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Emmy Analysis: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Billy Porter as Pray Tell. CR: Michael Parmelee/FX

The past two years saw major snubs in this category, with possible winners Richard Madden (Bodyguard) and Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) eliminated from the competition long before Emmy night. This year, the list is much more expected, though that doesn’t make it any easier to predict who might win. Half this field already has an Emmy, while the other half is celebrating a first nomination. Not only that, but with cast departures and series ending, four out of six of these men won’t have another opportunity to compete for these roles.

The nominees for the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama are: Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson in This Is Us, Jonathan Majors as Atticus Freeman in Lovecraft Country, Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles in The Crown, Regé-Jean Page as Simon Bassett in Bridgerton, Billy Porter as Pray Tell in Pose, and Matthew Rhys as the title character in Perry Mason. Let’s take a closer look at the nominees without spoiling much – if you want more details on what happens, click on the titles of the episodes submitted for consideration.

Sterling K. Brown, Randall Pearson / This Is Us / NBC

Episode: “Forty: Part Two

This is Brown’s fifth consecutive nomination for this role. He won on his first try in 2016, and also the year before that for The People v. O.J. Simpson. He’s also picked up nominations for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and, this year, as narrator for Lincoln: Divided We Stand. While voters might be over his show, which comes to an end this upcoming season, he did terrific work, especially in the selected second episode, which finds him confronting his white siblings in the wake of an awakening to systemic racism that mirrors what went on last year in this country. It’s hard to deny his ability, and giving him another trophy would feel appropriate at any time.

Jonathan Majors, Atticus Freeman / Lovecraft Country / HBO

Episode: “Sundown

This is the first Emmy nomination for Majors, whose profile has only risen since his show aired given his prominent role in Loki. Unfortunately, this show wasn’t renewed for a second season by HBO, which didn’t stop it from landing a remarkable eighteen nominations. Majors’ work is highlighted in the pilot episode, which feels like a self-contained movie. He’s an actor who is very much on his way up, and recognizing this performance would be a great way to signal his promising future. Can Emmy voters get past a historic genre bias?

Josh O’Connor, Princes Charles / The Crown / Netflix

Episode: “Terra Nullius

O’Connor was snubbed when he first originated the role of Princes Charles in season three of Netflix’s revered regal drama and competing in the supporting category, but now he’s earned his first Emmy nomination for season four, which will also be his last on the show, with Dominic West taking over the role for seasons five and six. O’Connor movingly taps into the loneliness that Charles feels, particularly in his submitted episode, where he wrestles with how much more popular his bride is than him. He has already picked up a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice prize, and an Emmy could easily be next.

Regé-Jean Page, Simon Bassett / Bridgerton / Netflix

Episode: “Art of the Swoon

This is the first nomination for Page, who enchanted millions of viewers as the Duke of Hastings and will not be returning for the second season of the show despite its runaway success. Voters who find Page’s show more soapy than serious may not appreciate his talent, but he smartly chose the third episode of the show, which finds him being both impossibly charming and purposely cold when pressure is put on him to be honest with his intentions. The show is clearly an Emmy favorite, but will an attraction to Page’s character equal respect for his acting?

Billy Porter, Pray Tell / Pose / FX

Episode: “Take Me to Church

Porter won this prize for his show’s first season, and now he’s back for a third consecutive nomination, joined once again by his show, which returns to the Outstanding Drama Series category after missing out last year. The third and final season was only seven episodes, but Porter shines in all of them. He gets almost all of the focus in his submitted installment, which gives him the opportunity to confront his past, to sing, and to fully tap into his character’s identity. It’s a knockout submission that might even be better than his year one entry, which could give him a bookend win. That would pair very nicely with a potential best actress victory for his finally-nominated costar Mj Rodriguez.

Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason / Perry Mason / HBO

Episode: “Chapter Eight

Rhys earned three nominations for The Americans, winning for the final season of the show in 2018, and also earned a guest acting bid for Girls in 2017. It’s still surprising that the very well-received update of the classic series didn’t do better with Emmy voters, netting just four nominations and making Rhys the only performer in this category without his show contending for Outstanding Drama Series. His choice of the season finale shows an established and somewhat seasoned Mason tying up loose ends, and while it’s great work, he’ll have to wait for future cases for a win given his show clearly being the least beloved of any actor’s on this list.

There isn’t a firm frontrunner, and it likely comes down to whether Porter’s showy performance and energy trumps O’Connor’s imitation of life in the likely top winner on Emmy night.

Prediction: Billy Porter

Preference: Billy Porter

Sleeper: Regé-Jean Page

Predicted ranking:
Billy Porter
Josh O’Connor
Regé-Jean Page
Sterling K. Brown
Jonathan Majors
Matthew Rhys


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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