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Looking at the Lead Actor in a Drama Series Race at the 2018 Primetime Emmys

Last year Sterling K. Brown won the first major Emmy for the NBC sensation This Is Us. A relative new name, Brown beat out a crop of well-known actors and Oscar winners and gave one of the most memorable moments of the night. This year Sterling K. Brown is entering as the frontrunner and one of the most beloved actors working in TV today. However instead of a category filled with traditional awards bait, the category has the potential to be filled with actors from large ensembles, especially genre shows.

This year’s lead actor race is interesting because even though it is filled with a long list of interesting contenders the overall lineup doesn’t feel as exciting. This category used to be known for the complex antiheroes that went on to define the golden age of television – Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper. In a lot of ways this category is missing an iconic role like the ones mentioned but television is drastically changing.

In fact this year’s top contenders perfectly represent the drastically shifting state of television. Broadcast networks are making a major comeback with options from family dramas and medical procedurals. Successful cable crime dramas are well represented with Ray Donovan, The Americans and Trust as well as the Netflix sleeper hit Ozark. The biggest difference is the massive popularity of genre shows like Westworld and Game of Thrones that are giving ensembles the opportunity to leave the supporting race and compete as leads.

Returning Nominees

In a few short years Sterling K. Brown has become one of the most treasured actors working in television. He’s been on a recent awards streak winning the Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG award for This Is Us and is probably going to continue that streak. Randall’s relationship with his foster daughter Deja is the real heart of the NBC sensation and enough to easily push him towards a third Emmy. He’s also the focus of an unknown mystery in the upcoming third season with Brown becoming the third Pearson to be featured in multiple time periods. On top of all that Brown has been making the rounds as a guest on multiple comedies including Insecure, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and SNL as well as a small role in the massively successful Black Panther.

After over a year of teasing This Is Us finally showed the heartbreaking death of Jack Pearson in the infamous post-Superbowl episode. Ventimiglia doesn’t really have the screentime to warrant a lead actor nomination but his presence is felt throughout the entire series and the Pearson patriarch is at the center of every family drama even 20 years into the future which will make him stand out to voters as they fill out their ballots. Once his death was played out half way through the season he did take a back seat which could potentially make him vulnerable in the category. His chances of winning are slim to none especially up against his onscreen son but if he made a category switch to the supporting race Ventimiglia could easily win the first major award of his career.

Ray Donovan has never been an awards frontrunner but over the years the show has popped up in the Emmy race in a couple of surprising ways. This year Liev Schreiber is hoping for his fourth consecutive nomination for the show and he has a good shot at returning especially since the television academy loved him enough last year to nominate him three times including two different Outstanding Narrator nominations. There hasn’t been much buzz around the recent fifth season but ratings have been consistent for the Showtime hit. Actors in this category aren’t usually nominated more than once or twice without a corresponding series nomination but with at least three of last year’s nominees out of the picture and no major new show Schreiber is probably popular enough to stick around.

For the past two years Emmy voters have singled out Matthew Rhys for his work on The Americans. Now in the shows final season most are banking on Rhys earning a third and final nomination for his work as a KGB officer living in America during the Cold War. However throughout the final season his costar Keri Russell has been the one receiving the standout material and praise. In a more competitive year Rhys might risk being forgotten for flashier performances but because it’s his final season he is probably a safe bet for a nomination. His best material might also come in the final stretch of the season catapulting him to frontrunner status especially since some reviews have compared his character to Willy Loman (and we all know how that story ends).

(Photo: Netflix)
First Season Standouts

Jason Bateman’s biggest successes have been with his comedy most notably his two-time Emmy nominated role on Arrested Development. Last year he starred in the first major TV drama of his career, Ozark, and also took a more hands-on role within the show by also producing and directing. His work paid off and Ozark became one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2017 and Bateman earned a Golden Globe and SAG nomination. The Netflix crime drama perfectly aligns with past Emmy favorites like Breaking Bad and Bloodline almost guaranteeing Bateman a third career nomination.

Seven or eight years ago Freddie Highmore would have been a lock for playing an autistic surgeon on ABC’s The Good Doctor but with the Emmys changing so much in recent years his odds of a nomination are more uncertain. Voters don’t openly embrace broadcast dramas the way that they used to and besides a Golden Globe nomination for Highmore the show has been completely ignored. Still The Good Doctor is a hit for ABC with the season ending on an average of 15 million viewers a week and that is mostly because of Highmore’s performance. Voters might look at the success of the show and want to reward him especially after his polar opposite work on Bates Motel went unrecognized by awards groups for years.

Mindhunter was a brief sensation last fall within film twitter but surprisingly the David Fincher crime drama failed to gain any traction throughout awards season. In the beginning audiences seemed to be mixed on Jonathan Groff’s performance as a green special agent, his first leading role since HBO’s Looking. As the season progressed however it became very clear that Groff’s performance was meticulously plotted across the entire first season perfectly highlighting how his character darkened while studying serial killers across the country. Without any sort of buzz it’s hard to imagine Groff receiving a much deserved lead actor nomination but without very many new performances to choose from voters might go back and revisit his work on Mindhunter.

Earlier this year The Chi premiered on Showtime to positive reviews and modestly climbing ratings. The Chicago based drama is the newest project from Emmy winner Lena Waithe and features a dynamic ensemble. Submitting in the lead actor race is Jason Mitchell who has received a lot of praise recently for his performance in Mudbound. In The Chi Mitchell plays a man in the Southside Chicago neighborhood with aspirations of becoming a chef whose attention is sidetracked by a family tragedy. As good as The Chi is the show hasn’t garnered as much attention as many of the other awards players but if voters are looking for new performances to celebrate Mitchell is one of the most deserving options.

(Photo: HBO)
Moving On Up From Supporting

After years of being unfairly dismissed by the actors branch Kit Harington finally earned his first Emmy nomination in 2016 in a massive sweep for the Game of Thrones ensemble. Those years of struggling to break into the supporting actor race make it all the more surprising that this year HBO has enough confidence in Harington to upgrade him to the lead actor race. As unexpected as the choice was it does make sense. In the recent penultimate season of the television sensation Jon Snow cemented his status as one of the most integral players in all of Westeros. He may not stand a chance to win this year but in the end he is probably going to earn the second nomination of his career especially with Game of Thrones remaining more popular than just about every other nominee.

Last year the actors branch embraced Westworld in a major way by nominating members of its massive ensemble in all four main ceremony drama acting categories. HBO is clearly hoping to continue that feat in the second season and without Anthony Hopkins returning that means upgrading someone from the supporting race. It only makes sense to move Jeffrey Wright into the lead actor race especially after voters singled him out last year over the rest of his costars. Bernard’s role in the park is pivotal to the overarching mystery and as the season progresses his role will likely grow even more complicated.

What doesn’t make sense is HBO’s decision to also submit Ed Harris in the lead acting race. The Man in Black isn’t as nuanced as the rest of the major characters and is primarily a moustache-twirling villain. The choice to move him up might signify a more complicated role for the Man in Black throughout the second season but so far his role has stayed the same making it unlikely that Harris earns a nomination.

Current Predictions


Sterling K. Brown
Milo Ventimiglia
Jason Bateman

Strong Contenders

Kit Harington
Matthew Rhys
Jeffrey Wright
Liev Schreiber


Freddie Highmore
Matt Smith
Jonathan Groff

Readers, who are you rooting for heading into the 2018 Emmys? Are we underestimating anyone in this year’s Lead Actor race or is Sterling K. Brown on his way to a third Emmy?