You Just Keep Me Hanging On: Repeat Emmy Winners among Lead Acting Nominees

All hopped up on the excitement of Emmy ballots coming out on Monday, we posed the question yesterday of whether Emmy voters’ love affairs with certain shows might be blocking other deserving winners. 30 Rock and Mad Men are great, but does rewarding them over and over “cheat” other great shows out of the prize? It’s a tricky question–maybe these shows (or their submissions) really are the best, or really do best match voters’ tastes. While voting panels change from year to year, it’s not like there are sweeping changes to the overall Academy membership across short periods of time.

Still, the numbers suggest that there’s a pretty good case to be made that logjams among series winners are creating a few victors and a block of losers. We wondered, however, whether the pattern of repeat winners would be the same for performers. There are obviously many more actors to choose from than series, and since actors submit a single episode to be judged, an especially striking performance or storyline might propel a seeming underdog to victory. At the same time, everyone can think of anecdotal evidence suggesting that some lauded actors just aren’t able to break through. Hugh Laurie and Steve Carell, for example, have both done seven seasons of their signature roles, they’ve both been nominated for performance Emmys five times for those roles…and they’ve both won exactly zero times. Could repeat wins for other actors be the explanation? Today we look at 20 years of actors in lead categories.

Lead Actor in a Drama: 25% repeat winners, 60% multiple winners

Dennis Franz, who was terrific on NYPD Blue, won four times; during those years George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Jimmy Smits, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, and David Duchovny were nominated multiple times and never attained the prize. (You thought Jimmy Smits won one of those years, didn’t you? Me too. Like Laurie and Carell, he was nominated five times without a win.) James Gandolfini’s three wins kept Orbach, Peter Krause, and–hold me closer, tiny dancers–Martin Sheen off the podium, while James Spader’s and Bryan Cranston’s three wins apiece have pretty effectively blocked Laurie, Michael C. Hall, Gabriel Byrne, Denis Leary, and Jon Hamm.

Lead Actress in a Drama: 15% repeats, 65% multiple winners

To be fair, the annual nominations of the usual suspects in this category probably reveals a dearth of quality roles for women. But from year to year, this tends to be the same small number of women trading off the trophy. With a historic lack of good leading roles for women, is rewarding the same good stuff over and over a problem? As much as I like Angela Lansbury, for example, I can’t get that worked up over Kathy Baker’s three victories keeping Murder, She Wrote out of the winner’s circle. Still, The Edie Falco and Allison Janney Hootenanny Variety Hour (I would totally watch that) that soaked up five Emmys effectively blocked Jennifer Garner and Frances Conroy from winning for notable performances, and a second win for Glenn Close for a lesser season of Damages could have gone to someone like Holly Hunter.

Lead Actor in a Comedy: 20% repeats, a staggering 70% multiple winners

The six-year Kelsey Grammar/John Lithgow stranglehold shut out John Goodman, Gary Shandling, and even Michael J. Fox’s Spin City performance until he was forced to leave his show. (It also shut out Paul Reiser while Helen Hunt won four Emmys in a row for the same show and Jerry Seinfeld while his show was the biggest phenomenon on TV, but, like Sue Sylvester, I don’t care so much about that.) While Tony Shaloub’s Monk was certainly a great performance, his three wins came at the expense of  Matt LeBlanc, Bernie Mac, and Steve Carell, who I note again has never won for playing Michael Scott. (Alec Baldwin’s repeat win in 2009 helped with that little blockade.)

Lead Actress in a Comedy: 25% repeats, 50% multiple winners

While the 50% multiples number is a lot, there hasn’t been a repeat winner in almost a decade. The Candice Bergen/Helen Hunt (four in a row)/Patricia Heaton era, during which five women won in 12 years, meant no awards for Betty White, Delta Burke, Marion Ross, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen DeGeneres, Calista Flockhart, and Jane Kaczmarek. Since Heaton’s repeat win in 2001, however, nine different women have taken home the Emmy in this category. A sign of a sea change?

