DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) speaks in terse, staccato sentences, as if to match the impression his heavy gait and muscular frame leave on his interlocutors: “Aight mate?” the owner of a gangland watering hole asks him in the fourth installment of “Luther.” “Lookin’ a bit militant there.”
Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), by contrast, speaks in stem-winding, breathless paragraphs, holding his reedy figure still as if to conserve energy for his acumen: “You’re clearly acclimatized to never getting to the end of a sentence,” he tells Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) in “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.” “We’ll get along splendidly.”
This battle of British detectives, in which we might include “The Night Manager”‘s Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate the inner circle of an international arms dealer (Hugh Laurie), points to a few of the complicating factors in the race for Outstanding Lead Actor (Limited Series/TV Movie). Though Courtney B. Vance remains the favorite for his superb turn as Johnnie Cochran in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” according to both Indiewire’s Ben Travers and the oddsmakers at Gold Derby, there are, as Travers writes, “a lot of elements at play,” the TV Academy’s long-running penchant for Emmy stalwarts and star power among them.
With Elba—nominated for “Luther” for the fourth time—and Cumberbatch—now on his third nomination for “Sherlock”—in the field, it’s impossible to write off an upset, despite the fact that neither explores much in the way of new terrain for their whip-smart Brits, preferring to focus on unraveling the sordid mysteries of past and present London. (Remember, Cumberbatch’s surprise win for “Sherlock: His Last Vow” in 2014 came against two performers from another breakout limited series: “Fargo” stars Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton.)
Against Vance, a first-time nominee best known for his work in television, including a six-year run on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” their Emmy pedigree and global fame offers an advantage, at least if recent history is any indication. Since 2000, actors whose work has largely been on the big screen have dominated the category: Al Pacino (twice), Jack Lemmon, Kenneth Branagh, Geoffrey Rush, Robert Duvall, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Costner, and Michael Douglas have all taken home the trophy.
There’s little doubt, on the whole, that “The People v. O.J.” is in pole position leading up to Sunday’s ceremony—Gold Derby’s prognosticators list it as the odds-on favorite to win Outstanding Limited Series, Lead Actress (Sarah Paulson), Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown), Writing, and Directing—but Vance is not just facing stiff competition from the British contingent. In fact, it’s another TV Academy favorite and household name that’s poised to prevent a sweep: Bryan Cranston. And in this case, the role lives up to the hype. (Vance’s co-star, Cuba Gooding, Jr., is also nominated, though the actor’s rather inscrutable performance as the football star-turned-murder suspect seems unlikely to encourage much vote-splitting.)
A four-time winner and six-time nominee for “Breaking Bad,” not to mention a three-time nominee for “Malcolm in the Middle,” Cranston’s Tony Award-winning turn as Lyndon Baines Johnson in “All the Way,” brought to the screen by HBO and director Jay Roach, checks all the boxes of the traditional “Emmy” performance. In addition to the advantages noted above, Cranston may benefit from voters’ taste for characters of historical import: In the same stretch since 2000, victors in the category have played the likes of Winston Churchill (twice), John Adams, Reinhard Heydrich, Peter Sellars, Robert F. Kennedy, and Liberace. Comparatively speaking, Cochran is small fry.
Not to make the TV Academy sound too craven. The reason Cranston, unlike Elba, Cumberbatch, and Hiddleston, can capitalize on these patterns is because his LBJ is, well, uncanny. It’s not just the physical transformation, either, though the likeness is quite astonishing. Rather, from the opening sequence, Cranston ably channels the former president’s many registers through his precise choices of manner and voice. There’s the soft, persuasive caress of the former Senate president, handholding Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) and his northern liberals; the crass, Southern-fried frankness of Uncle Cornpone, reassuring Sen. Dick Russell (Frank Langella) and his fellow Dixiecrats; the political paranoiac; the progressive champion; the compromiser and the combatant.
It is, in short, an even showier performance than Vance’s, in which Roach sidles his camera so close to Cranston’s face you can almost feel the flecks of spittle, and one—set alongside clips of Gov. George Wallace and the famed “Daisy” campaign ad—that feels as remarkably, and unnervingly, timely. Johnson was, if nothing else, a brawler, and Outstanding Lead Actor (Limited Series/TV Movie) is shaping up to be quite the fight. It’s no knock on the extraordinary Vance to suggest that he’s not a lock. Cranston could go, as it were, all the way.