Emmys: Breaking Down the Horse Race for Best Lead Actor Drama

Raimi Malek Mr Robot

With voting open for the Emmys, it’s time for actors to make their last case push for a nomination. This year, the Lead Actor in a Drama category found a way to get even more competitive than years past. Not only are all of the nominees from last year’s field still eligible, but the addition of a half-dozen competitive dramas has only intensified the race. The final seasons of several shows adds pressure on the TV Academy to reward excellence. Without further ado, let’s jump into the race.

It’s impossible to talk about this year’s race without starting with reigning champ, Raimi Malek. Malek burst onto the scene last year in “Mr. Robot” and he returned with an eye on repeating. While some have labeled season 2 a disappointment, Malek was certainly not to blame. He continued to give an excellent performance and certainly has the tape to repeat.

Sterling K. Brown This is UsAt the same time, a there are lessons to learn from Malek’s win last year. Namely, a first-year drama actor starring in the watercooler show of the year can channel that momentum into a win. Enter Sterling K. Brown, who’s 2016/2017 might be one of the strongest 18 month runs in TV history. Brown burst onto the scene playing Chris Darden on “The People vs. O.J.” in January 2016, a role that earned him the win over John Travolta, Hugh Laurie, and David Schwimmer. He was a certified star, and the Emmys fell head over heels for him.

Now, he’s starring in one of the breakout freshman dramas of this Emmy season, “This is Us” from NBC. Brown is absolutely stunning on the show. While the series tends to have melodramatic moments, Brown is the emotional heartbeat of the show. He showcased combinations of mental anxiety, hopefulness, and emotional devastation at times this season (sometimes even in the same episode). He could submit a half dozen episodes and take this category. The show is hitting its stride now, and the buzz hasn’t gone down since episode one. Brown is a huge part of that love.

At the same time, there are vets sprinkled all over the place. Perhaps the one who deserves the award based on past Better Call Saul 1performance is Bob Odenkirk. He’s stellar as Jimmy McGill in “Better Call Saul” and seems to get better each season. This season gives him the strongest case to win so far, and Odenkirk is electric as always. His semi-comedic, extremely emotional turn as Jimmy has been a marvel to watch. He’s added so many layers to the character at this point, that it’s obvious why Vince Gilligan wanted to center the show on Odenkirk. He’s proven his dramatic chops, but will he ever get his due? My money says no this year, but he’s still a top-tier contender.

Matthew Rhys The AmericansIf the race was simply who wore the most mustaches, wigs, and crazy costuming, Matthew Rhys would have taken home this prize years ago. He continued to be phenomenal on “The Americans” this season, and after breaking through last year, he won’t be looking to go away anytime soon. There’s a chance that Rhys pulls a Ben Mendelsohn, and takes home an award this year, for his work in previous years. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. Rhys was great again, but surprisingly, the show had one of its weaker seasons to date. With extra eyes on the show, this may end up hurting Rhys’ chances against the crowd-pleasers he’s up against.

Speaking of Mendelsohn, Kyle Chandler is looking to go three for three in “Bloodline’s” final season. Chandler falls into the TV royalty play with Ian McShane and Liev Schreiber, who have all benefitted from consistency on TV. Chandler’s show had the weakest reception, but again, he was the highlight of the season. His dark turn still makes him a favorite to get a nomination, but a win is out of the question.

Meanwhile, McShane is performing at Al Swearengen levels, but who is watching “American Gods?” It’s a critical darling, but may go the way of “Hannibal” and go unrewarded in the coming years. It’s a candidate to inherit the mantle of “Best Show on TV No One is Watching” which usually hurts a series with the TV Academy. Finally, Ian McShane American GodsSchreiber feels like he’s been here a hundred times. However, he’s only received two Emmy nods for his work on “Ray Donovan,” where he plays an industry fixer. It has long felt like he’s an Emmy mainstay, but he seems to have more sway with Globes. Instead, he’s got the same profile as Chandler, who is on the bubble at best.

