Emmy Circuit: Can Mahershala Ali Add Emmy to His Awards Haul?


Welcome to the 2019 Emmy Circuit series. We are now in the Emmy post-nomination phase, where we watch all the nominated Emmy episodes and predict their chances of winning. The Creative Arts Emmy winners will be revealed Saturday, Sept. 14, while the Primetime Emmy Awards airs on FOX Sunday, Sept. 22. Tune in week after week as we tackle all things Drama, Comedy, Limited Series and Variety.


The Lead Actor in a Limited Series category boasts a bevy of talent. Among its ranks are three Oscar winning actors, a beloved movie star, a TV mainstay and a talented new star. Mahershala Ali enters the category with loads of buzz and two Oscars in hand. This sort of momentum is hard to stop. Yet, there are many talented actors who are putting up quite a fight. Let’s take a look at the field.


  • Mahershala Ali – “True Detective”
  • Benicio Del Toro – “Escape at Dannemora”
  • Hugh Grant – “A Very English Scandal”
  • Jared Harris – “Chernobyl”
  • Jharrel Jerome – “When They See Us”
  • Sam Rockwell – “Fosse/Verdon”

Now to delve into each of the nominated episodes. Spoiler Alert: These analyses may contain spoilers of the nominated episodes.

NOMINEE #1 – Mahershala Ali – “True Detective”

Synopsis (IMDB): Seasonal anthology series in which police investigations unearth the personal and professional secrets of those involved, both within and outside the law.

The third season of “True Detective” represents a critical rebound from the reviled second season. A lot of this can be attributed to Mahershala Ali‘s wonderfully textured and haunting performance. Even as the season becomes more elusive and convoluted, Ali rises above the material. The degree of difficulty gets raised thanks to the show’s decades spanning conceit. Ali deftly shades his characterization of Hays based on the time period. Each year since the Purcell case feels like a large weight on Hays’ soul. Even with the dementia he exhibits in the 2015 segments, he seems haunted by the past that he can’t quite grasp.

As we talked about in our article on Supporting Actress in a Comedy, your Emmy luck increases after you win an Oscar. Mahershala Ali enters this race hot off his second Oscar win in the Supporting Actor category. Even if his “Green Book” win was considerably less well-received than his “Moonlight” win, Ali’s appeal cannot be denied. The first season of “True Detective” was a buzzy sensation and part of the McCon-aissance, but none of the actors won at the Emmys. Perhaps McConaughey and Harrelson split the vote. Still, this illustrates that sometimes awards momentum isn’t enough to win an Emmy.

NOMINEE #2 – Benicio Del Toro – “Escape at Dannemora”

Synopsis (IMDB): An employee at a prison in upstate New York becomes romantically involved with a pair of inmates and helps them escape.

Of the six nominated performances, Benicio Del Toro arguably takes the biggest swings in terms of acting choices. Whether it’s growling “Don’t Tell Anybody” at Patricia Arquette or giving slovenly sex-eyes across a sweat-shop, Del Toro owns every moment on screen. He makes Richard Mann’s escape insanely watchable. There’s a palpable energy that builds with each passing episode thanks to Del Toro’s performance. This comes from his ability to surprise an audience with every choice. Often it’s as messy as the central jailbreak. Yet, he remains consistently captivating.

Del Toro’s bold choices will either make or break his chances at the Emmys. While he stands out in this category, this might not always be for the better. Some may see the performance as garrish or cartoon-y. In some ways, it does take one out of the show and focus on the “Acting” with a capital A. “Escape at Dannemora” did well on nomination morning. It earned twelve nominations, including Limited Series, three acting nominations, two writing nominations and a directing nomination. Though there are other shows with more citations, such a haul suggests considerable support for “Escape from Dannemora.” This could be one of the places where it earns a win.

NOMINEE #3 – Hugh Grant – “A Very English Scandal”

Hugh Grant A Very English Scandal Lead Actor Limited Series/TV MovieEpisode Synopsis (IMDB): British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe is accused of conspiracy to murder his gay ex-lover and forced to stand trial in 1979.

Hugh Grant never gets enough credit for how good he consistently is. His work in “A Very English Scandal” feels tailor-made to his gifts as an actor. His character, Jeremy Thorpe, starts out charming, only to reveal a more sinister side. For all the bravado Thorpe conveys in his political work, his shame about his sexuality permeates his personal life. Over the many years covered in “A Very English Scandal,” Grant expertly plots how these different facets of his life start to run into each other as Thorpe’s methods of containment become more crazed.

