TV's female characters are more complicated than ever
EmptyJune Cleaver would never have made it in today's Emmy scrum. The closest modern approximation of her domesticated mom in this year's race, Betty Draper (played by lead drama nominee January Jones), filed for divorce last season and ran away to Reno with an older man. No, poor June would have looked at this year's actress nominees and raced for some Valium.
And that's a good thing: This year Emmy voters picked a bumper crop of complicated, unnerving, nontraditional and (in large part) over-40 actresses in each category.
"Television has roles for women over 40 who really want to be challenged," says Neal Baer, showrunner for "SVU," which has its own complex dramatic lead nominee in Mariska Hargitay.
That makes picking the best out of this year's crop exceptionally difficult. In the lead comedy actress category, in addition to past winner Tina Fey ("30 Rock") and bubbly newcomer Lea Michele ("Glee"), there's Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("The New Adventures of Old Christine"), Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation"), Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie") and last year's winner, Toni Collette ("United States of Tara").
Collette seems a natural for a second win, but she has two strikes against her: Only one other cable actress has ever won the category (Sarah Jessica Parker, "Sex and the City," in 2004) and there hasn't been a repeat winner since 2001 when Patricia Heaton won for "Everybody Loves Raymond."
Louis-Dreyfus (who won for "Christine" in 2006) may enjoy some residual sentimentality among voters since her show has been canceled, but Collette's strongest competition appears to be Falco (a three-time winner for "The Sopranos"). Also, Poehler, Fey and Michele are ensemble players, while Collette and Falco are the hearts and souls of their series.
It's a nice place to be for Showtime, which airs both "Tara" and "Jackie."
"Emmy voters are looking for someone who elevates the material, especially in the comedy category," says "Tara's" executive producer, Craig Zisk. "In a show like 'Tara' or 'Jackie,' these actors need to have huge ranges. Toni is literally playing five different characters."
In the drama race, there's still starry-eyed favor for Glenn Close, who has won two years in a row as manipulative lawyer Patty Hewes on "Damages." But the FX drama had a weaker third season (the network canceled the show, though it has since been revived by DirecTV), diminishing the likelihood of a three-peat.
DirecTV and many critics are cheering the overdue nomination of Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights"), but the show consistently has had weak ratings. Kyra Sedgwick ("The Closer") is a perennial bridesmaid (five straight nominations with no wins) and Hargitay has one win (2003), but "SVU's" most recent season was more about guest actors than the leads.
As for Jones, she certainly had a meatier, front-and-center story line in Season 3 of "Mad Men," but she remains enigmatic in her pull with voters.
Even if one of those actresses could turn water into wine, "Good Wife's" Julianna Margulies would still likely win. Her understated cipher of a political wife trying to turn her life around has made the actress a hotter commodity than during her days on "ER" and her win would be a coup for CBS, which hasn't fielded a victory in this category since 1998.
"There's a little Rorschach test with Alicia (Margulies' character)," says Michelle King, who with her husband Robert executive produces "Good Wife." "What people like about her tends to be generational. Women over 50 like that she's chosen to work on her family, and younger people appreciate that she's jumped back into her career."
The competition heats up considerably in the supporting actress categories, where multiple nominees flourish. "Modern Family's" go-for-broke, all-supporting submission earned Julie Bowen and Sofia Vergara berths in the category, where they are up against Jane Krakowski ("30 Rock"), Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live"), Holland Taylor ("Two and a Half Men") and the much-buzzed-about Jane Lynch ("Glee").
Despite Lynch's buzz this category is traditionally difficult to call. Since Doris Roberts, who won four times from 2001-05 for "Everybody Loves Raymond," there have been no repeat wins, and just one Emmy went to a cable actress (Cynthia Nixon, "Sex and the City," 2004).
Veterans generally don't trump ingenues here, either, and it's also worth noting that an actress from a show fielding multiple nominees hasn't won since Nixon. Going by sheer momentum alone, "Glee's" now-iconic Lynch has a solid shot at taking the category, particularly if her co-star nominees fail to pull in wins elsewhere.
The multiple-nominee trend continues in the supporting drama actress category, where Archie Panjabi and Christine Baranski represent "Good Wife" and Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss stand in for "Mad Men."
In both cases, a first-time nominee is going up against one with Emmy experience (though only Baranski has a win here, from 1995). Elsewhere, Emmy veteran Sharon Gless (for "Cagney and Lacey") has a nom for "Burn Notice," while "Damages' " two-time nominee Rose Byrne rounds out the list.
"Supporting people can really be up in the air," says Baranski, who is straddling the comedy and drama divide this year with a second nomination for a guest stint on "The Big Bang Theory." "Every character is open-ended. We spent the whole season (just) finding our sea legs."
It's a historically cable-friendly category, with non-network actresses picking up wins four times since 2000. But it's also a category dominated this year by cable shows, so that trend is hardly a stretch. While newcomer Panjabi created a fiercely fascinating character on "Good Wife" that's helped elevate the mystery of Margulies' character -- there is hardly a better definition of "supporting actress" -- Baranski and Gless may still garner a lot of affection among voters.
Still, it seems most likely that this year will be one for the "Mad" women, with Hendricks and/or Moss benefiting most from voters' love for the Emmy-winning drama's potent femme factor.