All of this is only mentioning the repeat nominees who were blocked–second, third, and fourth wins also beat out solo nominations for the likes of Ian McShane, Dylan McDermott, Matthew Fox, Kyle Chandler, Amber Tamblyn, Minnie Driver, Zach Braff, Jason Bateman, Bonnie Hunt, Marcia Cross, and Connie Britton (although we’re still hoping Chandler and Britton will become two-time nominees this year). And of course, repeats mean leaving out a laundry list of never-nominated actors too long to list here. As was true of serial series nominations and wins, there is little representation for genre stories (where is Mary McDonnell’s Emmy? Where is Nathan Fillion’s? Where is Kristen Bell’s? Where is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s?)–would requiring a winner to sit out, even a year, open up the field for unexpected nominees and maybe even winners? Would instituting such a rule have solved your favorite example of a great performance that missed out on a nomination or win?

Saturday: Ensemble shows probably make up the bulk of TV–quality and otherwise–today, and we tend to find the supporting categories the toughest to winnow down as we try to pick nominees. With so many actors to choose from, is the winners carousel even more problematic in supporting categories?

Emmys with a Side of Bacon

Susannah and I have been kicking back at the Emmys for a good long time now. We’ve wept. We’ve wailed. We’ve gnashed our teeth. Personally, I’ve worn sackcloth and ashes, but that’s just my general fashion aesthetic.

Part of the issue is that we can’t put our finger on what the problem is–something’s wrong (really, Academy–Entourage? Really?), but what is it? We’re inclined to blame the Emmy categories–is Pushing Daisies really the same kind of beast as Two and a Half Men? Should Dirty Sexy Money–or Boston Legal, for that matter–really be considered a drama? We’re embarrassed to admit, however, that every new categorization scheme we tried went exactly nowhere.

We considered doing away with “Drama” and “Comedy” and going instead with “Half-hour”/”Hour” or “Single-camera”/”Multi-camera”, both of which are already used in the technical and animated categories. In today’s television landscape, however, that left us with a couple of strong contenders and a couple we could argue about in the half-hour or mutli-camera categories while overloading the hour/single-camera even more than the current drama category already is. We toyed with the idea of honoring more actors by creating lead, supporting, and ensemble categories. These might allow for, say, Hugh Laurie (lead), Robert Sean Leonard (supporting), and Omar Epps (ensemble) or Steve Carell (lead), Rainn Wilson (supporting), and Ed Helms (ensemble) to be nominated for the same show, or for the large ensemble casts of, say, Lost or Friday Night Lights to be considered separately from shows that focus on true leads, like House or Life. The details necessary to make that work, however (“if the character appears on-screen for less than 30% of the broadcast…”), both felt arbitrary and were, frankly, nearly impossible to hammer out. We played with the possibility that there just aren’t enough slots available to honor all of the great performances out there, so we tried adding and dividing up categories differently–“Classic Sitcom”! “Workplace Drama”! “Speculative Fiction”! “Human Interest (read: Soap Opera”)! Each of those seemed just as arbitrary as “Comedy” and “Drama,” though–is Grey’s Anatomy a workplace drama or a human interest show? You could argue either category for Mad Men. We were stumped.

And then it occurred to us: maybe the categories are the problem–and maybe that means there shouldn’t be any categories at all. This was a strangely liberating idea. We kept the sex split, both because it seems less arbitrary than the above and because we feared our lists would be swamped with male roles otherwise (try filling out the female comedy roles under the traditional categories–brutal). We limited ourselves to people on the official Emmy ballot, which meant excluding favorites because of production-based eligibility problems (goodbye, British-based Doctor Who crew), because of genre (sorry, Venture Brothers–we’ll catch you next time), and because they simply didn’t appear on the ballot for reasons beyond our understanding (who dropped the ball on submitting Dan Byrd from Aliens in America?). We began with a list of 40 actors of each sex, then narrowed the list to 30 and ranked them. By assigning points to those rankings, we were able to compare and combine our lists to create a category-less Bacon Emmys. After complaining that there just weren’t enough spots to honor all of the excellent performances out there, we were pretty surprised to find that in the end we shared 21 ranked male actors and 21 ranked female actors–with one tie in the Lead Actor in a Drama category leading to 21 official male Emmy nominees in the “major” acting categories this year, that means our numbers are pretty much right on the real numbers. Some other patterns surprised us, too:

