No two categories were screwed over by the new Emmy rules quite like Outstanding Lead Actor and Actress in a Limited Series. While some categories will see their number of nominations grow, these two races will actually feature one less nominee each with the number of submissions only allowing for five nominees.
It’s a confusing system and one that is bound to lead to a lot of anger among fans and frustration among networks. Why should the leads of these limited series, arguably doing the best work on television right now, be hindered when there’s no shortage of worthy nominees?
In all likelihood, this will lead to some interesting trends. In recent years, we’ve already seen voters stick to a couple of favorite shows and nominate them across the board. Is there a chance that the lead acting races, with so few spots, will only consist of the major limited series contenders? This is great news for shows like Unbelievable, Watchmen, Mrs. America, and even Little Fires Everywhere. But where does it leave strong acting contenders in shows that likely won’t be at the top of most ballots?
Lead Actor Frontrunners
This year’s race for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series does not come with the excitement we’ve seen in years past. Beyond the race’s two frontrunners, there’s a lot that remains up in the air. This year, the two frontrunners surprisingly have quite a bit in common. Both Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Jackman are brunettes in their early 50s, and they are both actors whose filmographies that blend Oscar-baity performances and superhero blockbusters. Both of their performances this year also come from HBO shows or films. So who has the upper hand?
Mark Ruffalo has the more obvious awards contender with his performance in I Know This Much is True. In the limited series, he plays a pair of polar opposite, over-the-top, twins grappling with mental illness, trauma, and PTSD. It’s the type of performance that seems destined to be the Emmy frontrunner, but the show as a whole struggled to be a bigger part of the Emmy conversation. Is its melancholic tone a major turnoff for voters when they are already going through so much uncertainty in their real lives?
As a charming but corrupt public servant, Hugh Jackman earned some of the best reviews of his career with some critics even arguing that this is Oscar-caliber work. Bad Education as a whole seems to have revived the dying HBO movie, and we could see it raking in a good number of nominations. It’s the type of performance that voters might easily gravitate towards, and the film as a whole could easily excite audiences without depressing them.
Lead Actress Frontrunners
There are three names that have already cemented themselves at the front of this year’s lead actress race: Regina King, Cate Blanchett, and Merritt Wever. Two of them have already won multiple Emmys, and two of them are Oscar winners. In any other year, each actress could easily win the award, so what will happen when they all go up against each other?
Cate Blanchett is the obvious frontrunner. She’s a two-time Oscar winner, a bonafide movie star coming back to television for the first time in a long time, and she plays a borderline camp villain that lays the groundwork that led to Donald Trump’s success. She would be an obvious and worthy winner.
Then there is Regina King. Over the past five years, the beloved actress has become an awards staple winning three Emmys, a Golden Globe, and of course an Oscar. This year she is back at the front of the Emmy conversation in one of the most politically relevant shows of the year. Watchmen is already the frontrunner in the limited series and directing categories, so why wouldn’t King go on to win a fourth Emmy (and certainly break some kind of record). The only thing in her way is the fact that she wasn’t even nominated at the SAG Awards.
Safely in third place is two-time Emmy winner Merritt Wever. The past year has given Wever some of the biggest roles of her career starring in both a Netflix limited series and a short lived HBO comedy. With Unbelievable, the actress gives probably her best and most nuanced performance of her career as a detective obsessively following a string of sexual assaults across the country. If Unbelievable came out in May, she would be the hands on favorite to win. Although we are all predicting her to be nominated, she will probably have an uphill battle against two Oscar winners.
If shows like Watchmen and Unbelievable are on their way to becoming two of the most nominated limited series of the year, then we will definitely see that popularity boos the chances of some of their other lead acting contenders, mainly Kaitlyn Dever and Jeremy Irons.
It’s unfair to label Kaitlyn Dever as a mere coattail. As a sexual assault survivor, she had the single most challenging role in Unbelievable and quite possibly out of any lead actress contender this year. Marie was the heart and soul of the show and is probably Dever’s strongest performance to date. She deserves to win the entire race, but at this point most of us are worried the younger actress will be lost in Wever’s shadow, especially with the guarantee of only five nominees.
It’s hard to tell how much actors liked Watchmen. They were the only guild not to nominate the cast for any major award even when every other major group was obsessed with the show. They’ve had time to catch up with the graphic novel continuation, and there’s a good chance we’ll see King joined by a handful of her costars. But what about Jeremy Irons? HBO made the decision to submit him as a lead actor even though he probably could have become a major supporting contender. Does he have enough screen time and presence to be remembered in the lead actor conversation? Is his performance as Ozymandias too polarizing to cross the threshold in a five nominee field?
Both actors are probably on the peripheral edge of getting into their respected categories, and if either of them make it in, then it will likely mean good things for their show as a whole.
Two For The Price of One
This year’s Emmy race also features multiple duos in the limited series race. These are co-stars that fully rely on each other in producing some of the best television of the year and fully deserve to be nominated alongside each other; although in a race with less nominees it seems like many of them might be shockingly left off.
From its very inception, Little Fires Everywhere was always looked at as a two-hander between Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. The Emmy-nominated actresses also serve as executive producers on the project further tying their partnership on the project. So how do you gauge which actor is more likely to be nominated? It’s impossible to imagine a voter checking off one and not the other, especially when they are only a couple of names apart on the ballot.
Most of us think that Kerry Washington is much more likely to be nominated, and that’s probably still true. She gives a flashier performance, and Witherspoon might risk splitting the vote among three different major projects from the past year. But as a society, we have started to have hard discussions around race, and Little Fires Everywhere has risen in our rankings as a whole. As the popular drama grows in the Emmy race, it might lead to both high-profile actresses entering the Emmy conversation.
