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Emmy Miracles Can Happen

Variety logo Variety 7/13/2017 Maureen Ryan
© Provided by Variety

Great acting conjures worlds. We are living in a golden age of magical special effects, on large and small screens. But smart writers know that the skills of the very best actors can transport and move viewers like nothing else.

An actor locked into a career-making performance can simply tell a story, and even if we can’t necessarily see what they’re describing, we are right there with them — imagining, remembering, under their spells. Carrie Coon and Aisha Hinds were in very different shows this year, but they both provided more than ample proof of this very point. Emmy voters would do well to remember Coon’s brilliant performance as a lead actress in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” and in the guest actress in a drama category, Aisha Hinds’ name should appear for her transfixing performance as Harriet Tubman in “Underground.”

Both of these potential nominations might be seen as the longest of long shots. But it’s worth reminding Emmy voters of their own willingness, especially in recent years, to shake things up and reward newcomers, or to honor performances and shows that most observers thought were unlikely to ever receive Emmy love.

Emmy miracles can happen; we’ve seen ample proof of that. “Orphan Black” debuted on BBC America in early 2013 to very little notice, but soon became a pop-culture juggernaut, in large part thanks to the jaw-dropping work of Tatiana Maslany, who played several roles on the show. Emmy voters rewarded her with a lead drama actress nomination in 2015, and she won in 2016. Voters were even quicker off the mark with Rami Malek: “Mr. Robot” premiered in 2015 and he won his first dramatic-actor Emmy the next year.

“The Americans” is probably the most famous recent case of incredibly deserving actors finally receiving nominations several years into the show’s run. Did many TV lovers wish Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys had been recognized as soon as humanly possible after the show’s 2013 debut? Sure. That doesn’t mean their 2016 nominations were any less welcome. Another cherished example of Emmy voters doing right by an actor and a show comes courtesy of “Friday Night Lights”: The drama and leads Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton received nominations in 2011, and mere months after the show had ended, Chandler walked off with a lead actor Emmy.

Emmy voters can do the right thing, because I’ve seen them do it. So before you fill out your ballot, do two things: Watch the series finale of “The Leftovers,” “The Book of Nora,” and “Minty,” a season-two episode of “Underground.” They’re spectacular showcases for each of these actresses.

WGN pulled the plug on “Underground,” and thus a full Emmy campaign for the show — let alone for Hinds, a guest actress — appears unlikely. But her exceptional performance in “Minty,” a standalone installment featuring Hinds as Harriet Tubman, is one of the most worthy on the entire TV landscape. What’s most impressive is the modulation of Hinds’ work in the episode, which consists of a speech Tubman gives to abolitionists. Hinds gives impassioned energy to every moment of the speech, in which Tubman describes her relationship with God, her efforts to free herself and other slaves, and the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of slave masters. Hinds has the acting equivalent of perfect pitch: She takes you through every peak and valley of Tubman’s journey with intention, specificity and attention to detail. Tubman is quietly recalling her mother one moment, burning with anger at the injustice of beatings the next. Every transition is flawless, every emotional element is honest. Hinds has been a talent to watch for some time — just this year, she was also terrific in Fox’s “Shots Fired” — but her Tubman performance was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she did not waste it.

“The Leftovers” deserves a best drama nomination — its final season was a rich, bittersweet, gorgeous wonder — but whether or not that happens, Coon undoubtedly deserves an Emmy nomination for her performance as Nora Durst. One of the core accomplishments of “The Leftovers” was its ability to send its characters — and the audience — to difficult, harrowing or surreal places, but it was never manipulative in its attempts to elicit emotions. That’s partly due to the exceptional writing, but none of that would have worked had its cast been unable to bring raw, unflinching honesty and transparency to their work.

All did, especially Coon, whose character became the beating heart of the show. Nora lost her whole family — her husband and two kids — to the Sudden Departure, and there was no road map for her grief. She was lost, prickly, determined and underneath it all, terrified by how undone she was by her grief. Coon had to depict all those layers, along with Nora’s watchful, sarcastic intelligence. She did all that with brilliant ease (and her work was matched by that of her stellar co-star, Justin Theroux). To take viewers on Nora’s journey toward resolution and peace — which may or may not have involved a trip that she talks about in “The Book of Nora” — director Mimi Leder often focused on Coon’s face. It was impossible to look away from Nora as she talked about her pain and the truths she’d arrived at. Here was another instance of an actor merely telling a story — as Hinds did — and making that story the most important thing on Earth. That’s acting.

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