Television's biggest night of back-patting, boot-licking, and butt -mooching is a mere hours away with the Emmys ready to anoint the universe's best television things on Monday night. But a lackluster batch of nominations means that outside of a Jon Hamm Underwear Watch, there isn't a whole lot to get really excited about... except in the case of one major category: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
It'll be fun for Mad Men's Hamm, The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels, True Detective's Woody Harrelson, and House of Cards' Kevin Spacey to rent tuxedos and throw back a few Campari and sodas on the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' dime, but we all know that this category comes down to one heavyweight fight between two titans of TV: Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston versus True Detective's Matthew McConaughey is the biggest Emmys battle since Ryan Seacrest tried to reach the microphone stand in 2007.
But who should win?!?? Both actors are deserving of the award, but only one man can lay claim to Best Dramatic TV Actor of 2013–2014—so I sat in a room and deliberated the bejeezus out of myself until I made a decision. Here's my thought process:
What's working for him: As Rust Cohle, the Doomsday Nihilist who served as the centerpiece for True Detective, McConaughey crafted a character who was caught between two worlds and pissed off at both at them. The nuances of his performance hinged on the captivating pregnant pauses and non-verbal communication that added to Rust's mystique, but it was the way McConaughey let Rust's words dribble from his mouth that instantly rocketed the character to legendary status.
If Hollywood's cultural zeitgeist is any indication, this is the year of the McConaughey and he'll walk away with the Emmy. After several years of playing daring roles in smaller indie flicks to increase his cred and shed the image of "your go-to actor for shoeless burnouts and rom-com leads opposite Kate Hudson," McConaughey won an Oscar for his work in Dallas Buyers Club earlier this year. Emmy voters—who I will continue to insult for as long as I can—love a Hollywood golden boy, and no one has been fondled by Midas more than McConaughey in 2014. His stock is as high as it's ever been, and even people who didn't like True Detective were mesmerized by his performance. And don't count him out because Rust was a new character; the last two winners in the category (Damian Lewis and Jeff Daniels) earned their statuettes after their series' first seasons.
What's working against him: Look, I wouldn't hold the Nic Pizzolatto plagiarism scandal against McConaughey, but I can't speak for Emmy voters. And while McConaughey was the most talked-about element of True Detective, his co-star Woody Harrelson also landed a Best Actor nomination, which brings up the (admittedly dumb) question of vote-splitting (though as good as Harrelson was, True Detective was Matty's baby). Also, is there a stigma around guys who waltz onto television for one season and then leaving like a deadbeat dad? Well, there should be a stigma against that.
What's working for him: Cranston's performance as Walter White has been an evolving masterpiece, and 2013's final half-season was the big payoff. That feat HAS to catch the eyes of Emmy voters, assuming they've at least turned on a television set at some point in the past seven years. And where McConaughey's Rust Cohle didn't need to change all that much because he still felt fresh after eight episodes, Cranston's showed real range in Season 6 as he balanced his character's split between the troubled and mournful family man Walter White and the bloodthirsty and ruthless Heisenberg. This was Cranston's best work since Season 3, and arguably his best of the series. If that doesn't earn him an award, then something is wrong.
As for the intangibles, this is the final season of eligibility for one of the greatest TV shows of all time! So of course the man in the middle of it all should take home some hardware (just ask Kyle Chandler!). Cranston's won this award three times already, but for all of his Emmy-hogging, do you realize that he hasn't come out on top since 2010 (Season 3)? Breaking Bad's popularity has only increased since then, and the final string of episodes was the biggest television event in recent memory. That's the kind of attention that rallies Emmy voters and pushes a man to the top.
What's working against him: The calendar is not in Breaking Bad's favor. The series ended just a week after last year's Emmys, making it less likely that voters will remember just how good the show and its star were. True Detective, meanwhile, aired right during the heart of awards season, and McConaughey's trophy-collecting spurred lots of chatter about his Emmy chances. And even though this is Breaking Bad's last chance for glory, dumb Emmy voters apparently don't care. James Gandolfini won three Emmys early in The Sopranos' run, but that didn't make a difference in the show's final season, when he lost to James Spader for Boston Legal. Bleh.
After 231 coin flips, 83 rounds of Eeny Meeny Miny Moe, and one very sensual session of "He Love Me, He Loves Me Not," I'm going with Cranston. It came down to one simple thing: acting. That's what the award is for, right? While McConaughey was brilliant as a spewer of grim mumbo-jumbo, Cranston faced the meatier and more difficult task of playing a character with more variation and substance. Walter White is my favorite television character of all time (after Stoner Ben from Under the Dome), and that is largely due to Cranston's ability to transform himself into that man. Rust Cohle is a man who'd be fun to spend a weekend with, but Walter White will go down as all-time classic. Give Cranston the trophy already.
AIRED ON 8/25/2014
Season 66 : Episode 1