Little Fires Everywhere isn’t the only massive hit Hulu has had this year based off of a bestseller. The streaming network also distributed the American premiere of Normal People captivating audiences and smashing ratings records. The Irish love story might not seem politically relevant right now, but audiences are obsessed with the show’s young stars, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. We’ve seen Emmy voters obsess over BBC imports in recent years, and Normal People already stands a good chance in the writing category so why shouldn’t the two be taken more seriously in the lead acting races? Especially with chemistry like that. There is no doubt that the two will become bigger names over the next couple of years, but in the end they both risk being forgotten next to a crop of major A-list names.
Then there is HBO’s The Plot Against America and the show’s stars, Zoe Kazan and Morgan Spector. The limited series has earned rave reviews from those who have seen it, especially for Kazan, but have enough people watched the show to push its stars to the top? It’s a hard show to stomach, and it isn’t the type of show that people will likely want to binge while stuck at home with endless anxiety about the state of the world. But maybe we’re not giving voters enough credit. It’s one of the best shows of the year, Kazan and Spector give two of the strongest performances of their careers, and that should be enough to earn them nominations.
There is so much attention focused on The Morning Show that we might be underestimating another major Apple TV+ contender, Defending Jacob. Crime dramas have become immensely popular at the Emmys, especially in the acting categories. Does that mean Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery are being underestimated in their respective categories as parents of an accused murderer? Dockery has shown up numerous times in the Emmy race before, but the lead actress race is probably too crowded this year. Chris Evans on the other hand is in a good position to be nominated for the first major award of his career cashing in on goodwill and a series of good career decisions post Captain America.
Other Names in Contention
Over the past couple of years, as the number of shows voters are expected to keep up with multiplies, we’ve seen these categories fill up with contenders from the top series race. Just last year, only three of the twelve lead acting contenders were from non-nominated limited series. Would those three actors (Joey King, Mahershala Ali, Hugh Grant) be the most vulnerable in a decreased field of nominees? This year, there are a lot of strong contenders hoping to stand out even if their shows will have a hard time being nominated in the top race.
The past few weeks have led to a lot of buzz for Shira Haas. The star of Netflix’s Unorthodox portrays a young orthodox Jewish woman who flees Brooklyn for a new life in Germany. It took audiences a little bit of time to catch up with the series and Haas’s performance, but now she has become one of the most acclaimed leading contenders of the year. Even with all of that on her side, it is hard to imagine a relative unknown like Haas standing out in a sea of big names and Oscar winners, especially without a regular Emmy campaign to help introduce her to voters.
What do you make of someone like Russell Crowe? At one point he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and now he’s back in the conversation in a truly transformative portrayal of one of the most controversial media moguls of all time. On paper it seems like an obvious Emmy contender. But no one seems to be talking about The Loudest Voice, and it’s the type of show that might be swiftly ignored.
One of the biggest mysteries of the 2020 limited series races is how Hollywood will factor into the conversation. It was arguably one of the most talked about limited series of the year but did anyone actually really love it? There is a chance that voters will mark it off up and down their ballots before it goes home empty handed come awards night, and there’s also a chance that voters won’t go anywhere near it. One thing is certain though, and that is the fact that of the younger cast newcomer and Tony-nominee Jeremy Pope gave one of the most interesting performances in the lineup as a young, closeted, Black, aspiring screenwriter. It is certainly a star-making performance, and he will certainly be back in the Emmy conversation soon but will he be hurt by subpar material?
Throughout the run of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul won three supporting actor Emmys for his performance as Jesse Pinkman. Now he is back in the conversation, but this time as a lead contender in his own Jesse Pinkman spinoff film El Camino. The fan favorite could easily see himself back in the race, but he has oddly been left out of the conversation so far. He was ignored by Critics’ Choice even though the film won the top prize and Jesse Plemmons was nominated in the supporting race. Paul was also forgotten by SAG voters. Is it possible that voters feel like he has won enough?
Octavia Spencer is another name that should never be discounted in an awards conversation. After winning the Oscar, she quietly racked up two more Oscar nominations, a second Golden Globe and SAG nomination, and her first Indie Spirit nomination. All she has left is to finally be nominated at the Emmys. Her portrayal of Madame CJ Walker should have brought her into the conversation, but it seemed to come and go back in March and the limited series itself earned tepid reviews. Still, someone like Spencer could easily find herself nominated off of name recognition alone.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie
||In The Conversation
|1. Hugh Jackman, Bad Education
2. Mark Ruffalo, I Know This Much is True
3. Aaron Paul, El Camino
4. Jeremy Irons, Watchmen
5. Russell Crowe, The Loudest Voice
|6. Chris Evans, Defending Jacob
7. Jeremy Pope, Hollywood
8. Morgan Spector, The Plot Against America
9. Paul Mescal, Normal People
10. Andre Holland, The Eddy
11. Willem Dafoe, Togo
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie
||In The Conversation
|1. Cate Blanchett, Mrs. America
2. Regina King, Watchmen
3. Merritt Wever, Unbelievable
4. Kerry Washington, Little Fires Everywhere
5. Kaitlyn Dever, Unbelievable
|6. Reese Witherspoon, Little Fires Everywhere
7. Zoe Kazan, The Plot Against America
8. Shira Haas, Unorthodox
9. Octavia Spencer, Self Made
10. Daisy Edgar-Jones, Normal People
11. Michelle Dockery, Defending Jacob