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Will New Perfs Prevail in the Most Competitive Drama Acting Races in Years?

Who leads in lead drama acting races? Will an Elisabeth Moss or Claire Foy win be an indicator of bigger things to come later on during the Emmy® ceremony?

Last year when Rami Malek and Tatiana Maslany won their first Emmys, it proved that Television Academy voters are quickly accepting the ever-growing world of television. Now, actors in cult and genre shows stand a chance. With the preferential ballot no longer in effect, small but passionate pockets of voters hold more power than ever. What impact will these changes have on the drama acting races in one of the most competitive races in history?

Making the lead drama acting races even more interesting, both of last year’s winners aren’t in contention. Orphan Black remained on hiatus during the eligibility window, and Mr. Robot was completely shutout in the major races. Most of the nominees hail from untested shows. Without any real precursors, the taste of the actors branch is all speculative. Yes, Claire Foy won the SAG award, but The Handmaid’s Tale remained unseen. Sterling K. Brown and Kevin Spacey are the only SAG nominees to repeat at the Emmys with lead nominations, but how does the inclusion of Milo Ventimiglia affect the race?

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series  

Before Tatiana Maslany pulled off the most inspiring upset in Emmy history, the award went back and forth between women playing lawyers (Juliana Margulies, Viola Davis, Glenn Close) and CIA-trained officials (Claire Danes, Kyra Sedgwick). This year, the race transformed into a battle between the old sensibilities of the industry and the new in a redefining year of prestige awards television.

(Photo: Netflix)

As Queen Elizabeth II, Claire Foy rides the momentum of a Golden Globe and SAG win. From a pure performance level, she undoubtedly gives the best performance. If this were the old system of a ranked jury ballot, she would win hands down. Now that the entire branch votes, the popularity factor needs to be considered. Unfortunately a period drama about the Queen of England doesn’t resonate as strongly as some of the other shows in contention.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Moss might hold the perfect combination of factors to inspire such a massive voting body to rally behind her. The 8-time nominee remains long overdue for her work on Mad Men and Top of the Lake. The Handmaid’s Tale is the most socially relevant nominee in the drama races. It excites voters in a way that makes them feel like their vote is important. Five years ago, voters would not have gone near her performance or the show in general, but now that it over-performed in overall nominations especially with the actors, her frontrunner status is becoming more and more obvious.

Even though the race has been squarely focused on Moss and Foy, the other nominees shouldn’t be completely discounted. Just last year, the race was widely believed to be between Viola Davis and Robin Wright but in the end both lost. This year, the problem is that none of the other nominees are quite as exciting as Maslany was.

There doesn’t seem to be enough support behind The Americans to push Keri Russell towards a win. Viola Davis is a former winner and fresh off of her Oscar win, but SAG also dropped her this year hinting that voters simply don’t care about the show. Actors might be impressed by Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as a robot, but her plotline throughout Westworld was one that routinely received criticism. Robin Wright is an actress who in all likelihood has come up just short of winning multiple times. Maybe she can get a boost from Claire Underwood finally becoming president and appearing in Wonder Woman. 

Early Rankings
  1. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
  2. Claire Foy, The Crown
  3. Robin Wright, House of Cards
  4. Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld
  5. Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
  6. Kerri Russel, The Americans
(Photo: NBC)
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series  

While the lead actress race appears a clear battle between two actresses, the male counterpart is a lot harder to sort out.  Last year’s winner Rami Malek was undeservingly left out, and SAG was no help after awarding John Lithgow. Making it more complicated is the fact that five of the nominees come from a show nominated for Outstanding Drama Series. The other two are double nominees this year.

Sterling K. Brown holds the slight edge in a race that could go any one of seven ways. Much of his frontrunner status is simply because, last year,  he was able to win Limited Series Actor, a category filled with bigger names and Oscar winners. This year as Randall Pearson, there are two factors that might give him the upper hand. His character on This Is Us is by far the most sympathetic and relatable in the category. When voters are comparing him to unlikable characters making frustrating decisions, he might be the easiest to vote for. Brown also has a long list of awards-worthy scenes. These scenes will quickly conjure in the minds of voters as they fill out their ballot. I’m talking about his anxiety attack, his road trip to Memphis, and the death of his biological father.

The argument could easily be made that vote splitting among the This Is Us leads will hinder Brown’s chances at a second Emmy. It certainly affected the Game of Thrones cast last year. Voters however proved that splitting the vote isn’t a real problem when there is a clear frontrunner like Brown. Take last year when he was up against two of his American Crime Story costars. Randall is the clear fan favorite from This Is Us, and Brown was the only member of the cast to receive a SAG nomination. That hints when it comes down to it most voters will single him out over Milo Ventimiglia.

(Photo: AMC)

Against shows and actors with much more buzz, Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul may not seem like an obvious contender to win. In such a tight race, he might have the upper hand. He’s been appearing on television in small roles and writing credits since the early 90’s. The actors branch is filled with character actors with similar career paths who are probably excited for another character actor to finally have a breakout moment. While all of the new shows will compete to stand out, Better Call Saul already has a loyal group of fans within the Television Academy. In such a tight race, a small but passionate group of voters might be able to push him over the edge.

Kevin Spacey has never won an Emmy for his work on House of Cards. Even when he has entered various ceremonies as the odds on favorite to win. It would be disappointing if this were the year that voters singled out the 2-time Oscar winner, particularly in such a critically panned season. There are a couple of warning signs. He’s already won the SAG equivalent twice. That’s an award determined by a very similar membership and identical way of determining the winner. He’s also received constant publicity throughout the summer for hosting the Tony Awards and appearing in Baby Driver. Still, this is a show that has infamously struggled to win Emmys in its good years, so it’s hard to imagine voters suddenly rallying behind the show.

The other directions aren’t as clear. Matthew Rhys and Liev Schreiber repeat in the category. Both also received double nominations this year (Rhys for guest work on Girls and Schreiber for voice narration). But what would inspire voters to award either of them when they’ve skipped over them in the past? Anthony Hopkins is a legendary Oscar winner on a massively popular show, but his character doesn’t have the screen time or excite voters in a way that hint at a possible upset.

Current Rankings
  1. Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
  2. Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
  3. Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
  4. Matthew Rhys, The Americans
  5. Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
  6. Milo Ventimiglia, This Is Us
  7. Anthony Hopkins, Westworld

Readers, who are you predicting to win the top drama acting races this year? Will Elisabeth Moss win her first Emmy? Is Sterling K. Brown popular enough to win a second Emmy against multiple Oscar winners?