“A Very English Scandal” received four main nominations (Actor, Supporting Actor, Directing and Writing), but ultimately missed out on the top category, Outstanding Limited Series. This means the buzz is not quite widespread on this title. If “A Very English Scandal” is going to win anywhere, it would probably be in Supporting Actor, as Ben Wishaw won at the Golden Globes, BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards. After a long career, this marks Grant’s first Emmy nomination. With such a stacked category, the nomination seems to be the win here.

NOMINEE #4 – Jared Harris – “Chernobyl”

Episode Synopsis (IMDB): In April 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics becomes one of the world’s worst man-made catastrophes.

Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov fits in well with this category of tragic figures. As the head of the Kurchatov Institute, Legasov enters Chernobyl to offer aid and clean up after the disaster. He soon finds both his organization and the country are in way over their heads with the issue. In addition, large scale corruption prevents adequate aid to be offered. Harris anchors the show with a welcome stoicism that gets shaped by the horrors around him. The show opens with Legasov committing suicide. This entry point colors how we view his actions throughout the entire series. Harris threads this needle very carefully, making the show an engrossing watch.

Jared Harris carries the biggest Emmy IOU of the bunch. From seasons three through five of AMC’s “Mad Men,” Harris’ Lane Pryce goes on quite the journey. His untimely suicide stands out as one of the most haunting moments from the masterpiece series. The Emmys nominated him for that episode in 2012. Unfortunately, Harris lost to “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, who won his second prize. Pent up love for “Mad Men,” in addition to “Chernobyl” buzz, could make Harris the potential spoiler here.

NOMINEE #5 – Jharrel Jerome – “When They See Us”

"When They See Jharrel Jerome Lead Actor Limited Series/TV Movie

Episode Synopsis (IMDB): Five teens from Harlem become trapped in a nightmare when they’re falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. Based on the true story.

There’s something towering about Jharrel Jerome’s performance. It’s the same thing that makes “When They See Us” such a massive, wrenching and extraordinary miniseries. As Korey Wise, one of the Central Park Five, Jerome sells the transformation from misunderstood teenager to an enraged adult. Of the five wrongfully accused black men at the center of Netflix’s miniseries, Jerome is the only one who carries his performance from the initial accusation through prison until his eventual release. The fourth episode in particular gives Jerome stand out moments where he rips our collective hearts out.

Jerome’s nomination feels harder fought than the potential win. Of the sixteen nominations for “When They See Us,” eight came in the acting categories. Initially, many thought only one or two of the adult actors would get in. The widespread support demonstrates the voting body at large watched the show in its entirety. Jerome stands out as the most galvanizing and moving performance of the bunch. Voters who are fans of the show will have trouble not voting for Jerome. He is also the only star who will not have to worry about vote splitting. His nomination shows that he has the Television Academy’s attention. Let’s hope they’re voting too.

NOMINEE #6 – Sam Rockwell – “Fosse/Verdon”

Sam Rockwell Fosse/Verdon Lead Actor Limited Series/TV MovieEpisode Synopsis (IMDB): An inside look at the romantic and creative partnership between influential choreographer/director, Bob Fosse, and Gwen Verdon, one of the greatest Broadway dancers of all time.

There’s always a risk present when tackling a famous figure. Sam Rockwell nails the mannerisms of Bob Fosse. However, he struggles to disappear into the role. It frequently feels like a great Fosse imitation, rather than an embodiment of the man himself. Rockwell comes alive most when opposite Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. His best work comes during their meeting, as he shows her the steps he wants her to do. During the later part of the season, Rockwell does a great work of expressing the exhaustion of Fosse’s workload and addictions. Overall, there’s a lot of good work here. Yet, it only almost congeals into a full portrait.

Ali isn’t the only nominee on an awards streak. Rockwell won Supporting Actor at the Oscars for “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” just two years ago. This momentum continued this past year at the Oscars where he received an afterglow nomination for “Vice,” where he played George W. Bush. Of these three performances, “Fosse/Verdon” stands out as the best. Yet, the majority of the show’s narrative has been around his co-star, Michelle Williams. Her performance as Gwen Verdon shows up Rockwell’s Bob Fosse at every turn. Unless voters want to reward both Fosse and Verdon, Williams stands a much better shot at being the show’s lone acting winner.


  1. Jharrel Jerome – “When They See Us”
  2. Jared Harris – “Chernobyl”
  3. Mahershala Ali – “True Detective”
  4. Sam Rockwell – “Fosse/Verdon”
  5. Hugh Grant – “A Very English Scandal”
  6. Benicio Del Toro – “Escape at Dannemora”

WILL WIN: Jharrel Jerome – “When They See Us”

SHOULD WIN: Jharrel Jerome – “When They See Us”

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Christopher Abbott – “Catch 22”

What do you think will win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series this year? Let us know in the comments below.