Two stars trying to secure their spot in the lineup are Kevin Spacey and Justin Theroux. Spacey has received an Emmy nomination every year the show has been on the air, and that doesn’t look to change this year. However, there’s a crack in the foundation this year. While the show earned back some goodwill in its terrific season four, season five may have squandered it. It’s a showy performance, but are voters sick of “House of Cards?” Or worse, it could feel too close to reality for voters to give it a platform.

The Leftovers Finale 4Theroux is more of a wish list item, but the momentum is peaking at the right moment. Theroux has received raves for his work on the show, and final season adds the pressure for voters to go for him now. He is present for the last shot of the show, and the series has turned opinion on Theroux as an actor. Will they reward him for his growth? Or is he going to fall short again? With HBO’s full attention, “The Leftovers” could cash in on Theroux in the race.

Speaking of cash, Paul Giamatti is looking seal the deal with the improved “Billions” season. Sometimes a show needs a season to figure out what it wants to be, and that’s what has happened to “Billions” this year. The series took a jump this year, and now that it’s settled into its groove, Giamatti could crash the party. He’s operating at peak Giamatti, and he can hit the trail better than almost anyone. He’s still on the outside looking in, but if anyone could charm their way to a nomination, count on Giamatti to make the cut.

There are plenty of spoilers to consider here, including Sir Anthony Hopkins. He might be the most intriguing of Anthony Hopkins Westworldall, simply because of his role on the series, as well as his willingness to dive into the material. His push to lead also singles him out away from the massive ensemble the series will balance in the supporting categories.

Billy Bob Thornton took home the Globe in this category, but the Globes are not very predictive. Since 2010, they’ve given Spacey, Steve Buscemi, and Kelsey Grammar wins. None of them have taken home the prize at the Emmys, and Grammar didn’t even receive a nomination for “Boss” when it was on. The buzz on Goliath is non-existent in comparison to the other shows, so I would air on the Globes as the outlier.

Dan Stevens LegionFinally, there’s a trio of British actors that will likely come up short. “Taboo” went Drama series, so Tom Hardy could make noise. However, FX should push one of the best performances of the year from “Legion” star Dan Stevens. He’s popular in the industry and has the visibility to make this happen. The quality is there, but the weirdness of the show will likely turn off the voters. Finally, Matt Smith should push hard if “The Crown” is as beloved as it seems. He’s one of the weaker spots of the show but may get pulled in on the coattails of the series love.

  1. Sterling K. Brown- “This is Us”
  2. Bob Odenkirk- “Better Call Saul”
  3. Raimi Malek- “Mr. Robot”
  4. Matthew Rhys- “The Americans”
  5. Kevin Spacey- “House of Cards”
  6. Justin Theroux- “The Leftovers”
  7. Ian McShane- “American Gods”
  8. Kyle Chandler- “Bloodline”
  9. Liev Schreiber- “Ray Donovan”
  10. Paul Giamatti- “Billions”

Potential Spoilers:  Anthony Hopkins- “Westworld,” Dan Stevens, “Legion,” Matt Smith- “The Crown,” Milo Ventimiglia- “This Is Us,” Billy Bob Thornton- “Goliath,” and Tom Hardy- “Taboo”

What do you think? Who are you rooting for? Place your predictions in the Awards Circuit Circuit Center, and comment on the Message Boards!

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.


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Have absolutely no idea who gets in, just hoping one of them is Theroux.


Giamatti’s final scene laughing in the season finale is certainly Emmy worthy. Could not take my eyes off Malek, but not enough to watch the final four episodes of Robot (awful). Odenkirk and Rhys are in, but not winning. Same for Brown and Ventimiglia. Kevin Spacey TRULY deserved the Emmy the past two seasons, I think he has enough to assemble a good reel and finally win this year.

Luke McGowan

If Spacey didn’t win last year, I don’t think he ever will.


I have not seen all the contenders, but if I were voting, I’d give the win to Spacey and nominate Brown, Giamatti, and Rhys for sure. I love Billions/the Americans and like This is Us.



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