EMMYS: Drama Lead Acting Handicap

Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

In the rush to honor Showtime’s Homeland in 2012, the one Emmy nominee considered something of a sure thing was Claire Danes for drama actress. And she did win. What surprised many was that costar Damian Lewis—and the series itself—also won. This time, while a Homeland sweep is even less likely, Danes remains the safest bet to repeat on the lead drama actress side. But among the actors, the race is less clear: A pair of previous category winners (Bryan Cranston of AMC’s Breaking Bad and Lewis) face off against an Oscar winner (Kevin Spacey of Netflix’s House Of Cards). An intriguing question is whether a Netflix series will be honored in its maiden Emmy voyage. Also bidding for Emmy love are first-time nominee Jeff Daniels of HBO’s The Newsroom, 11-timer Jon Hamm of AMC’s Mad Men and two-timer Hugh Bonneville of the PBS soap Downton Abbey. And if lead actress Danes does repeat, she will have overcome a formidable field headed by first-time nominees Kerry Washington (ABC’s Scandal), Vera Farmiga (A&E’s Bates Motel) and Robin Wright (Netflix’s House Of Cards). But Washington does stand a chance to win.

Related: EMMYS: Drama Series Overview

DRAMA ACTOR

BRYAN CRANSTON, BREAKING BAD (AMC)
Emmy History: 10 noms, 3 wins

Cranston already has won three Emmys for his performance as teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White, and his series has arguably never been hotter. If anything, his performance only grows even more dynamic in Season 5. He lost last year in something of an upset to Homeland’s Damian Lewis, and this time he’s got to beat a two-time Oscar winner in Kevin Spacey plus Lewis. Spacey’s going to be tough to defeat. Maybe too tough.

KEVIN SPACEY, HOUSE OF CARDS (NETFLIX)
Emmy History: 4 noms, 0 wins

He gives a typically incandescent performance as the conniving, mercurial Congressman Francis Underwood. As a bonus, he’s Kevin Spacey. Never underestimate a two-time Oscar winner. Being a two-time Oscar winner doesn’t matter that much when you have to go up against a three-time Emmy winner in Cranston. That probably carries more weight with the TV Academy. The fact that Spacey’s show is on Netflix also provides a huge question mark.

DAMIAN LEWIS, HOMELAND (SHOWTIME)
Emmy History: 2 noms, 1 win

Lewis came out of nowhere to take home the gold last year, and he’s more of a known commodity this time. Showtime is also awfully good at promoting its contenders. He’s no longer the fair-haired nominee, coming off a sophomore season for Homeland in which the buzz has largely evaporated. Lewis also is trying to win two in a row, always a tall assignment.

JEFF DANIELS, THE NEWSROOM (HBO)
Emmy History: First nomination

The sizable lefty contingent in the TV Academy reveres Daniels’ wildly idealistic alter ego Will McAvoy. This group also loves feature actors, especially when they’re spouting the words of Aaron Sorkin. It’s difficult to imagine a more competitive category, and this character might be a tad too self-righteous to be seen as genuinely Emmy-worthy. He also has a tendency to grow tiresome with his rants.

JON HAMM, MAD MEN (AMC)
Emmy History: 11 noms, 0 wins

Hamm has lost five straight times as a category favorite, so perhaps now that’s he’s a longshot, the sixth will finally prove the charm. Pretty soon, the TV Academy will feel compelled to give him one of these for career achievement. The TV Academy has yet to award any Mad Men performer a statuette and probably won’t blemish that perfect record here. Hamm’s best chance was when the show was the gold standard, which it no longer is.

HUGH BONNEVILLE, DOWNTON ABBEY (PBS)
Emmy History: 2 noms, 0 wins

It would require perhaps the biggest upset in Emmy history, but you never know. The voters have shocked us before. Bonneville is nothing if not a class act, and we love us a good British accent. But not this time. Aside from Maggie Smith, the Downton Abbey awards ship has sailed. We’re so very sorry, Mr. Bonneville. We were rooting for you and your show. But then Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) had to go and die.

