The TV Czar’s Emmy Ballot: Lead Actor in a Drama Series

When we start talking about lead actors/actresses in drama series, we’re getting down to deciding among the very best television actors in the world. Comic actors can do lots of impressive things, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to contend Jake Johnson was the best actor on television this year. It’s not a shot against comedies. It’s just the realization that television drama is on an exceptionally high level right now. Sure, things like this still exist, but it’s hard to complain too much when you can watch performances from these six men.

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad "Madrigal" (Season 5 Episode 2)

I think we’re at the point where we have run out of superlatives of the incredibly talented Bryan Cranston. That being said, it’s still impossible to overstate how wonderful of a performance he gave in the first half of the final season of Breaking Bad. The first half of season 5 was very Walter White-centric, and Cranston was chilling as he portrayed Walt’s growing arrogance. It’s a career-defining role for Cranston, and one few of us will ever forget. He’s turned a goofy Chemistry teacher into one of the most iconic TV characters of all-time. His high level of performance has come to be accepted as the norm. You could hand him this award every year and no one would complain a bit.

Jon Hamm, Mad Men

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 10 A Tale of Two Cities (9)

Just as we’ve run out of superlatives for Cranston, so too have we run out of them for the man who plays Donald Draper on Mad Men. Hamm’s performance continues to be amazing particularly when you compare him to the other people in the field. While Cranston’s performance as Walter White is big and showy, Hamm’s performance is quieter, subtler, but just as impressive in many ways. This season was another triumph for Hamm as we went deeper and darker into the world of Don Draper. The Hershey’s pitch will get the headlines, but his performance as the downward spiraling advertising executive was consistently excellent throughout the season. Hamm may never win an Emmy for this role, but it’s more an issue of timing than with ability.

Damian Lewis, Homeland

Homeland Season 2 Finale The Choice (7)

Damian Lewis definitely has one of the signature moments of this TV season (the interrogation in Q & A). No amount of storytelling issues can take that exceptional moment in time away from him. It’s hard to know how much, if it all, Lewis gets penalized for Homeland going slightly sideways, but it shouldn’t stop him from earning another nomination after his somewhat surprising victory last season. Lewis was still great. He may not have equaled his performance from season 1, but he did more than enough to earn a spot on this ballot.

Hugh Dancy, Hannibal

Hannibal (NBC) Episode 3 Potage (7)

It’s a difficult task to play the lead role in a show named for a supporting actor. It’s a really difficult task to play opposite the character of Hannibal Lecter without getting swallowed whole (literally and figuratively) in every scene with the character. It’s a really, really difficult task to be the most compelling character on a series based on Hannibal Lecter when the guy playing Hannibal Lecter is also giving a great performance. Somehow, Hugh Dancy managed to pull it off. Playing the damaged Will Graham on Hannibal, Dancy was captivating as we watched his character descend into madness. Few people watched, but those that did caught one of the best performances of the season from a rather unlikely source.

Aden Young, Rectify

Rectify (Sundance Channel) 03

Speaking of unlikely sources of great performances. Aden Young on Rectify is probably the biggest surprise of them all. It’s a small little show that played without a lot of fanfare, but the show and the performances have a way of drawing you into the world. No performance this season is probably as interesting as the one Young gave as released convict Daniel Holden. The show was slow, strange, and filled with pratfalls. Thanks to the steady and intense performance given by Young, the show managed to avoid the pratfalls and become perhaps the best unheralded drama of the season. Young was incredible regardless of the task asked of him in any given scene. Whether he was asked to tell a story about an unfortunate prison experience or to watch an inflatable man flap in the breeze, Young attacked every scene with the same focus and intensity required to keep the show grounded. He may be the MVP of the TV season. The show is not a good show with an actor of lesser quality. Instead, Young’s presence makes it a great show.

Jonny Lee Miller, Elementary

The Woman

At the beginning of the season, the TV world (read: the Internet) was wondering if we really needed another Sherlock Holmes story. With Elementary set to debut, plenty of people had already dismissed the show because there was no way anyone could replicate the performance of their beloved Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock. However, Jonny Lee Miller quickly made us realize there is always room for more great performances. More hamstrung by the borders of network television than his cable-based colleagues, Miller’s performance has to have a certain amount of restraint in order to be successful. It would be easy for him to cleverly rant and rave his way about the screen while solving crimes, but Miller’s control and command of the character is pretty impressive. He certainly benefits from the incredible chemistry he has with Lucy Liu, but Miller’s performance can stand on its own and remind us all that an exceptional performance will always be worth the retread of familiar content.

Others considered: Simon Baker, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Daniels, Michael C. Hall, Timothy Olyphant, Matthew Rhys

Now it’s time for your opinion. In one of the toughest categories to pick, who would be your top six?