We’re still months and months away from the Oscars, but the other awards ceremony of the moving image is starting to sneak up; two weeks from today, the nominations for the Primetime Emmys, the biggest awards honoring television comedies, dramas, miniseries and movies, will be announced, ahead of the ceremony itself in September. Given the stars that the small screen attracts these days, it’s just as glitzy as the Academy Awards, and given that we’re living in what’s generally deemed to be something of a golden age of television, there are more good shows on the air than could possibly be honored in a single ceremony. Someone’s going to miss out.
We’ve already highlighted our favorite shows of the past TV season, as well as the faces that we think are set to break out of the small screen in the next few years. And in the run up to the Emmy nominations themselves, we’re going to be making some predictions as to who might find themselves with nods next week. But first, we’re going to name a few actors and actresses who have given some of the best performances of the past twelve months, but are for one reason or another, unlikely to make it to the final six nominees in their respective categories.
Obviously, there are some performers who you won’t find here. Sometimes, it’s because we think they’ll figure into the nominations themselves (“Breaking Bad,” “Girls” and “Parks and Recreation” are among the favorites that we think will do well), and sometimes it’s because we, like Emmy voters, simply didn’t have the room. As ever, you can let us know your own favorites in the comments section below. Some spoilers ahead.
Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm in “The Hour”
Curiously, “The Hour,” one of BBC Drama‘s big hitters of 2011, got much better reviews in the U.S. than in the U.K., where it was unfairly derided as a second-rate “Mad Men” knock off. Revolving around the staff of a BBC television news programme in 1956 as the Suez Crisis and the government hunt for communist moles is underway, it features a top-notch cast, with excellent performances from Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West and more. And while it had a slightly rocky start, the scripts (by “Shame” writer Abi Morgan) got more confident and compelling as they went on. Nevertheless, despite the more positive reaction on its BBC America airing and a smattering of Golden Globe nominations, we’re not expecting the show to do especially well with the Emmys, which is a shame for a number of reasons, not least because it’ll mean that Anna Chancellor‘s turn will probably be ignored. She’s been a familiar screen face for a couple of decades now — still likely best known as “Duckface” in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” but also cropping up in films as diverse as “The Dreamers” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But she had one of her best-ever showcases as Lix Storm, the admittedly ridiculously named foreign correspondent of the show-within-the-show. Entirely and gloriously convincing as a woman who owns her space in a world still dominated by men, Chancellor was very much a supporting character (free from the constraints of some of the soapier plotting), but lit up the screen every time she was on it, whether uncovering the story behind Suez or leaping into a no-strings fling with green producer Freddie (Whishaw). Chancellor was recognized with a much-deserved nod from the BAFTA TV awards earlier this year, but it’s unlikely to be repeated across the pond. Maybe for season two?
Anna Chlumsky as Amy Brookheimer in “Veep”
Whatever happened to the girl from “My Girl“? After all, co-star Macaulay Culkin went on to be a major star before burning out and falling out of favor, but after its sequel and a handful of TV apperances, Anna Chlumsky, who was ten when she starred in the kids’ weepie, pretty much disappeared. As it turns out she was simply biding her time; she stepped away from acting after college to work in publishing, before reappearing with a small role in the first season of “30 Rock.” But her serious comeback came with a major role in Armando Iannucci’s glorious political satire “In The Loop,” and when the writer came to HBO for a similar series (like the film, indebted to his original BBC show “The Thick Of It”), he brought Chlumsky with him, playing the young chief of staff to Julia-Louis Dreyfus‘ Vice-President Selina Meyer. Given her long and lauded sitcom past, the “Seinfeld” star is virtually assured a nomination, but even among a cast of comedic ringers including Tony Hale and Matt Walsh, Chlumsky has been the real stand-out. Despite still being only 31, she’s never less than totally convincing as a Washington insider of fierce intellect and scathing wit; her interplay with godawful White House liaison Jonah (Timothy Simons) has been one of the major highlights of the show to date. Given her impeccable comic timing and fast and fearless approach, it’s no surprise that she was the only “In The Loop” cast member who returned for the show, and has fast become the major reason to watch “Veep.”