DRAMA ACTRESS

CLAIRE DANES, HOMELAND (SHOWTIME)
Emmy History: 4 noms, 2 wins

Winning awards is what Danes does, and very well. She took home the statuette last year, and she’s submitted the very strong episode “Q&A” this time. Whether she’s Temple Grandin or Carrie Mathison, the TV Academy loves her. Homeland lacked the pulsating freshness and vigor of its freshman campaign, with Danes’ candidacy suffering as a result. Plus, Kerry Washington has plenty of buzz. Perhaps too much buzz.

KERRY WASHINGTON, SCANDAL (ABC)
Emmy History: First nomination

All of the signs are there for Washington to pull an Emmy semi-upset. Many also believe it’s time to honor an African-American in this category, as she’s the first black nominee in the lead drama actress race since Cicely Tyson in 1995. Being on a broadcast network series—with its attendant content limitations—hurts her candidacy some. And Washington will find that it’s tough for a first-time nominee to grab the prize.

VERA FARMIGA, BATES MOTEL (A&E)
Emmy History: First nomination

Being a one-time Oscar nominee (for 2009’s Up In The Air) certainly doesn’t hurt Farmiga. Plus, her work in the submitted pilot episode was awfully strong. Her star is rising, and voters like to get on the train as it’s leaving the station. She’s still something of an unknown with this academy, and A&E is no hotbed for generating acting honors. Farmiga will need to stand out far more than her series, which is unlikely.

ROBIN WRIGHT, HOUSE OF CARDS (NETFLIX)
Emmy History: First nomination

If voters are in the mood to honor the newest kid on the block in Netflix, she could well get swept along with the wave. Being a feature actress naturally helps Wright, possibly a lot. If a performer from House of Cards is going to be honored, it’s probably Wright’s costar Kevin Spacey. And it’s unlikely both would get the nod, last year’s wins by Homeland’s Claire Danes and Damian Lewis notwithstanding.

CONNIE BRITTON, NASHVILLE (ABC)
Emmy History: 4 noms, 0 wins

There is some residual support for Britton from those who believed she should have won for Friday Night Lights. Her work was good enough to get her a nom on a show that carried little critical buzz. Nashville lacks the muscle that’s necessary to carry her into the winners’ circle, as does her work in the submitted pilot episode. It also is an unusually strong actress field this year.

ELISABETH MOSS, MAD MEN (AMC)
Emmy History: 6 noms, 0 wins

Everyone agrees that Moss is a terrific actress, and her work as Peggy Olson on Mad Men remains consistently spectacular. Her star rose even further with the Sundance mini Top of the Lake, for which she’s also nominated. It’s her fifth consecutive nomination for the series; however, her best chance to win was several years ago, when Mad Men ruled the world. There is seemingly a TV Academy edict that no performer from the show ever will win.

MICHELLE DOCKERY, DOWNTON ABBEY (PBS)
Emmy History: 2 noms, 0 wins

One can never count out Lady Mary Crawley, because we all know what suckers the TV Academy voters are for royalty. Maybe they’ll mistake her for Maggie Smith or something. Dockery isn’t really an upper-cruster; she just plays one on TV. Stunning upsets happen but remain rare, which is what makes them stunning and upsets. But she would stand a better chance were these the Golden Globes.

    1. There is, or was, a comedy called The Newsroom. It is Canadian, and it aired on PBS years ago. It is also fantastic.

    1. Washington is the only one who shouldn’t be there. She’s mediocre at best and overacts and snarls at her worst, which is often. But this is a “whose got huge buzz” competition, not “who can act”, (Spacey and Danes) so unfortunately she’s got it.

      1. I think it’s between Danes and Washington. Performance-wise, Danes should win hands down but Scandal’s buzz is huge and sometimes buzz is all you need to win (read: Melissa McCarthy in the year of Bridesmaid). It’s really a shame that some of the year’s best performances weren’t nominated like Maslany, Russell and Margulies. It could have made this race more interesting.

