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Emmy pundits usually are in the business of telling you who will win. But sometimes, just being nominated signifies a big victory, and some of the most fascinating and culturally important shows and actors in the race are nominees whose hopes are the lowest. Sadly for pundits, sometimes they win anyway. Even if they don’t, here’s why we applaud the dark horses of 2011.
1. Melissa McCarthy
Lead Comedy Actress
In a year with two other contenders of unconventional stature, Kathy Bates (Harry’s Law) and Margo Martindale (Justified), Mike & Molly‘s McCarthy is the one who makes you go, “Whoa!” Bates is an iconic movie star propping up a so-so show, and Martindale is a respected character actor breaking out big-time in a great one, but 14 years after she first appeared on her cousin Jenny McCarthy‘s show, Melissa McCarthy is a real phenom. She won a Teen Choice scene-stealer award for Bridesmaids and could probably win a most lovable Emmy contender prize. What’s her secret? She combines aspects of her two comedy icons, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin of Saturday Night Live. “What I liked about Jane was how straight she played stuff,” McCarthy tells THR. “Even as a little kid, I was weirdly obsessed with that show. I don’t think I understood why it was so funny.” From Radner, McCarthy took a shame-free approach: “Gilda Radner didn’t have an ounce of pride to her. That was one of my favorite qualities in anybody.” McCarthy’s persona shows no fear and doesn’t think she’s being funny. “To that person, they’re making a really great point. It can’t be funny or strange to the person,” she says. “It should all seem like one plus one equals two. You’re just stating facts.” Fact: Nobody is funny in quite the way McCarthy is. And if you’re surprised at her nomination, she was so shocked she almost collapsed on camera.
2. Mireille Enos
Lead Drama Actress
Playing a homicide detective as broodingly moody as the Seattle skies above her in The Killing, Enos out-underacts anybody else on TV. Forget about the show’s controversially tricky, red-herring-happy plotline and concentrate on her face. Its stoic resolve might be the most radical thing about the most radically original gumshoe show around. It’s the anti-SVU, and hers is the opposite of a Mariska Hargitay performance — maybe too opposite to get eight noms like Hargitay. Emmy or no Emmy, Enos is a somebody now, instead of just one of those wives on Big Love who’s so great but her name escapes you.
3. Michelle Forbes
Supporting Drama Actress
As the dangerously enraged mom of the girl whose murderer is hunted in The Killing, Forbes probably has less chance of winning than Enos, but both are submitting episodes in which their characters desperately seek their missing kids. Forbes’ performance is the more searing and scary; she’s worlds away from the usual blubbering victim’s mother on procedurals. She’s not a sentimental prop; her fury propels the tragic plot. Forbes’ mind-stealing maenad was about the most intense character on True Blood, too.
4. Parks and Recreation
In some ways as much a reflection of its SNL comedienne inventor as 30 Rock is, Parks has faced a rockier, less-Emmy-blessed road. But Amy Poehler relentlessly improved the show, tinkered with her role as bureaucrat nerd-in-chief, put more of the literally brilliant Rob Lowe in the mix and broke out this season with a best comedy nom to go with her lead comedy actress nom. If not for its unstoppable rival Modern Family, Parks might not be such a dark horse.
5. James Woods
Supporting Miniseries/Movie Actor
As Dick Fuld, “the Gorilla of Wall Street,” Woods gets the bellowing villain role in the movie Too Big to Fail, a mostly sympathetic portrait of the architects of the 2008 financial disaster (and the shaky, dicey bailout). Fuld turned his billion-dollar personal stock in Lehman Brothers into $56,000 through sheer brazen denial, a character flaw Woods feasts on like a banker on a sucker investor. The best salesman sells himself down the river first. He won’t get noticed in such a star-studded cast (Paul Giamatti, Billy Crudup, Tony Shalhoub, Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, Topher Grace, John Heard, Cynthia Nixon), and they’re all overshadowed by lead William Hurt, but Woods reasserts his ongoing role as the 800-pound gorilla of high-IQ villains. Woods thinks of financial giants as resembling movie stars: You’re only as good as your last grosses or share price, so you gotta believe in your dream. Woods is a believable fanatical believer.
