comedian anchors HBO’s brilliant tech world satire — which miraculously only gets sharper, smarter, and more uproarious with each season.