  1. I really think Moss could win it depending on her submission. I don’t understand all the Kerry Washinton buzz. She’s a great actress, but that show isn’t spectacular.

    I just really hope Homeland doesn’t get much. That second season was mediocre. But the Emmys tend to repeat themselves so I’m pesimistic.

    1. Unfortunately, Moss’ submission doesn’t feature her too much, which was an unfortunate case for her all throughout Season 6, so I can’t see her being ranked anywhere above 6th.

      This definitely feels like it’s a race between Danes, Washington and Farmiga. Wright, Moss and Dockery didn’t really have enough presence this year to stand out as true leads on their shows, while Britton is on a program with no real buzz.

      1. I just saw the submission & you’re right. It’s a good choice for Moss, but it’s understated. That won’t cut it In this heavily soapy category. She’d have been better with the finale episode she at least showed some range.

  2. Danes and Spacey will win. She deserves it even though the back half of season two of Homeland was a disaster, he doesn’t. House of Cards was middling at best and Spacey’s performance was hammy.

  3. The Actress category has no legitimacy this year without Keri Russell (The Americans) or Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). The handicappers spend so much time discussing pedigree, name recognition, previous wins. It would be nice to see the Academy actually reward the best PERFORMANCE. Maslany’s performance this year was one for the ages. If you try to use the argument that the members never watched that show, then they shouldn’t be in charge of giving out the awards for best in TV.

  4. Nope I was definitely thinking about the one with Aaron Sorkin. For some reason it just gave me the comedy vibe.

  5. The Best Actor category is a three-horse race. It’s Kevin Spacey vs. Bryan Cranston vs. Damien Lewis. The writer says Homeland has lost it’s steam, but it received even more nominations this year than last year, and got one in every dramatic acting category. The Academy obviously loves it so I can see Lewis getting another win. I personally dreaded the second season and really hope the show gets snubbed big time at the show. Nevertheless, here are my odds:
    1. Kevin Spacey (The novelty of Spacey is going to get him the award. It’s also going to be House of Card’s big win of the night.)
    2. Damien Lewis (If Spacey doesn’t win, Lewis will repeat. Unfortunately.)
    3. Bryan Cranston (Obviously he’s the best and the voters know it, but they all think 3 wins is enough.)
    *Hugh Bonneville, Jon Hamm and Jeff Daniels are equally unlikely to win. Not happening.

    As for Best Actress, it’s Claire Danes’ to lose. Pretty straightforward.
    1. Claire Danes (no way she’s losing.)
    2. Kerry Washington (Don’t underestimate the race card.)
    3. Elisabeth Moss (They could very well reward her for all those snubs.)
    4. Robin Wright (She’s my personal pick, but I don’t see it happening.)
    Michelle Dockery, Connie Britton and Vera Farmiga are equally unlikely to win as well.

  6. Maybe, this is the year that Hugh Laurie gets his overdue Emmy for HOUSE…….oh……too late……….

    Never Mind.

    1. I knew that Laurie was never winning after he lost to Cranston in 2010 for the 2-hour Season 6 premiere where he was put in the mental hospital.

  7. I think Kerry will take this home. She’s got so much buzz and the show is like the early years of Grey’s or Housewives where buzz was hitting the roof.
    I’d gladly give it to her but Claire Danes on the other hand is the one to beat.

    Cranston may get snubbed in the thinking that he’s got a chance next year.

  8. Remember that the people who proclaim themselves to be color blind more often than not whine that a black actor nominated for an award is a pc pick…affirmative action pick…race card pick, etc

  9. LOL @ Kerry Washington winning…thank God none of you are on the academy.

    That Best Actress award is Claire Danes’ to lose and the only people who have a chance at taking that, performance-wise, are Vera Farmiga and Robin Wright.

    Best Actor is between Cranston and Spacey. I have a feeling they’ll do something different and go with Kevin Spacey, but that’s more wishful thinking.

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