6. Timothy Olyphant
Lead Drama Actor
The Justified star’s revolver won’t likely outdraw the Boardwalk Empire tommy guns of Steve Buscemi, but his dramatic aim is just as deadeye, his dialogue is purer tough-guy poetry, and he’s more dynamic than Buscemi and livelier than Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm, the other frontrunner. The ironic problem is, Olyphant might actually be overshadowed by some of his own castmates. Martindale, ostensibly a guest actor on the show, submitted as supporting actress instead (perfectly reasonable given that she’s Olyphant’s de facto co-star) and got far more Emmy buzz for it than his campaign has. (He’s not that much better than he was last season, and she’s the big reason this season sizzles.) Supporting nominee Walton Goggins gets more ink for his stunning work this season than Olyphant, and even surprise guest actor nom Jeremy Davies upstages the easygoing star with his jagged, jittery rhythms. Sometimes it pays for talent not to be quite so surrounded by other talent, from an Emmy strategy perspective.
7. Edgar Ramirez
Lead Miniseries/Movie Actor
The Carlos star is a dark horse of a different color. Many pundits actually favor SAG and Globe nominee Ramirez to win for the animal magnetism of his performance as real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal. I originally ranked his chances ahead of Hurt’s in that other terror story, Too Big to Fail. But now I think the 2011 fiscal crisis makes Fail more timely. Also, Ramirez is a long shot because of the confusing nature of Carlos’ success. He and it were big figures in last season’s movie-awards race, even though its origin as a TV broadcast made Carlos ineligible for an Oscar. But critics and film festivals treated it like a movie, showering it with kudos. Now it seems like old news in another medium. It’s amazing such a sprawling polyglot drama even got made. “It’s a 5½-hour movie that was never rehearsed,” Ramirez tells THR. When he told director Olivier Assayas he and his co-stars had no idea how to play their roles, Assayas said he was relieved because he had no idea how to shoot the movie. So everything was improvised. “It was a happening thing, like a happening in the ’60s,” says Ramirez. “Very cinema verite, very nouvelle vague.” Not Emmy meat, but it’s a starmaking role.
8. The Kennedys
Dissed from the outset sight unseen, driven by howls of protest from History channel to teensy upstart Reelz, the pulpy miniseries defied critics by nabbing 10 Emmy noms. Criticized for sensationalizing its subjects, Kennedys actually sentimentalizes them, soft-pedaling their plutocrat cynicism and omitting their stinging wit. In real life, Jackie’s relation by marriage, Gore Vidal, said she and Jack were like the denizens of Dangerous Liaisons. It might face a less uphill battle for best miniseries/movie if it were meaner and less safe. Still, you have to admire its pluck as the little soap opera that could. Greg Kinnear is good as JFK, Tom Wilkinson is better as his ruthless dad, and if Katie Holmes can’t capture Jackie’s spirit, she’s got the look. Jackie once quipped about the famous pillbox Oleg Cassini designed for her, “He got an awful lot of mileage out of that little hat.” So does Katie.
9. Friday Night Lights
They said a show so quiet and deliberate and emotionally realistic would face certain death. It did. Repeatedly, for five seasons. And now it’s finally over and has one last chance to beat the odds. It probably won’t, but you have to respect Emmy for coming to its senses and nominating FNL before it’s gone.
10. Game of Thrones
The most bold, strange, bewilderingly complex show of the season, there’s no way it can overcome Emmy’s anti-fantasy tradition and win. On the other hand, even its creators doubted Thrones could be nominated the first year. So who knows? Debuting late in the Emmy race, which the showrunners thought would be a disadvantage, turned out to be a good thing, because it made Thrones the latest rage. The show is like its sole acting nom, supporting actor Peter Dinklage: It’s a proud dwarf that stands head and shoulders above the competition.
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