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Emmy Analysis: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Television Movie

Photograph by Colin Hutton/HBO

The category this year is a showdown of sorts, pinning cable and streaming services, along with the old guard and the new, against each other. But while there are a few intriguing young actors represented in this category, it seems likely the win will eventually end up in the hands of someone more established. But which one? 

Can Jeremy Irons ride Watchmen’s overwhelming success to his fourth career Emmy win? Will Mark Ruffalo’s double duty as identical twins in I Know This Much Is True pay off with voters? Or will they instead connect with Hugh Jackman’s charming but deeply troubled superintendent, who single-handedly executed the largest public school embezzlement case in American history? 

While these options seem likely, spectators shouldn’t rule out relative newcomes Paul Mescal and Jeremy Pope. 

Here are the nominees:

Jeremy Irons, Watchmen (HBO)

With a total of five nominations and three wins, Jeremy Irons makes his return to the Emmy race with his performance in HBO’s Watchmen. Of the current lineup, only Irons and Ruffalo have been previously nominated in this category, with Irons scoring a nom back in 1982 for Brideshead Revisted. 

His work as Adrien Veidt is appropriately enigmatic and foreboding, allowing Irons to luxuriate in the skills he’s cultivated as one of the premier cinematic baddies. With Watchmen receiving the highest number of nominations this year at 26, which is more than any limited series in Emmy history, it places Irons in a strong position to walk away with Emmy gold.  

Hugh Jackman, Bad Education (HBO)

Hugh Jackman has the distinction of being the only actor in this category to be nominated for his work in a television movie, with the rest are all part of a limited series. This could give him an edge, but history shows a 50 percent split between winners in TV movies and limited series’. 

While a previous winner and five-time nominee, Jackman returns to the Emmy game with his first acting nomination for Bad Education. In the HBO movie, Jackman plays a warm, charming, gregarious superintendent of a seemingly idyllic school district in suburban New York. However, his charm isn’t enough to mask the felony-sized trouble he finds himself in when it’s discovered the school’s accounting records have been altered. 

Jackman plays Frank Tassone as a tap dancer backed into a corner, trying to charm and glad hand his way out of the colossal mess he’s made. While it’s one of his more compelling turns, the critical acclaim could be enough to deliver Jackman his first acting win. 

Paul Mescal, Normal People (Hulu)

Faced with a category full of heavywights, Paul Mescal is undeiably the new kid on the block with his performance in Normal People. His performance of Connell is that of a man who simmers under the surface but really struggles to articulate or even identify what he’s really feeling. 

While Normal People was well-received by both critics and audiences, it doesn’t have the star power that could give a relativley small-scale effort the push it needs to win. However, in a category full of dark and difficult characters, there’s always the possibiilty that voters could respond to something more light and hopeful that resonates emotionally. 

If Pescal were to win, he would become the third youngest actor to win in this category.

Jeremy Pope, Hollywood (Netflix)

Another newcomer, Pope, a two-time Tony nominee, recieves his first nomination for his standout performance in Hollywood. As Archie, a gay black screenwriter trying to break into the 1940s Hollywood studio system, Pope is a breath of fresh air, bringing new voices to a creative atmosphere that was stagnant and counterproductively homogeneous.

His work here is a calling card for his talents as he consistently steals the show and elevates the material. While a great performance, the Netflix show was met with mixed-to-negative reception. Hollywood’s star power may have garnered the show a dozen nominations, but it’s likely it won’t resonate into wins. 

Mark Ruffalo, I Know This Much Is True (HBO)

Ruffalo was challenged this year with playing twin brothers, one of whome has schizoprenia in HBO’s I Know This Much Is True. A previous nominee in the same category, Ruffalo’s performance is simply beyond reproach, bringing to life two incredibly different characters. 

While one twin follows his delusions to the most extreme lengths, the other is a long-suffereing individual who shoulders the burdern of trying to carve out a life for himself while also protecting and advocating for his brother. Both are nuanced and sympathetic, and it’s remarkably easy to forget that you’re watching one man play these two roles. 

Hisotry shows that award voters are disproportionately drawn to performances that include physical alternation or disability, which could put Ruffalo in a good position to win. Despite the critical acclaim, it begs the question of the reach the show really had on audiences with its grim and depressing affair coming at a time when the currently climate is just as unpleasant. 

Should Win: Paul Mescal

Will Win: Hugh Jackman

Sleeper: Jeremy Irons

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Written by Audrey Fox

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