Emmy Wrap: Actor contenders


More Emmy coverage  
Emmy drama actor contenders
Emmy comedy actor contenders

Ever since the 61st annual Primetime Emmy Awards were announced in mid-July, the general consensus has been clear: This year, cable didn't just jump broadcast's shark, it ate it whole.

But such has been the case for years now in Emmy's lead actor categories -- since 2000, cable has earned awards five of the past nine times in drama, and four of the past nine times in comedy. Even so, even cablers acknowledge that comparisons of the two distribution models are hardly apples to apples.

"Networks are still having to appeal to many more people, and while our budgets are not that different from what a network would spend, on cable we're responsible for only 12-13 episodes a season," says Craig Zisk, executive producer of Showtime's "United States of Tara." "We really have to commit to 12 great episodes, whereas on a network show it's impossible to write 24 great episodes."

Whether 12 or 24 episodes, the best of the bunch continually stand out -- so much so that the lead actor in a drama series comes across like a replay of 2008: Surprise winner Bryan Cranston (AMC's "Breaking Bad"), Michael C. Hall (Showtime's "Dexter"), Hugh Laurie (Fox's "House"), Gabriel Byrne (HBO's "In Treatment") and Jon Hamm (AMC's "Mad Men") are repeats, while newcomer Simon Baker (CBS' "The Mentalist") supplants three-time winner James Spader (the defunct "Boston Legal").

Spader and James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos") are the only recent multiwinners (Spader's last win was in 2007) in this category, which arguably pays closest attention of any to seasonal -- rather than career -- performances. Insiders like that Cranston won last year and suggest his compass might be pointing north again, even though Laurie is coming off a personal strong season and has four nominations behind him.

While Zisk likes Cranston for a repeat win, he points out that voters "have a love affair for those who have made the transition into television," like Byrne. "When you have someone with a 'name,' it brings a lot of attention, because you show a range. The academy likes to honor names."

The supporting actor in a drama series category has been more of a catchall for winners, especially in recent years. While "The West Wing" and "Sopranos" earned prizes six of the past nine Emmys, in 2007 and 2008 longtime character actors found themselves with first-time wins (Terry O'Quinn for ABC's "Lost" and Zeljko Ivanek for FX's "Damages"). This year features just one previous winner: William Shatner ("Boston Legal"), along with fellow "Legal"-ite Christian Clemenson, who'll be competing against Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad"), William Hurt ("Damages"), Michael Emerson ("Lost") and John Slattery ("Mad Men").

Based on past performance -- HBO and FX are the only cable nets to have won in this category -- Hurt has a good shot. But don't count out Shatner (who already has two wins for his character), who has a lot of industry goodwill; the chances to honor the veteran are diminished now that "Legal" is off the air.

Not everyone has good feelings about "Legal" -- Daniel Manu, site editor for TelevisionWithoutPity.com calls the show's nominations "the TV equivalent of vampires. It's a tragedy that 'Boston Legal' is eating up not one but two nomination spaces; that feels like a rote nomination year after year."

Whatever happens in this category, one statistic remains true: No one has -- or will have -- duplicated a win in this category in more than 10 years.

Cable doesn't dominate every sphere. Were it not for Tony Shalhoub (USA Network's "Monk"), the lead actor in a comedy series category could still claim it was all but cable-free; Shalhoub has won it three times, and Ricky Gervais (HBO's "Extras") earned it in 2007. This time, last year's winner Alec Baldwin (NBC's "30 Rock") will be running with Shalhoub, Jim Parsons (CBS' "The Big Bang Theory"), Jemaine Clement (HBO's "Flight of the Conchords"), Steve Carell (NBC's "The Office") and Charlie Sheen (CBS' "Two and a Half Men").

The stats are hazy on this category. For one thing, no actors other than Shalhoub have repeated in more than 10 years, which isn't a good sign for Baldwin, though when broadcast actors do win in this category it comes following a string of nominations -- which might work for Sheen.

Zisk, who has directed "Office" and whose brother executive produces "Monk," believes several of the top contenders have a shot, but notes, "You either come out of the gate strong like '30 Rock,' or you have to wait until voters catch up with your show, like they usually have to do with cable."

Cable also hasn't gained much ground in the comedy series supporting actor category; this year just Kevin Dillon (HBO's "Entourage") has a nomination, and he's in competition with Emmy host Neil Patrick Harris (CBS' "How I Met Your Mother"), Rainn Wilson ("The Office"), Tracy Morgan ("30 Rock"), Jack McBrayer ("30 Rock") and Jon Cryer ("Two and a Half Men").

When cable has won in this category it has won big -- Jeremy Piven ("Entourage") has had the honor for the past three years, but he's not in the running this time. That's a good indication for the pendulum to swing back to broadcast (and bad for Dillon). Thus far, only Harris -- a TV vet who has never scored an award -- seems to have any seismic resonance in terms of industry buzz.

And speaking of buzz, there's another battle going on within this category -- that of the so-called "hip" shows of "Office" and "Rock" against the more traditional setups of "Men," for example. To Vince Gilligan, showrunner for AMC's "Breaking Bad," that's a welcome competition.

"It's refreshing to see these kind of matchups," he says. "We're all just human beings; we tend to flock around buzz and heat and I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. There's a certain amount of that in any voting situation, but I think people try very hard to be honest with themselves. Sometimes the heat is out there because the show is excellent to begin with, and other times other factors take over. But I think by and large people try to vote their conscience."

Everyone's a buzzworthy darling in the lead actor in a miniseries or movie category, but a lot of that has to do with the deferential attitude many have toward Anglo-Saxon actors -- three of the six are from across the pond: Brendan Gleeson (HBO's "Into the Storm"), Ian McKellen (PBS' "King Lear (Great Performances)") and Kenneth Branagh (PBS' "Wallander: One Step Behind"). "The accent is an enormous asset," says a network producer. "It confers a legitimacy voters can't resist."

The good ol' boy network is competing with three very strong Yanks: Kevin Kline ("Cyrano de Bergerac (Great Performances)"), Kevin Bacon (HBO's "Taking Chance") and Kiefer Sutherland (Fox's "24: Redemption"). But the last time a broadcast network (even PBS) won in this category was in 2000, which means "Great Performances" may have to take a back seat. Insiders remain baffled as to Sutherland's inclusion here in a "weak" film, considering his exclusion in the lead category for the same role in "24's" season.

But Barbara Fisher, Hallmark Channel's senior vp original programming, suggests that HBO has the dark horse candidate.

"Kevin Bacon was amazing in this exquisite movie ("Taking Chance")," she notes. "He's relatable, and the story is relatable, and (the burial of American soldiers) is something that's on the hearts and minds of Americans, whereas some of these classics may not be as relatable."

The supporting actor in a miniseries or movie category, for its part, has been just as focused on cable winners; not since 2000 has a broadcast show won here, either. PBS' "Little Dorrit" is fielding two actors this year -- Tom Courtenay and Andy Serkis -- so there's a small chance it will break that streak, but Ken Howard is likely to be part of a "Grey Gardens" (HBO) run if the ball gets rolling for that mini.

Those three actors are up against Len Cariou (HBO's "Into the Storm") and Bob Newhart (TNT's "The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice"). Hi, Bob! But real-life stories have an edge here (four of the past nine supporting mini actor winners were based on real-life people), and no winner in this category has ever come from a sequel. Sorry, Bob.