Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series is one of the most exciting categories of the year. On top of five past winners hoping to be brought back, there are no less than 11 past nominees in the conversation. That doesn’t even include the new performances in contention from Jennifer Aniston to Olivia Colman or a second leading role from Reese Witherspoon.
No matter what happens, there will be an endless number of shocks and snubs. Complicating the race even further is the set of new rules from the Television Academy capping the number of nominees at six. The lineup is so crowded that, in any other year, it would have certainly set off the 2 percent rule, resulting in more nominees.
With a race so crowded, it would be nice to have any sense of consensus. Yes, the HFPA and SAG voters solidified Colman and Aniston as early frontrunners, but we haven’t had any updates since. The only true precursor that we have is the TCA Awards, and somehow not a single lead actress contender was recognized. On top of that, the landscape is changing so quickly that we have nothing to judge off of; streaming sites don’t highlight ratings, but we know more people are at home watching TV, FYC events aren’t happening, and most of the contenders have such long Emmy histories that they kind of cancel each other out.
Whatever way you look at it this will be the category that produces the most surprises and these actresses deserve more than six slots to compete for.
This year’s lead actress race has become one of the most interesting categories of the year. Following up her Oscar win, Olivia Colman is taking on another royal in one of the most prestigious and awards friendly shows of the decade. Jennifer Aniston has made her grand return to television with the buzzed about debut of Apple TV+. Then there’s Laura Linney, a four-time Emmy winner earning some of her best reviews in years just as her show starts to gain momentum.
For what felt like years, audiences were waiting for the third season of The Crown to premiere with Olivia Colman taking the reins from Emmy winner Claire Foy. The Oscar winner did not disappoint, although it took fans a while to get used to her different portrayal of the Queen. She has already won the Golden Globe for her performance as well as the SAG ensemble award on top of being nominated for an Emmy last year for Fleabag; so we know she is immensely popular. But overall, The Crown doesn’t seem to have the momentum past seasons did. Will that affect her Emmy chances? Or will voters hold out knowing that they will have one more chance to award her, similar to what they did with Claire Foy?
Jennifer Aniston’s return to television was a long time coming, and it is only fitting that it accompanied the debut of Apple TV+ and one of the most dissected premieres of modern TV. As mixed as the reviews were for The Morning Show, actors seemed to really like the show, especially Aniston’s performance, which was made clear by her SAG win. It’s hard to gauge how strong of a contender she is though because there isn’t really a clear consensus of how popular the show will be among voters. If we see The Morning Show raking in nominations, especially for its performances, then she might be a strong possibility. If Aniston ends up being one of or the sole nomination for the show, then she probably won’t be a strong force in the race.
The performance that came out of nowhere to become a strong contender to win is none other than Laura Linney. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen it become easier for first or final seasons to gain momentum while mid-season performances are sometimes forgotten. Instead, Linney has become one of the most talked about performances not only of the year but of her career. As Wendy Byrde, she barreled through the third season of Ozark climaxing with the penultimate episode where she makes a decision so gut wrenching it will become one of the most talked about moments for years to come.
One of the most interesting elements of this year’s lead actress lineup is the fact that it is overflowing with past winners. Five past winners are back in the conversation including Nicole Kidman who originally won in the limited series race. Any number of them could make it back into the conversation, but with such a crowded field it is hard to predict just who might return.
Last year, Jodie Comer pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the night overcoming vote splitting, name recognition, and Game of Thrones. Since then she has become a constant at various awards earning Golden Globe and SAG nominations. So why would Emmy voters suddenly forget about her? The third season seems to have disappointed a lot of people, and the lead actress category is insanely crowded but it’s rare to see a winner drop off so quickly.
Nicole Kidman is arguably the biggest movie star working in television, and the first season of Big Little Lies was a true television phenomenon. So much so that HBO decided to go against their better judgement and bring it back for a second season. Fans really enjoyed the second season, that is until the behind the scenes drama dominated the conversation. Still, it was Kidman’s season as her character went head-to-head with Meryl Streep. It seems destined for an Emmy nomination, but the show might have premiered to long ago for voters remember her in such a stacked lineup.
Six years ago Viola Davis made history as the first Black woman to win in this category and since then the character of Annalise Keating has proven to be one of the most complicated roles on television, defying what we have come to expect from broadcast television. She is even one of the few actors to return to the category after being shut out the year before, but even then she was nominated in the guest category. With the show’s final season, there is no doubt that Davis is probably the most respected actress in contention, but she is also in a show that is likely the least watched.
