Emmys 2012: Lena Dunham, Don Cheadle and Other Emmy Upset Hopes

 

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Everybody loves a dark horse at the Emmys. They do come in from time to time. Remember in 2002, when Michael Chiklis won best actor for his role on The Shield? What a tremendous thrill that was -- completely deserved and completely unexpected. Or how about Bryan Cranston's first win for best actor in 2008 for his role as Walter White on Breaking Bad? Yeah, he'd go on to pretty much own this category after that, but what a stunning upset it was then. He wiped the floor with Gabriel Byrne, Michael C. Hall, Hugh Laurie, James Spader (who had won in 2004, 2005 and 2007) and Jon Hamm.

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Cranston was absolutely, incredibly deserving, but he was the darkest of all horses then. And that's what we should focus on now. The darkest horse. The longest shot -- yet, the actor or actress or show that would be totally deserving if awarded. Here's a list of those to consider:

LEAD ACTRESS, COMEDY: Lena Dunham

Dunham is not the punch-line provider you'll find in the list that includes Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, heavyweight Edie Falco and It girl Zooey Deschanel. On Girls, she's raw and fearless. Her comedy perfectly mines the postcollege world of self-doubt, wonderment and inexperience, all of which is comic gold for Dunham's excruciating vulnerability.

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LEAD ACTOR, DRAMA: Steve Buscemi

Look, everybody's great here -- Cranston, Hamm, Damian Lewis, Hall, Hugh Bonneville -- but there's something truly difficult in playing Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire. He has to be a scheming weasel, a guy with a heart, a man with childhood scars, a visionary, a bon vivant and someone who will kill you without question. Underappreciate him at your own risk.

LEAD ACTOR, COMEDY: Don Cheadle

This is likely Jim Parsons' category to lose, but Alec Baldwin could get another statuette for his collection, the Emmy voters could see the sublime genius in Louis C.K.'s performance, or they could just give it to Jon Cryer. And Cheadle? A first-time nominee on a cable comedy not enough people watched and one that might be too coarse for voters. But in House of Lies, he owned the Emmy from his first words. It's a virtuoso performance. So, yeah, it'll probably go to Parsons.

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SUPPORTING ACTOR, DRAMA: Peter Dinklage

It's hard to argue against Aaron Paul or Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad. But in the sprawling epic that is Game of Thrones, the magnetic performance is Dinklage's. He delivers cunning intelligence, wit, a compassionate heart, humility and a true understanding of the outcast. The competition is Paul and Esposito, but Jared Harris from Mad Men and Brendan Coyle and Jim Carter from Downton Abbey represent more popular series, so Dinklage could be the darkest horse to cheer for.

LEAD ACTOR, MINISERIES OR MOVIE: Woody Harrelson

In a category that favors big-name stars for the splash factor, Harrelson stands out with a stellar performance. So why is his turn in Game Change a dark horse? How about the names Kevin Costner, Clive Owen and Bill Paxton? But Harrelson's cool confidence was alluring, and how it slowly dawned on his character that picking Sarah Palin for John McCain's running mate was a dangerous mistake made for great television.

GUEST ACTOR, DRAMA SERIES: Mark Margolis

Ding! Ding, ding! If Margolis' name gets called, it might be the biggest small-category upset in Emmy history. Without saying a word -- acting only with his face and by menacingly and frantically pressing a bell -- Margolis on Breaking Bad was pure greatness. But these guest slots are supposed to make a splash, so it's hard to see him beating Michael J. Fox, Dylan Baker, Jeremy Davies or even Jason Ritter. What Margolis has going for him here is that the category is not nearly as stacked as the guest-actress category. Phew.

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ANIMATED SERIES: The Penguins of Madagascar

So, let's see, the penguins are going against three Fox shows (The Simpsons, American Dad, Bob's Burgers) and one former Fox series (Futurama). And it's the only entry that ostensibly is a children's show. But here's the trick: It's by far the funniest, best-written and best-performed entry here. It might be the funniest show most grown-ups are not watching.

NONFICTION SERIES: Frozen Planet

In a perfect world, this category becomes the no-contest it should be because Frozen Planet was awe-inspiring and visually stunning from start to finish. But we live in a nonperfect world where everybody thinks animals and nature are boring, and Inside the Actors Studio will probably win.

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