Idris Elba as John Luther in “Luther”
Of everyone on this list, Idris Elba probably has the best chance of actually making it to a nod; he was, after all, a nominee last year (a double nominee, in fact, also picking one up for his guest performance in “The Big C“), and won the Golden Globe in the category for his performance in the eligible series of “Luther” back in January. But he faces tough competition that hadn’t yet been aired when the Globes were around: “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” “Game Change” and “Hatfields and McCoys” all hit the TV dial in the last few months, and most prognosticators agree that their stars have a good chance of beating out Elba this time around. It doesn’t help that season two of “Luther,” in which Elba plays the titular, tortured, renegade London cop, felt a little inferior to the first. Telling a tighter, more focused, and shorter story, it suffered from the lack of Ruth Wilson to play off, and from slightly ridiculous plotlines — identical LARPing twins! And while the show has always been a little ridiculous, it’s eminently watchable thank to Elba. On the page, Luther isn’t all that different from most leads in cop shows, but the actor plays him like he was the first performer ever to play a rule-breaking cop with a death wish. He’s simply magnetic, and while Elba is always strong, “Luther” feels like something of a defining role for him, and the actor constantly found new notes to play across the season, whether in his paternal relationship with a girl he’s rescued from a pornography ring, or his vulnerability and panic as he becomes more and more trapped by the gangsters after her. With “Prometheus” and next year’s “Pacific Rim” looking to make him a bonafide big-screen star and “Luther” wrapping up after a third season (although with a possible movie on the way), it’d be a shame not to acknowledge him before he leaves TV for good, especially as he was never nominated for Stringer Bell on “The Wire.”
Jared Harris as Lane Pryce in “Mad Men”
When terminally underrated character actor Jared Harris (the son of the late, great Richard Harris) arrived on “Mad Men” back in 2009, his character, Lane Pryce, felt like something of a caricature; a stiff, awkward Brit brought in by Sterling Cooper’s owners, Putnam Powell & Lowe, to serve as their new financial officer. But the character grew more and more interesting over time, and the fifth season marked the best material that the actor had been given. Now living with his wife (Embeth Davidtz) in New York, Lane Pryce started the season in serious financial straits, and for all the other storylines that he went through — falling in love with a girl in a photo in a lost wallet, gloriously beating Pete Campbell with his fists — it was the inescapable black hole of his finances and his attempt to embezzle funds from the company to stave them off that ensnared him. Just when Lane thought that he was out of the worst, Don discovered the fraud, and demanded Lane’s resignation, a situation made even worse by his unaware wife’s kind-hearted purchase of a new Jaguar. It was in this episode, “Commissions and Fees,” that Harris really hit his stride; the actor was magnificent, be it in his devestating breakdown when seeing his new car, or his dignified, blackly comic attempt at gassing himself in the car. And the discovery of his body, hanging on the back of his office door, was one of the most wrenching things we’ve ever seen on TV. In a year where Harris has made serious movie inroads (playing Moriarty in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows“), and did double duty by reprising his villain David Robert Jones on “Fringe,” few actors deserve more recognition for their work.
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones”
It’s hard to convince newcomers to “Game of Thrones” that a series in the traditionally masculine fantasy, with as much gratuitous nudity as it has, can include some of the best written and performed female characters on television. “Game of Thrones” does indeed have them, but even despite Peter Dinklage‘s Emmy victory last year, we’d be very surprised if any of the show’s ladies made their way into the final six this year. While our first choice for recognition might be Maisie Williams, who we’ve talked about her relatively recently, and though Michelle Fairley and Emilia Clarke are both deserving, it’s Lena Headey who we think should have been more seriously considered this time around. On the big-screen, the British actress all too often got cast as the pretty face — in “The Jungle Book,” “300” and “The Brothers Grimm,” among others — but she’s really shown her strengths as Cersei Lannister, the manipulative, Machiavellian Queen, and in the more recent second season, widow and semi-regent, of Westeros. Cersei has, almost from the off, been one of the most obviously unsympathetic characters on the show, but as time has gone on, Headey has brought all kinds of texture to the part; the incestuous, murderous villain who betrayed Ned Stark is also an exploited woman, married off to a man who never loved her, and a mother increasingly discovering that the son she sacrificed so much for is a monster beyond anything she could have imagined. And Headey has palpably relished the material, especially now she has Dinklage as an on-screen sparring partner; their scenes together were some of the finest on the show. Between those and Cersei’s spectacular drunken meltdown during the battle of the Blackwater, she’s quietly creating one of the most memorable and complex villains in television history.
Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten in “Awake”
No one watched “Awake.” No one was ever really likely to watch “Awake,” a mind-bending police procedural from Kyle Killen, creator of the excellent, but immediately cancelled Fox show “Lone Star” from a few years back. The concept was… well, not really simple, which was part of the problem. Michael Britten is an LA detective whose wife Hannah died in a car crash a few months before, leaving him to look after his teenage son Rex. But when he goes to sleep, he wakes up in a subtly altered reality, where his wife survived the crash, but Rex died. And when he goes to sleep in that world, he wakes up again in the other. Unable to tell which is real and which is a dream, and unable to face the idea of living without one or the other, Michael tries to keep going in both, all the while solving cases which seem to bleed between the two realities; a clue from one helping find a killer in the other. It was a hugely ambitious concept, and one that only lived up to some of its potential, but the one thing that absolutely did succeed was the central performance of Jason Isaacs. The veteran has done fine work on TV that was ignored by the Emmys before, most notably as an Irish gangster on Showtime’s “Brotherhood,” but his turn in “Awake” was perhaps his most compelling yet, a man seemingly losing his sanity, and sort of revelling in that. It was a wonderfully human take on a show that could have threatened to become overly bleak, and Isaacs’ light touch (a skill that too often he doesn’t get to use) meant that Michael was always a fascinating, character without sinking into a mire of grief. The show’s disastrous ratings saw it cancelled after a single season (it’s unlikely it would have finished the run if NBC had anything else to put in the slot), and means that it won’t make any headway in the awards race, but hopefully Isaacs’ turn will live on.
Danny McBride as Kenny Powers in “Eastbound & Down”
This week’s news that, despite the third season long having been thought to have been the conclusion for Kenny Fucking Powers and “Eastbound & Down,” that creators Danny McBride, Ben Best and Jody Hill had signed a deal with HBO for a fourth, means that the cult comedy does have one more chance at awards after this year. But that doesn’t change the fact that McBride might have been on his best-ever form for the third season, which saw Powers back in the U.S., confronted with a son, and a new sidekick, Shane (Jason Sudeikis). Powers, a major league washout constantly dreaming of a comeback, has been one of the worst human beings on television since the show debuted in 2009, but McBride’s skill, like Ricky Gervais before him (the creators have long acknowledged their debt to “The Office“), is in giving humanity to his creation, making the viewer sympathetic even while not forgiving and forgetting the character’s abominable, selfish behavior. And season three saw both the very worst of Kenny — watching Shane fatally OD on coke, failing to call 911, finishing the drugs and stealing his truck — and the best — embracing maturity, breaking up with his college-age girlfriend, and walking away from his major league comeback for a new life with long-time love April and son Toby. And while we have mixed feelings both about the show’s Kenny-is-dead fakeout and the wisdom of a fourth season, it’ll be a treat to see McBride once again reprise the role he’ll likely always be best known for, given that he was the height of his powers in season three; walking that line between man and monster expertly, and rarely being anything less than uproariously funny. It has precisely no chance of ever being recognized by Emmy voters, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the finest comic performances on TV in the last year.
Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir in “Community”
It’s no surprise that “Community” has not been an awards favorite so far; it’s too much of a curate’s egg to win over approval for a wider body of voters, particularly given the older demographic of Emmy voters. Why would they go for NBC‘s black sheep when “The Big Bang Theory” exists? And even if one actor snuck through, it’s most likely to be the show’s nominal lead Joel McHale. Which is a shame; not because McHale’s not great on the show, but because his lesser-known co-star Danny Pudi is pulling off some of the finest acting on television week by week. The 33-year-old Pudi plays half-Palestinian half-Polish student Abed Nadir, a pop culture obsessive who helps to serve as a sort of commentary on the show’s nature as a sitcom. And that aspect has helped Pudi deliver some of the show’s biggest laughs, either through his double-act with fellow standout Donald Glover (most of the episodes close with a tag of the two messing around), or pop culture gags, like his astonishing Don Draper impersonation. But it’s also his difficulty to connect with or even understand his friends, that has often been the emotional center of the show, and none more so than in this season’s “Virtual Systems Analysis,” a tour-de-force that saw Pudi impersonate the rest of the cast, as his friend Annie (Alison Brie, who played touchingly off her co-star) tries to delve into his psyche. It was an episode, like last seasons’s staggering “My Dinner With Andre” parody “Critical Film Studies,” which was truly nothing like else ever seen on TV, and Pudi was once again at the center. With the show likely not long for this world, this may be the last opportunity to honor the actor.
Madeleine Stowe as Victoria Grayson as “Revenge”
For all we said above about Lena Headey as one of the best villainesses around, she’s had some serious competition, in the form of an actress who we’d seen all too little of recently. ABC‘s “Revenge” has been the great guilty pleasure of the past season, a trashy soap — about a woman, Emily Thorne, who returns to the Hamptons under an assumed identity to wreak vengeance on the Graysons, the family who framed her father for treason and put her into foster care — that’s written, directed and performed well enough that it never feels like it’s a trashy soap. And the most towering performance on the series is Madeleine Stowe, the one-time big-screen staple of films like “The Last of the Mohicans,” “12 Monkeys” and, ironically, Tony Scott‘s “Revenge,” who’s been mostly absent from screens in the last decade. Stowe plays Victoria Grayson, the ice-queen matriarch of the Grayson family who perhaps wasn’t as complicit in her husband’s evils as Emily suspects (indeed, she was in love with her father), but will also go to any lengths to protect her own children. It’s a great villainous part, a truly memorable screen bitch, and Stowe has torn into it with absolute relish, but never making Victoria a caricature; she’s a broken-hearted mother just as much as she’s a scheming, Machiavellian power-player. Despite enthusiastic reviews, and a Golden Globe nomination for the role, Stowe isn’t deemed to be a likely nominee this time around. If she survives the plane crash from the finale (and given she’s the most entertaining thing on the show, it’s unthinkable she won’t), we hope she gets more traction in future years.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in “Scandal”
“Scandal” is, by no means, a good television show. Created by “Grey’s Anatomy” mastermind Shondra Rimes, and revolving around a Washington D.C. crisis management firm, it’s a ludicrously plotted, soapy blend of “The West Wing” and every procedural ever, with irritatingly frantic, glossy direction, scripts written by and for dimwits, and a supporting cast who might as well just be furniture. But there is one reason to give the show a watch, and that’s the superlative, star-making performance by Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope, the ex-White House staff who’s the head of the crisis management agency. The actress has impressed in the past with film parts like “Ray,” “Lakeview Terrace,” “The Last King Of Scotland” and “Mother And Child,” and will soon be seen in a key role in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” but she’s never had a showcase like this one; it’s her show first and foremost, and it dips every time she’s not on screen. It’s less showy than some of the other performances on this list, but from the moment she walks on screen, there’s a quiet confidence and sheer charisma that shines through even the stupider moments of writing (she’s in love with the president!). It’s not going to get any traction with the Emmy voters, due it being, you know, dumber than a rock, but if its second season can equal Washington’s performance, she might have a chance down the line. Or if nothing else, get some more interesting movie gigs than she’s had to date.