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Emmy Contenders: Time to Shake Up Lead Actor Races

Variety logo Variety 5/31/2017 Kristopher Tapley
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The lead actor Emmy races could be ripe for new blood this year, from standbys looking for their first win to debuts that dazzle. But who would get the call?

First let’s look at the reigning champs. Last year, Rami Malek scored for USA’s phenomenon “Mr. Robot” in the drama field, but the second season hasn’t driven the same intrigue. Jeffrey Tambor, meanwhile, could be in the middle of a dynasty run for his work in Amazon’s “Transparent,” but peak TV is pushing all comedy categories to the brink — there may be too many options piling up.

Who’s overdue? An argument could obviously be made for Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s “House of Cards.” He’s been nominated for all four seasons so far and even won back-to-back Screen Actors Guild Awards in that stretch. Yet he hasn’t heard his name called on TV’s biggest night.

Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) have shown up consistently in the nominations lately. Of the two, the former makes more sense as excitement continues to build around AMC’s “Breaking Bad” prequel/spin-off, but an even more compelling case could be made for Matthew Rhys in FX’s “The Americans.”

Rhys finally registered with the TV Academy last year, thanks in part to an air date closer to the voting window (leaving less time for buzz to evaporate). He’s also a possible guest actor nominee for one of the most talked-about episodes of HBO’s “Girls.” That adds a lot of fuel to the fire.

Another possibility to keep in mind is Sterling K. Brown for NBC’s “This Is Us.” There will be residual love from last year’s hit limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and he’s the only member of his show’s cast to have also been recognized by SAG.

Voters would do well to consider a pair of actors finishing strong in final seasons: Justin Theroux in HBO’s cult favorite “The Leftovers” and Aden Young in SundanceTV’s poignantly patient “Rectify.” Neither has been Emmy-recognized, yet both have remained committed and dialed in to their highly unusual roles, holding back on huge moments, graceful to the very last.

On the comedy side, it’s going to be very hard to unseat Tambor; his character found yet another gear in “Transparent’s” third season. However, there is a strong “overdue” argument out there: William H. Macy in Showtime’s “Shameless.” He surprised Tambor by snatching his second SAG Award earlier this year and he’ll be on his fourth Emmy nomination if he makes the cut this time around.

If there’s an appetite for variety, Aziz Ansari gets to play a few different notes this year in “Master of None” and ultimately goes to some touching places. But the real contender to keep an eye on is Donald Glover for FX’s “Atlanta.”

The TV Academy may not be as quick to honor new series as, say, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., but voters have been known to recognize a shooting star when they see one. Actors such as Michael Chiklis (“The Shield”), Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom”) and Ricky Gervais (“Extras”), as well as Malek and Tambor, have been awarded straight out of the gate for their first seasons. “Atlanta” scored huge at the Golden Globe Awards and could be primed to do the same at the Emmys.

Then again, maybe a lighter touch is in order. After all, this is a category that saw a string of wins for broader comedy stylings prior to Tambor’s reign, from Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”) to Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”). So what about Thomas Middleditch? He finally landed a nomination last year for HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and he continues apace in the series’ fourth season.

It should also be noted that, if they get in, Anthony Anderson and Will Forte will be on their third nominations for “Black-ish” and “The Last Man on Earth,” respectively. But a win for either would be a surprise.

Who can say where the road will lead in four months’ time? Will the TV Academy embrace new offerings, or seize up in the face of the glut and stick with their on-going favorites? We’ll find out on Sept. 17.

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