Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor
The competition is fierce in this year’s lead drama actor and actress race, with veteran nominees that are hopeful for a first-time win battling it out with first-time nominees looking for their own shot at a statuette. Here’s a look at the favorites and the dark horses:
HUGH BONNEVILLE (Downton Abbey, PBS)
Emmy Pedigree: This is Bonneville’s first nomination. He also landed a Golden Globe nom earlier this year for his Downton Abbey portrayal of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. He’s a veteran actor who, at 48, has been plying his craft with great success in the U.K. for nearly a quarter-century. Everyone in this exquisite cast had to pulls his/her weight to create an Emmy phenomenon in the show’s shift from movie/miniseries to the drama series category, and Bonneville did his part.
What We Say: It’s heartening to see a deserving veteran like Bonneville get his due in America. That doesn’t mean he’s going to win. Barring a huge upset, he won’t.
Related: EMMYS: The Drama Race
STEVE BUSCEMI (Boardwalk Empire, HBO)
Emmy Pedigree: Prior to this year, Buscemi had four Emmy nominations: In 2001 for directing an episode of The Sopranos, in 2004 for supporting actor on Sopranos, in 2008 for a guest actor stint on 30 Rock, and then last year as drama lead actor on Boardwalk. But he’s still looking for his first triumph. He won a Golden Globe for his Boardwalk role as Nucky Thompson in 2011. The predictions last year had been that it was going to be tough to beat Buscemi, but Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights managed to pull off the upset. The TV Academy doesn’t often bypass seasoned actors with feature-film credentials as Buscemi has (Fargo, Con Air, The Big Lebowski, Ghost World). Not to mention, Buscemi is simply a really good actor.
What We Say: Buscemi has created an indelible character on a superbly-crafted series. But with Bryan Cranston in the race, he has the look of a perpetual bridesmaid.
BRYAN CRANSTON (Breaking Bad, AMC)
Emmy Pedigree: In terms of the Primetime Emmys, Cranston has gone from a guy who can never win to a guy who seemingly can never lose. He was nominated for comedy series supporting actor three times (2002, ’03, and ’06) for his portrayal of the perpetually frazzled dad Hal on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle and went home empty-handed every time. Conversely, he’s been nominated three times (2008, ’09, and ’10) for his work as the perpetually desperate meth chef Walter White on Breaking Bad and took home the statuette each year. He was denied last year, but perhaps only because his series wasn’t eligible. No actor on television turns in as consistently intense and mesmerizing a performance as Cranston, whose transformation from goofball daddy to sinister criminal is so complete that it’s difficult even to imagine the actor in his previous incarnation.
What We Say: Cranston’s work has turned him into TV’s ultimate antihero. It’s going to take an act of God (or Gus Fring) to keep him from winning his fourth trophy in a row.
MICHAEL C. HALL (Dexter, Showtime)
Emmy Pedigree: Like Jon Hamm, Hall has his fifth consecutive nom for lead actor in a drama. And also like Hamm, he’s still looking for his first win. It’s actually his eighth Emmy nod overall, having also earned a drama lead honor in 2002 for Six Feet Under and another this year as an exec producer on Dexter. Earlier in the Dexter run, Hall was one of the category favorites. He isn’t anymore. But in the ever-unpredictable world of the Emmys, that doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. You know that an actor has crossed some sort of threshold when he’s so tied to a role that it’s difficult to remember he presented an entirely different vibe in a previous character. That’s how powerful Hall has been as do-gooder serial killer Dexter Morgan.
What We Say: Hall continues to deliver work that’s as consistently unsettling as it is spellbinding. However, his best chance to win was three or four years ago.
JON HAMM (Mad Men, AMC)
Emmy Pedigree: This is Hamm’s fifth consecutive
nomination in the category, one that he might have dominated without competition from Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler. With Cranston ineligible in 2011 for Breaking Bad and with an awards-designed performance in an episode titled “The Suitcase,” Hamm was considered all but a lock for the trophy. But these things rarely turn out the way they’re expected to. Hamm hasn’t even been able to take home gold for his two previous comedy guest actor nods for 30 Rock (for which he’s nominated again this time). His role as the boozing, womanizing, suave advertising exec Don Draper on Mad Men is one for the ages, an indelible television character of significant heft. Without this actor in the lead, Mad Men would be a far different–and arguably less intriguing and entertaining–series.
What We Say: Victory will probably elude his grasp. Again.
DAMIAN LEWIS (Homeland, Showtime)
Emmy Pedigree: It’s Lewis’ first Emmy nom, but likely not his last. He’s chalked up two Golden Globes nominations in his career, including one for the acclaimed HBO mini Band of Brothers in 2002 as well as this year for his work as U.S. Marine Sergeant and former POW Nicholas Brody. Lewis is one of those performers who has always bubbled just beneath the surface in terms of recognition, making everything that he’s in better–like the 2007-09 NBC drama Life. The U.K. native sports tremendous onscreen chemistry with costar Claire Danes in Homeland, his performance standing out even during the action sequences. His work was kind of impossible for Emmy voters to ignore.
What We Say: The guy has charisma to spare in a breakthrough, career-making role. Even so, he’s a longshot here at best.
