Jon Hamm: If he doesn't win for Mad Men, the Emmys are officially upside-down. AMC
With the Emmy ceremony coming up on Sunday, we'll be taking a look this week at some of the more interesting categories to watch and making a few predictions.
We will try not to spend too much time fretting over classic injustices — including the snubbing of The Wire and Friday Night Lights, the endless nominations handed out to Boston Legal and Two And A Half Men, and the failure to recognize the marvelous Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race in the Reality-Competition Host category. (Shake your fist at Jeff Probst here.)
Why James Spader shouldn't win and Bryan Cranston won't win, after the jump ...
First up are the nominees for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series. There are six nominees in the category this year, and as the quality of the other performances mounts, the pressure increases not to give it to James Spader, who's already won twice for his ham-tastic performance on David E. Kelley's Boston Legal. There's nothing wrong with what Spader does, but it's what I think of as "'90s acting" -- thundering speeches, very similar to what Kelley wrote for Dylan McDermott on The Practice, heavy on quotable lines and generally devoted to text over subtext.
Spader's speechifying (he plays a lawyer given to super-dramatic closing arguments) is particularly well-suited for Emmy consideration, since actors are judged on specific episodes and not on the entirety of their work. But the strength of some of the other performances really ought to nudge the award in another direction.
Michael C. Hall, nominated for Dexter, and Gabriel Byrne, nominated for In Treatment, face some of the same challenges. Dexter, in particular, is critically acclaimed, but because of its unsettling premise in which the lead character is a serial killer, it's well out of the mainstream cultural conversation -- a situation not helped, of course, by the fact that it's on premium-cable channel Showtime, forcing it to draw viewers from a much smaller pool.
Hall has a strong, awards-friendly resumé going back to his much-admired work on HBO's Six Feet Under, and given the Emmy dominance of The Sopranos in its day, there's precedent for dark pay-cable dramas to take home awards. Still, Hall would be an upset.
Byrne is a longtime Hollywood actor, and Emmy voters love to honor longtime movie actors. But HBO's In Treatment is substantially more obscure than Dexter, and its reviews have been more mixed. Shows that generate neither critical excitement (as Dexter has) nor viewer excitement (some observers were surprised that In Treatment was picked up for a second season) have a tough time winning awards.
Hugh Laurie, nominated for House, would certainly make a deserving winner. Without his performance, House would be a good but ordinary medical drama, but the way he keeps Dr. House teetering between likable and not likable — and not the fake, roguish kind of "not likable," but the real kind, where he can be thoughtless and reckless — makes it one of TV's strongest shows. Laurie has never won, and he certainly should eventually. But this year, House on the whole sputtered a bit, and there's enough strong competition that this probably isn't his year either.
In many ways, the least likely winner among the nominees is Bryan Cranston of AMC's Breaking Bad — for reasons having little to do with his performance. Breaking Bad is essentially AMC's follow-up to the spectacular critical success it has enjoyed with Mad Men, and no matter how good Cranston (who was the dad on Malcolm In The Middle for years) is, it's hard to imagine that there's a critical mass of voters who are aware of and fond of AMC's drama programming but will pass over Jon Hamm of Mad Men to give Cranston the award.
In fact, Hamm has to be considered the hands-on favorite. His Don Draper stands at the center of a show that has managed to draw attention massively disproportionate to its small audience. Consider: They're both on basic cable, but Mad Men was watched by about a million people during its first season, while TNT's The Closer -- a far less aggressively hyped show -- is seen by six or seven times that many.
Moreover, Don Draper had already become an iconic character after only one 13-episode season. In one brilliant moment in the first season, viewers were subtly dared to speculate as to whether the impeccably dressed advertising exec was about to commit murder, despite the fact that he had never shown the slightest propensity for violence. In that moment, it became clear that Hamm's performance (and, of course, the writing) had made Draper genuinely unpredictable, which is an accomplishment more rare than it might seem.
Hamm should have no trouble winning in this category, but it's gratifying to see the amount of good work he's up against -- even if four out of the six nominees come from cable shows with small audiences.