Male actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
  • Steve Carell, The Office
  • Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
  • Gaius Charles, Friday Night Lights
  • Henry Ian Cusick, Lost
  • Glenn Fitzgerald, Dirty Sexy Money
  • Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
  • Ed Helms, The Office
  • Michael Hogan, Battlestar Galactica
  • Hugh Laurie, House
  • Robert Sean Leonard, House
  • Zachary Levi, Chuck
  • Damian Lewis, Life
  • Zeljko Ivanek, Damages
  • Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
  • Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies
  • Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies
  • Wendell Pierce, The Wire
  • Andre Royo, The Wire
  • Michael K. Williams, The Wire
  • Ray Wise, Reaper

Female actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Julie Benz, Dexter
  • Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
  • Rose Byrne, Damages
  • Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies
  • Glenn Close, Damages
  • Tina Fey, 30 Rock
  • Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies
  • Ellen Greene, Pushing Daisies
  • Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
  • Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
  • January Jones, Mad Men
  • Angela Kinsey, The Office
  • Swoosie Kurtz, Pushing Daisies
  • Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost
  • Adrianne Palicki, Friday Night Lights
  • Amy Pietz, Aliens in America
  • Jamie Pressley, My Name Is Earl
  • Sarah Shahi, Life
  • Sonja Sohn, The Wire
  • Natalie Zea, Dirty Sexy Money

For the record, Susannah’s top two ranked actors I didn’t list were Lost‘s Michael Emerson and FNL‘s Jesse Plemmons, while my top ranked she didn’t list were Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day. For the women, her top two ranked picks I didn’t list were The Riches‘ Minnie Driver and Lost‘s Evangeline Lily, while my top picks she didn’t list were Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica and Sunny‘s Kaitlin Olson.

These 42 actors represent 17 shows, which isn’t as many as the real nominees (24 shows). So maybe the Emmys do a better job of spreading the wealth than we would. On the other hand, they spread that wealth by nominating Charlie Sheen and Mariska Hargitay, and…yeah, we’re not going to apologize for not spreading the wealth quite that far. In fact, TV Bacon and the Academy agree on slightly fewer than 25% of the nominees (ten out of 41/42). It’s a supporting-heavy list, although that’s slightly skewed by self-submissions we’d place elsewhere (in what universe is Connie Britton supporting?)–that may reflect the current popularity of the ensemble shows we had such a hard time categorizing. It’s a very, very white list, especially for the women. Thank goodness for The Wire–if we remove their four candidates, 35 out of 38 of the remaining nominees are white. We’re still doing a little better than the real Emmys, who, including The Wire (from which they chose zero nominees), had four minority nominees out of 41 total. While we’ve both had America Ferrera and Edward James Olmos on our lists in the past, even including them wouldn’t hide the whitewash that is American television in 2008.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that after all our complaining about the traditional categories–and we’re still plenty irked about several exclusions among the real nominees–it wouldn’t take us long to declare winners in each of those. Adding together our rankings to create a “winner,” we’d have to go exactly four names down our list of female actors to fill the four traditional categories, as our top four were Connie Britton (supporting actress in a drama), Glenn Close (lead actress in a drama), Kristin Chenoweth (supporting actress in a comedy), and Anna Friel (lead actress in a comedy). The pattern for the men isn’t nearly so clear, since we’d have to go five whole places down our list to declare winners in the four traditional categories: Andre Royo (supporting actor in a drama), Lee Pace (lead actor in a comedy), Alec Baldwin (lead actor in a comedy), Kyle Chandler (lead actor in a drama), and Jack McBrayer (supporting actor in a comedy). If we’d hewn even more strictly to the Emmy rules and judged a single episode the actors submitted, Baldwin’s tour de force journey through 70s sitcoms might well have pushed him over the top. So after all our complaining and rearranging–are the categories really the problem after all?

What do you think? How would you have rearranged the Emmy categories? Who do you think was robbed? Are you coming after me with pitchforks because it was my list that kept John Krasinski out? Will the Emmys ever get it right?