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Emmys: Scott Feinberg Handicaps the Drama Leads (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst looks at whether controversial character turns and previous wins help or hurt this year's headliners.

House of Cards - Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards"

This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

LEAD DRAMA ACTOR

Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey

PRO: The two-time nominee displayed a wider emotional range in season three of the PBS series as the world of his Lord Grantham began to slip away, in no small part due to his own poor judgment.

CON: Bonneville retains a somewhat lower profile after a season that some saw as verging on soapy melodrama. Also, because they shoot in the U.K., Downton actors are less available to campaign.

Bryan CranstonBreaking Bad

PRO: The three-time winner was upset last year, but a strong season five, intense interest in the AMC series’ final eight episodes (which air during voting) and 2013 SAG and Critics’ Choice awards suggest a return to the podium may be imminent. Also, buzz around Bad’s upcoming series finale is offering up extra promotional opps.

CON: It has never been more difficult to root for Walter White.

VIDEO: 'Breaking Bad': Aaron Paul Surprises Fans Outside His Home 

Jeff DanielsThe Newsroom

PRO: As curmudgeonly anchor Will McAvoy, Daniels scored Golden Globe and SAG noms. It can only help that season two of the HBO series is airing during balloting, and voters can’t help themselves when it comes to film stars, especially someone like Daniels, who is a respected (and selective) theater veteran.

CON: The show was shut out of all but two other (minor) categories.

Jon Hamm, Mad Men

PRO: He’s been nominated for all six seasons in which he has played Don Draper, and this year Hamm did some of his most powerful and vulnerable work yet on the four-time-winning AMC drama.

CON: It’s rare for an actor to win for the first time this far into a series (although Friday Night LightsKyle Chandler did), especially after a season that many felt had an uneven tone and narrative.

Damian Lewis, Homeland

PRO: Last year’s winner (and 2013 Globe honoree), Lewis maintained his riveting energy in season two (never more than in the “Q&A” episode) of Showtime’s hit.

CON: The more we learn about Brody, the less sympathetic he seems. Plus, season two, which wasn’t as good as season one, ended more than a half-year ago. And new competitors (Daniels, Spacey) have more heat.

Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (Most Likely to Win!)

PRO: TV Academy members clearly love the Netflix drama (nine noms!), of which Spacey — a real movie star (one of the voters’ favorite things) playing an antihero (another fave) — is the dark heart and soul. The Oscar winner is also an EP on Cards, which gives his profile an added boost.

CON: Some found Spacey’s Southern accent and habit of breaking the fourth wall rather jarring.

STORY: Emmys: 'House of Cards' Nominees Credit Netflix for Creative Freedom

LEAD DRAMA ACTRESS

Connie Britton, Nashville

PRO: A Globe nominee this year, she has scored four Emmy noms in a row (the prior three came for the final two seasons of Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story). Britton, a show producer, also can sing!

CON: Her series lacks the overall prestige factor enjoyed by most of her competitors. And the season finale was widely panned by fans and critics.

Claire Danes, Homeland (Most Likely to Win!)

PRO: The defending champ delivered another strong season as troubled, bipolar hero Carrie Mathison, a role that also has netted her two Globes and a SAG award. 

CON: Between Danes’ awards for Temple Grandin and Homeland, this would be her third time in the winner’s circle in the past four years. Could what goes up Emmy night eventually come down?

STORY: 'Homeland' EPs Address Limited Brody in Season 3

Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey

PRO: Her character’s roller coaster of a season three earned her a second consecutive nom, and her Lady Mary remains the series’ emotional — and fan-favorite — centerpiece. 

CON: No Downton thesp has won except Maggie Smith, and this may be because voters prefer showy — and thus more entertaining — performances over restrained ones.

Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel

PRO: She’s an Oscar-nominated actress (Up in the Air) and filmmaker who’s given basic-cabler A&E its first ever stab at scripted gold with her role as Norma Bates. She is the reason to watch the series. 

CON: Bates has a somewhat absurd premise — it’s a Psycho prequel set in modern-day Oregon — and the tone often vacillates between campy and dramedy.

Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men

PRO: Her Peggy Olson was caught between bosses and lovers in season six, earning Moss a fifth nom for the show (and finally some sexier screen time).

CON: She didn’t win for previous seasons in which Peggy figured more prominently, and some may feel she’s more deserving to win for Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake, as did TV Critics’ Choice Awards voters.

STORY: 'Scandal's' Kerry Washington, Dan Bucatinsky on Their Emmy Surprise

Kerry Washington, Scandal

PRO: She’s only the fifth black female lead of a network drama to be nominated for an Emmy, and the first since 1995. Her work in the Oscar-winning Django Unchained has raised her industry profile.

CON: Like Nashville, the political-fixer series — despite its ratings haul for ABC — may feel too guilty-pleasure when compared to its cable competitors.

Robin Wright, House of Cards

PRO: After decades making indie films and the occasional mainstream movie, Wright returns to her TV roots (she started on the soap Santa Barbara) and lands one of the juiciest roles on television in the buzziest series of the year.

CON: Wright may almost be too good at cold and calculating in her role as Spacey’s onscreen wife, Claire Underwood.