This has been quite the year for Elisabeth Moss. The third season of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered last summer and since then she’s gone through a major awards campaign for Her Smell, starred in the ninth biggest grossing movie of this year with The Invisible Man, and also starred in one of the best reviewed performances of the year in Shirley. She deserves to be at the forefront of the Emmy conversation for The Handmaid’s Tale, and we know that voters are still enamored by the show, which was made clear when the drama was one of the most nominated shows of 2019 for just a handful of hangover episode. It may have premiered a year ago but if enough voters saw the edge-of-your seat finale where June is able to start helping the victims of Gilead then she should safely be in the conversation.
This is also the last year that Claire Danes will be on the ballot for her performance in Homeland. The Emmy winning show premiered so long ago that we tend to forget that Danes won two Emmys and earned six nominations for her work on the show. Even though it isn’t the awards juggernaut that it used to be she shouldn’t be entirely counted out. Fans that stuck around until the end were happy with the show’s conclusion and in a less crowded year we could easily see her back in the race.
On The Outside Looking In
Because of a tie we saw eight actresses in last year’s lead actress lineup but with the new rules set by the television academy this year will see no more than six nominees even though it’s one of the most competitive categories. This will surely lead to some surprises and some of last year’s contenders shut out of the race.
When Killing Eve first premiered it became the show that would finally get Sandra Oh her much deserved Emmy, and for good reason. Since then a lot of that conversation has transferred over to her costar Jodie Comer. After Comer won the Emmy it seems like Oh has been completely forgotten and one of the likeliest past nominees to be dropped from the category.
Then there is Mandy Moore. No one saw last year’s nomination coming especially after voters snubbed her for her best work in the second season. Sometimes it takes voters a while to catch up. This year Moore took a backseat to the onscreen drama between her sons and that mixed with the fact that This Is Us is on the decline with voters means she probably won’t be in the mix this year.
The big question mark of the year is how voters will respond to the third season of Westworld. This is the second season in a row that audiences have dismissed the sci-fi epic but that hasn’t dismayed voters in the past. So far Evan Rachel Wood has been nominated for both seasons of the drama but as voters catch up with the show it is hard to imagine they make room for her again.
What do we do with someone like Reese Witherspoon? The Oscar winning actress has been so influential in bringing interesting female centered shows to television that actually pass the Bechdel test that we tend to take her for granted. This year she has two performances in the conversation here and another in the limited series race. In all three shows she faces the same problem; she’s up against an equally famous costar that also has the juicier role. In Big Little Lies her character didn’t have much to do besides react to the more interesting drama of her friends and in The Morning Show all of the attention is on Aniston’s return to television. On top of all that she risks splitting the vote among her performances. After all she’s done this year it really is unfair that we are largely ignoring her.
On top of the already crowded field of usual contenders there are two names that seem to be the favorites of audiences and critics, but are they the type of performances that Emmy voters will single out?
Last year we saw Billy Porter make history for his Emmy winning performance on Pose. The groundbreaking drama features an incredible ensemble of unknowns and fans of the show understand that at the helm of it all is lead actress contender MJ Rodriguez. She is the heart of the show as the mother figure to the rest of the cast living with HIV and if she were a bigger name she would certainly be at the top of everyone’s ballot but in such a crowded field of Oscar winners and industry favorites it’s hard to imagine her cracking the top six.
Then there’s Zendaya. The actress has really come a long way since her beginnings as a Disney Channel star. Now she is on her way to becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world while also starring in HBO’s Euphoria, a shocking exploration of Gen Z sub-culture. It’s an incredible performance and awards voters are suckers for portrayals of addiction, but they will probably end up unfairly dismissing it as a teen drama even though she is on par with some of the biggest contenders of the year.
Right now, this is one of the races that has the ADTV team the most divided. Five of us (Clarence, David, Jalal, Joey, Megan) are predicting Laura Linney to win her fifth Emmy in a big year for Ozark. On the other hand three of us (Ben, Kevin, Shadan) think that Olivia Colman will get one step closer to an EGOT and win for The Crown. Then there is our newest member of the team, Jordan, who is going out on a limb and predicting that Viola Davis will bookend How to Get Away With Murder with another win. At this point it is really anyone’s game.
In The Conversation
1. Laura Linney, Ozark
2. Olivia Colman, The Crown
3. Jennifer Aniston, The Morning Show
4. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
5. Jodie Comer, Killing Eve
6. Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
7. Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder + Sandra Oh, Killing Eve (Tied)