Emmys 2012: Sizing Up the Best Dramatic Actors’ Race (ANALYSIS)

at 7:30 am | By

Emmys: Best Comedy Actress
Which of these seven sitcom sirens has the best shot?
Emmys: Best Comedy Actor
Which of these funnymen will win the 2012 trophy?
It’s tough being a man. No, really.

Judging by the Emmy nominees in this year’s Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama race, a man has to be ruthless and violent to get ahead, or even just to stay in place while providing for his family. To exercise power, or to hold onto it, costs a man a piece of his soul. And after all that, you still can’t get a spot on an advertising-supported broadcast network.

That’s the lesson of this year’s dramatic lead actor nominees, who play a bunch of crimelords, killers and dog-eat-dog businessmen. (Oh, and one earl.) They struggle with their masculinity in the darker, grittier corners of cable TV. (Oh, and on PBS.) Expect the competition among them for the trophy to be as cutthroat as the action on their respective shows.

Here’s how we figure that competition will play out on Emmy night.

Bryan Cranston: As Breaking Bad’s science teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White,  Cranston has won this award all three years he’s been eligible. The episode he submitted, “Crawl Space,” showed Walt driven to emotional extremes as he alternately faced death and exposure. Often, the Emmys try to get ahead of the curve and recognize new talent, and no actor has won a fourth Emmy for the same role since NYPD Blue’sDennis Franz’s streak in the ’90s. Still, so far, it looks like Cranston still owns this category. Emmy chances: Excellent.

Damian Lewis: Here’s some of that new blood that represents the best possible challenge to Cranston. Lewis earned his first-ever nomination for his performance on the Season 1 finale of Homeland, in which his conflicting loyalties as a patriot, father, and terrorist come to a head. Much of the critical praise for this show has gone to costar Claire Danes, and she may steal his thunder on Emmy night, too. Nonetheless, if voters are looking for someone to knock Cranston off his perch, Lewis is the man. Emmy chances: Good.

Hugh Bonneville: British import Bonneville certainly classes up the category. His Christmas episode of Downton Abbey finds his noble patriarch engaged in his usual struggle to do the right thing while keeping his family together and preserving what’s left of the old social order in war-torn England. Not that Bonneville doesn’t deserve a nomination, but there’s a certain Anglophilia at work here (if it’s on PBS and features people with English accents and period costumes, it must be more highbrow than any American show on another network) that is probably the only advantage the poor earl really has in this race. Emmy chances: Slim.

Jon Hamm: Like fellow AMC star Cranston, Hamm’s been nominated for playing Don Draper every year he’s been eligible (five times so far), but he’s been shut out. (He’s also been nominated three times for guest work on 30 Rock but hasn’t yet won that prize either.) If he’d been choosy with the Mad Men episode he submitted to voters, he might have broken his losing streak this year. Curiously, he picked “The Other Woman,” where Don is at his oily best during a pitch meeting, but the episode is much more a showcase for Christina Hendricks (whose Joan finds herself in an appalling situation and makes a controversial, life-changing decision). This time out, Hamm is fated once again to be the other man. Emmy chances: Weak.

Michael C. Hall: Hall has been nominated for his starring role on Dexter in five out of six eligible seasons, but he’s never won an Emmy. (He was also nominated in this category a decade ago for Six Feet Under.) Given the show’s extreme violence, it’s easy to see why it may not be many voters’ cup of tea. Hall might have changed that this year, but the episode he chose, “Nebraska,” is an odd one that many viewers didn’t like because it sees Dexter out of his element (away from Florida on a road trip to the Midwest) and acting uncharacteristically sloppy and lackadaisical instead of meticulous and methodical. So it may not be the best showcase for a campaign to end Hall’s losing streak. Emmy chances: Minimal.

Steve Buscemi: Buscemi has five Emmy nods to his credit, two for playing Nucky Thompson, but no wins yet. His character on Boardwalk Empire grew and changed a lot this season, and Buscemi smartly picked a pivotal episode, “Two Boats and a Lifeguard,” that showed his full range. (Nucky sheds ambivalent tears over the death of his hated father, and he makes a grand show of giving up his power while remaining as dangerous, manipulative and in control as ever.) If he didn’t have Cranston and Lewis to contend with, this could be his year. Since Boardwalk is only in its third season, voters may assume they’ll have a chance to reward Buscemi down the road. Emmy chances: Middling.

Who’s your top choice for the statue in this category? Let us know in the comments section below.