KATHY BATES (Harry’s Law, NBC)
Emmy Pedigree: Since 1996, Bates has hauled in 11 noms, including her two this year (also including a comedy guest honor for Two and a Half Men along with her Harry’s Law nomination). Five have come for her work in made-for-TV movies, both lead and supporting. This is her second in a row for Harry’s. She’s yet to win, her talent, reputation, and 1991 Oscar notwithstanding. Her flamboyant lawyer character of Harriet “Harry” Korn afforded Bates a chance to be broad and showy. In “Onward and Upward,” the episode that she’s submitting for consideration, her alter ego delivers a passionate speech in front of a judge, convinces a colleague not to resign, sheds tears in a cemetery, and breaks into song–though not all at the same time.
What We Say: Not even the magic David E. Kelley touch will help this time. Not only is it far from Bates’ best work, Harry’s Law also had its plug pulled after two seasons this past spring.
GLENN CLOSE (Damages, DirecTV)
Emmy Pedigree: The woman is an Emmy magnet, at least in terms of garnering nominations. This is her 14th, and fourth as drama lead for work as the ice-cold and calculating Patty Hewes on Damages. She’s won here twice: in 2008 and ’09. Close also took home the trophy in 1995 for lead actress in a movie/mini for the teleflick Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story. She also lost here to Kyra Sedgwick for The Closer in 2010. Then there is the little matter of Close’s Oscar nominations. There have been six, including this year for Albert Nobbs. Even when your show airs exclusively on DirecTV and is going off the air–as was the case with Close and Damages–you still get nominated because you’re Glenn Close. She’s very much considered an artist and engenders boundless respect from both her peers and the industry.
What We Say: Close hasn’t lost a step in her portrayal, which remains closer to alchemy than acting. But voters figure they have already more than honored her for it. It’s somebody else’s turn.
CLAIRE DANES (Homeland, Showtime)
Emmy Pedigree: While this is merely Danes’ third nomination, it feels like more. Her first came way back in 1995 in this same category for My So-Called Life, where she lost to Kathy Baker for Picket Fences. Then came 2010 and her resounding movie/miniseries lead win for Temple Grandin (a role that fueled a sweep of just about every available honor, including Golden Globes and SAG Awards). Now Danes is up for Homeland, which already earned her a Globe victory in January over a very different nominee field. Her work as the troubled, damaged CIA agent Carrie Mathison is seen by many as the finest work of an already pretty brilliant body of performances. Few performers do broken and angst-riddled characters better than Danes.
What We Say: Homeland is the kind of pulse-pounding, intense exercise that could overwhelm a lesser actress than Danes. Instead, she thrives, making her the prohibitive favorite to win her second Emmy.
MICHELLE DOCKERY (Downton Abbey, PBS)
Emmy Pedigree: This is her first nomination, but she’s one of six members of the regular Downton Abbey cast to be honored. She’s also earned Golden Nymph nominations the past two years from the Monte Carlo Film Festival.
Why She Was Nominated: There is a general agreement that Dockery turned in splendid work on the series as Lady Mary Crawley during the second season of the tasty, sprawling period piece. However, historically, Emmy voters haven’t been wild for performers from foreign lands in drama series, as Englishmen Hugh Laurie and Ian McShane, the British-born Angela Lansbury (0 wins in 18 nominations), New Zealander Anna Paquin, and Irishman Gabriel Byrne can attest. Not even the runaway popularity of Downton is going to bring Dockery sufficient momentum to propel her to victory over this stellar group.
JULIANNA MARGULIES (The Good Wife, CBS)
Emmy Pedigree: This is her ninth Emmy nomination, and she’s won twice previously–once for drama supporting actress on NBC’s ER and once as lead actress for The Good Wife (last year). It’s her third nom in as many years for Good Wife. Margulies is one of those actresses who make everything that they’re in better. That seems especially true of her work in Good Wife, where her portrayal of Alicia Florrick is already hailed as rather iconic. That enables Margulies to be nominated even when her series is not, as was the case this year.
What We Say: Her consistently powerful performance on Good Wife continues to impress. Were Danes not in the category, Margulies would win her second in a row.
ELISABETH MOSS (Mad Men, AMC)
Emmy Pedigree: The most intriguing part of Moss’ history at the Emmys is the fact she’s tried her hand at both lead and supporting categories for the same role on Mad Men. She entered for lead in 2009 and earned a nom, though Glenn Close took home the big prize. Moss submitted for supporting the following year and again landed a nom, losing this time to Archie Punjabi for The Good Wife. Then last year she went back to lead, landing among the nominees as Julianna Margulies won. This year, she decided to stay put in lead and take her chances. It was a memorable season for Moss and her fascinatingly complex character Peggy Olson, who took a competing offer and left the firm in the 11th episode of Season 5. That installment, “The Other Woman,” is the one Moss is submitting for consideration. As is the case with Moss’ Mad Men castmates Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks, earning nominations is never the problem. Winning is another story, as no performer from the series has yet to cart off the elusive statuette.
What We Say: As good as Moss is, it would require a major upset for her to win this time.