Emmy Lead Actor Races Welcome Four Worthy First-Time Nominees

Lead Actor Emmy Race
Courtesy of USA/AMC/Netflix/HBO

With four of last year’s Emmy-nominated drama and comedy lead actors out of the running, we were guaranteed to see new faces this year. But the pleasant surprise was just how deserving the newcomers turned out to be.

Both categories welcomed one star of a freshman series and one previously overlooked lead of a veteran show. In drama, those were “Mr. Robot” breakout Rami Malek and “The Americans” anchor Matthew Rhys.

Malek’s nomination had been expected — he was up for both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award this year, and toplined what was arguably the buzziest new drama of the season (and the only freshman drama up for the top series award). It’s impossible to conceive of the show without his bug-eyed, nervous energy, his manic flights of fancy, and the deadpan delivery he brings to both the show’s playful, free associative narration and his character’s more carefully calculated dialogue.

If the Emmys hadn’t included Malek, he would’ve been at the top of every “snub” list — exactly where Rhys has been for the last three seasons. What took voters so long to catch on to the brilliantly constructed FX drama — and the delicate nuance both Rhys and Keri Russell bring to their performances as undercover KGB agents living in ’80s-era suburban D.C. — is a mystery even the CIA couldn’t solve.

But it was a relief to finally see the show break through with nominations for series, actor, and actress, and Rhys has one hell of a submission episode this year in “The Magic of David Copperfield V.” The centerpiece installment features an emotional goodbye to his fake wife, an epic blowout with his real wife, and a surprise time jump that pushes the action forward. All that, and Rhys directed it himself.

Like Rhys, Aziz Ansari helmed his Emmy episode submission: “Parents.” And like Malek, the star and co-creator of Netflix comedy “Master of None” is a first-time nominee in a freshman series (“Master of None” is the only first-year contender in the comedy series category). Ansari also drew nominations for directing and writing (with Alan Yang) “Parents.”

In many ways, both the show and Ansari feel like natural successors to Louis C.K.’s Emmy-favorite “Louie.” Both series take a no-holds barred approach to subject matter, mine the personal lives of their creators for material (like the best standups), and feel more inspired by independent film than conventional TV comedy. As another “Master of None” episode, “Indians on TV,” reminds us, it’s still incredibly rare to see South Asian characters on the small screen who aren’t generic stereotypes. If Emmy attention encourages other studios and networks to give a platform to such voices as Ansari and Yang, then audiences should be excited about the future of the medium.

Technology in the here and now is the cornerstone of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” whose superb leading man, Thomas Middleditch, rounds out this year’s quartet of first-time lead actor nominees. Unlike “The Americans,” “Silicon” has been an Emmy staple since its first season. And yet no member of its flawless ensemble cast had been nominated, until now.

As socially awkward tech genius Richard Hendricks, Middleditch delivers a weekly master class in physical and verbal comedy, even at his most tongue-tied. He’s been overdue for a nomination (just go back and watch him in the pitch meeting sequence in the season two premiere), and this better-late-than-never recognition is encouraging to see.

The good news for all four of these actors is that once you’re in the Emmy club, you’re usually in for the long haul. (All eight of the other series lead actor nominees are returning from last year.) Based on the quality of their work so far, voters would be smart to stand by these men.