Emmys 2016: The Year of the Supporting Actor

Evan Lewis
Fargo Jesse Plemons
Mathias Clamer/FX

The Golden Age of Television has come to an end, but it may be too soon to mourn the bygone era. Fargo executive producer Warren Littlefield, commenting on his show’s frontrunner status in the 2016 Emmy race, coined a new metallic sheen to describe the competition.

“We’ve gone from a Golden Age of Television to a Platinum one,” Littlefield says. “The quality of what viewers are offered on television across 60-plus platforms is amazing. I think that to get nominated for an Emmy or win an Emmy in this environment is truly incredible.”

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One area of the field that shines especially bright in the buildup to this Thursday's official nominee announcements, even amidst the immense scope of Emmy-eligible talent, is that of supporting actor. In the Drama Series and Limited Series categories, supporting players are consistently outpacing their leading counterparts in that most mystical and unquantifiable of metrics: buzz.

Fargo Bokeem Woodbine

Chris Large/FX

Bokeem Woodbine

Year 2 of Fargo pulled out into an early lead in the Limited Series race when it aired from October to December of 2015. Touting an ensemble cast rife with performances that blur the line between supporting and leading, Fargo presented a number of actors who could easily and unsurprisingly make their way to the supporting actor nomination short list. Jesse Plemons as the out of his depth everyman Ed Blumquist, Bokeem Woodbine as slick enforcer Mike Milligan, and Ted Danson as Sheriff Hank Larsson stand out as the most likely candidates, but there are several others from the show who would only need to pull minor upsets to secure a nomination. Nick Offerman gave a memorable performance as town lawyer and drunk Karl Weathers, and Jeffrey Donovan and Brad Garrett played against type as hardened crime bosses Dodd Gerhardt and Joe Bulo.

With so many potential nominees, Fargo will likely receive at least one nod in the category, but some serious competition from later in the nomination year will prevent it from dominating the field. A notable source of that competition is Fargo’s fellow FX limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

The People v. O.J. , Sarah-Paulson

FX Networks

Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown

Courtney B. Vance is running in the leading actor category for his highly praised run on O.J. as Johnnie Cochran, so Sterling K. Brown’s performance as Christopher Darden will be a heavy favorite to carry the series into the supporting actor nominations. The combined force of individual name recognition and the momentum behind O.J. in the awards race may also be enough to land John Travolta a nomination for his role as Robert Shapiro.

As for a rivalry between the limited series on FX, Littlefield speaks more to a mutual appreciation between the shows’ executives. “I think we’re actually really proud of who we’re in business with, that they have such good product,” Littlefield says. “It is not uncommon that we’ll get on a conference call and go, ‘Okay, we’re that other Emmy winning show.’ So there’s pride, and there’s a strut when you get into the FX hallway.”

Aside from FX’s top offerings, the limited series supporting actor category may also pull nominees from shows like AMC’s The Night Manager, in which Hugh Laurie plays the compelling arms dealer Richard Roper.

Better Call Saul Jonathan Banks

Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut

Longtime Emmy stalwart AMC is also well represented in the supporting actor nominee ballot for ongoing Drama Series as the network looks to maintain its prestige status in the post-Mad Men era. Jonathan Banks and Michael McKean are two outstanding supporting actor contenders from its remaining awards darling, Better Call Saul. In Saul’s second season of eligibility, it will be considered less as a successor to Breaking Bad and more as an entity of its own, which could potentially damage or improve its Emmy profile.

Banks, who plays the show’s endearing killer-for-hire-to-be Mike Ehrmantraut, is a defending Emmy nominee after his nod in 2015 for the same role, and is as safe a bet for a 2016 nomination as can be expected in such a talent-stacked category. But with so many high quality competitors, including one who happens to be a friend from the same show in McKean, Banks prefers not to fret over the nomination process.

“Honestly, I don’t pay much attention to it, because over the course of the years there’s a lot of disappointment involved,” Banks says with a reserved laugh. “If you really pay attention to all the awards shows and you’re hoping that you might get nominated or get an award, I don’t think it’s a very good way to spend your time.”

McKean, who plays the future Saul Goodman’s disapproving older brother Chuck, takes a similar view to Banks regarding the Emmys, hesitating to even mention the word.

“We don’t use the E-word around here,” McKean says. “I don’t even like to watch what I do more than once. That kind of frustration I don’t need. Then you kick it further down the line, a bunch of people judging what I do. I want them to like it because I got it right, but there’s sort of nothing I can do now."

Mr Robot TV Show

Christian Slater (left) with Mr. Robot costar Rami Malek

New to the race this year is USA’s Mr. Robot, which issues a challenge to the established Emmy frontrunner cable networks like AMC, FX and even HBO. Christian Slater’s Golden Globe win for his portrayal of the title character makes him a likely choice for Emmy voters, and USA, not formerly known for Emmy caliber fare, could use both Slater and his leading actor costar Rami Malek, who plays Mr. Robot’s other half, the troubled hacker Elliot, to assert themselves as members of the prestige TV club.

“We started this journey knowing that this show was something special, but never anticipated the tremendous amount of love and support we’ve received. It would be an honor to share [Emmy nomination] day with Christian,” Malek says.

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Slater may be something of a favorite coming off his Golden Globe, but he’ll have to fend off supporting actor incumbent Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones, along with others returning to the nomination race including Alan Cumming of CBS’s The Good Wife, Michael Kelly of Netflix’s House of Cards and Jim Carter of PBS’s Downton Abbey.

There could conceivably even be a new dark horse in the race in the form of Louis C.K.’s streaming series Horace and Pete, which has drawn its share of the spotlight without any affiliation to an established network or streaming service. Michael McKean, despite being in the running himself for Better Call Saul, cast his supporting actor vote in favor of the unorthodox drama. “Alan Alda, from the minute he opened his mouth, it was sort of like, ‘holy God,’” McKean says. “This guy has always been great, he’s always been a wonderful actor, but it’s like he moved into this part like a bad element taking over a neighborhood.”

With unprecedented contenders like Horace and Pete in the mix, it’s impossible to say what will happen when Emmy nominations are announced on Thursday. This is by no means a comprehensive list of who could or should pick up a nomination, but merely a demonstration of the quality of this year’s supporting actor choices. With so much talent in Limited Series and Drama Series supporting roles, these categories could be the ones to watch in what promises to be a highly competitive Emmys.