Jalal’s Take: Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Jalal Haddad takes a look at the Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy race in a series of posts leading up to the Emmy nomination announcement on July 14th. Over the next few weeks, Jalal will be providing his own expert analysis in individual races and covering the top ten contenders in each category.

With two open slots in the lead actor race voters have the opportunity to celebrate fresh new performances. The acting branch has two different options. They can rely on well-like actors in shows that might not be as popular or as well known (Cannavale, Giamatti, Chandler) or they can instead champion performances by lesser known actors or performances on genre pushing programs (Malek, Theroux, Paul, Highmore).


1. Kevin Spacey (Frank Underwood), House of Cards

Kevin Spacey is theoretically someone who should have won an Emmy for his work on House of Cards years ago when the show debuted but always ended the night empty handed. His submitted tapes couldn’t compete against those of Bryan Cranston and Jeff Daniels and then he couldn’t compete against the popularity of Jon Hamm. Now that he is the only remaining ‘iconic’ performance/character left the two-time winning TV SAG actor should have no problem dominating a popular vote among his peers to win.


2. Rami Malek (Elliot Alderson), Mr. Robot

Photo courtesy of USA Network.

Initially I dismissed Malek as a serious Emmy contender because for being young and unknown but after he was nominated for an individual SAG award I moved him into my predictions. Only 12 actors have never gone on to Emmy nominations after being nominated at SAG (although the years don’t always align) and for the past five years the SAG nominees have all gone on to receive individual recognition at least once. As the star of the critic and industry breakout hit, Malek is one of the surest bets in a category with so many open slots.


3. Paul Giamatti (Chuck Rhoades), Billions

Photo courtesy of Showtime.

I have yet to find anyone who actually watches Showtime’s freshman financial drama but Paul Giamatti is one of the most consistently nominated actors at the Emmys. He’s only appeared on TV four times over the past ten years but he’s been nominated for all four performances. That sort of record makes him an obvious prediction in a wide open category. Showtime also has a pretty strong record of getting their leading actors nominated for shows no one seems to be watching (Don Cheadle). Depending on the mood of the voters his biggest competition for a nomination might be his costar, Emmy-winner Damian Lewis.


4. Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman), Better Call Saul

Photo courtesy of AMC.

Better Call Saul was the lone breakout drama at last year’s Emmys and afterwards Bob Odenkirk went on to be recognized by every group including the foreign press, SAG, and the TCAs. In fact, Odenkirk and Malek were the only two actors in this race to be recognized by every group. None of those groups have an impact at the Emmys besides SAG but he has been getting nonstop media attention because of these awards. Better Call Saul might not return as strongly as they did last year, but Odenkirk is the show’s only sure bet at recognition.


5. Bobby Cannavale (Richie Finestra), Vinyl

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Bobby Cannavale was looked at a leading contender to win the Emmy when HBO announced the show. However, Vinyl suffered several setbacks when it received tepid enthusiasm from critics and viewers. Normally that wouldn’t stop Emmy voters from embracing a faux-prestige period drama on HBO, but they subsequently cancelled the show in the middle of the voting window. As a 4-time nominee and 2-time winner, Cannavale will still probably be nominated although any chances of winning were squashed long ago.

6. Kyle Chandler (John Rayburn), Bloodline

Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Bloodline is an incredibly divisive show. Some regard the show as a prestige drama while others dismiss it as incredibly boring awards bait. None of that really matters though because most people simply adore Kyle Chandler (as an actor and a as a person). In such an unenthusiastic year for lead male performances he can easily come back for a second nomination in a row.


7. Aaron Paul (Eddie Lane), The Path 

Photo courtesy of Hulu.

Aaron Paul holds the record for the most Supporting Actor in a Drama Series wins (3) so he is clearly on the radar of Emmy voters. His performance in The Path as a family man who finds himself stuck in a religious cult is his highest profile role since Breaking Bad ended, and he earned great strong reviews for the show. His biggest setback might be that the show is streamed through Hulu, an online network that has never gotten as much attention as other streaming sites. If anyone can push Hulu into Emmy consideration its someone like Paul.


8. Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan), Ray Donovan 

Photo courtesy of Showtime.

There was a lot of discussion last year regarding who would fill that sixth slot in the leading actor race at the Emmys and to my knowledge no one was seriously considering Schreiber. Voters shocked everyone by showing that they actually watch Showtime’s LA-based crime drama, and it’s a toss-up on whether or not he will return. The show’s late summer air date does him no favors, but he did receive a Golden Globe nomination last winter for Ray Donovan and a SAG ensemble nomination for his work in Spotlight.


9. Justin Theroux (Kevin Garvey), The Leftovers

Photo courtesy of HBO.

HBO has an unusually strong record of campaigning their dramas at the Emmys, but for whatever reason voters completely ignored season one of The Leftovers. Theroux was ignored not only by his peers but largely by critics and bloggers as well. In fact, the only attention Theroux was garnering was online for more superficial reasons like his sweatpants in season one and his naked bathtub crawl in season two. The lack of traction makes it hard for Theroux, but HBO seems to be stepping up their campaign for The Leftovers. A nomination for the lead seems like an obvious place to start.


10. Freddie Highmore (Norman Bates), Bates Motel

Photo courtesy of A&E.

I’ve always struggled with Norman Bates as a character, often finding him to be the most grating character on television. Annoyances with Norman aside, I have always thought Freddie gives one of the strongest male leading performances on television. Emmy voters have largely dismissed Bates Motel (besides a season one nomination for Farmiga), but after Norman’s full descent into madness there is a chance that Highmore’s performance is finally recognized especially with his costar regaining Emmy buzz.

Worth Mentioning: Matthew Rhys, Terrence Howard.

Who are you rooting for in the lead actor race? Will this finally be Kevin Spacey’s year? Sound off below in the comments!

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