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Emmys 2020: Who Has the Best Shot at Drama Nominations?

Can Succession take GoT's spot, or will The Crown and The Handmaid's Tale re-assert themselves?
  • Succession, Better Call Saul and The Crown are set to battle it out in the Drama categories at the 2020 Emmys. (Photos: HBO, AMC and Netflix)
    Succession, Better Call Saul and The Crown are set to battle it out in the Drama categories at the 2020 Emmys. (Photos: HBO, AMC and Netflix)

    Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz. This week Joe will be looking at the top contenders in each of the major categories at this year's 72nd Annual Emmy Awards. He's looked at Limited Series favorities, and the leading Comedy contenders. Today: Drama Series. Who's poised to get a nod when the TV Academy announces its nominees on July 28th?

    Last year, the final season of Game of Thrones was such a daunting prospect at the Emmys that several other big awards-contending dramas chose to delay their seasons to avoid getting crushed under the wheel. Then, to most everyone's surprise, three of the four major dramatic acting awards ended up going performers from other shows. The Emmys had already begun to move past Westeros, and now, in the first year post-Game of Thrones, the drama categories are wide open. That is, unless you count all those old Emmy faves who ducked out last year — but here's the thing: most aren't as hot as they used to be. Shows like The Handmaid's Tale, Westworld, Killing Eve, and even The Crown returned with new seasons that failed to live up to the acclaim of earlier installments, making their return to Emmy voters' good graces somewhat less certain. The Emmys love nothing more than to re-nominate their old faves, of course, and they can be rather stubborn when it comes to letting a show go, even if it's well past its prime. This year's drama nominations will be a real test of that tendency.

    NOTE: New Emmys rules have put in place a sliding scale when it comes to the number of nominees in a given category. This year, the Outstanding Drama series category will have eight nominees, the Lead Actor and Actress categories will have six apiece, and Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress will have eight apiece.

    Outstanding Drama Series

    Ineligible 2019 Nominees: Game of Thrones has flown away on great dragon wings, while Netflix's Bodyguard, a surprise 2019 nomination, has… moved on to protect other clients? (Honestly, find your own metaphor for that one.)

    Returning 2019 Nominees: By the time last year's Emmys aired, the second season of Succession was already ascending as the next most-discussed HBO series, and it stands a great chance of stepping into the HBO frontrunner slot. Also back this year are Netflix's Ozark, FX's Pose, AMC's Better Call Saul, BBC America's Killing Eve, and NBC's This Is Us, which has lost almost all of the buzz it once had, but still might cling to its nominations due to Emmy inertia.

    New Contenders: The Crown transitioned away from young Queen Elizabeth II to middle-aged Queen Elizabeth II, and the results were handsome and compelling, if subject to the usual complaints about The Crown. It certainly fared better than The Handmaid's Tale and Westworld, both of which suffered drop-offs in critical appreciation. Perhaps the biggest fall came in the second season of HBO's Big Little Lies, which tumbled from one of the best shows on TV to a formless mess with a behind-the-scenes authorship controversy. With eight nominees, it's possible all four of these shows could find their way back to nominations, but momentum for a win seems all but lost.

    Among new shows, the options are a quirky bunch. Apple TV+ will no doubt be putting all its promotional muscle behind The Morning Show, which was met with a poor initial reception but ultimately seemed to win people over through sheer act of will. Similarly, Disney+ will try to crack the top Emmy category in its first year with the well-received The Mandalorian. The Emmys have gotten more genre-friendly in recent years, although latching onto the Star Wars universe would be a step they haven't taken yet. HBO has a couple fringe possibilities in Euphoria and The Outsider, both of which would be rather cool additions to the category if they can attract enough votes.

    It's somewhat strange (no pun intended) that Stranger Things isn't getting any buzz despite having been nominated for its first two seasons. Especially when season three, which aired last summer after taking a year off, was such a fun return to form.

    Finally, this will be the last chance to show some love to Showtime's Homeland, which won the Outstanding Drama category in 2012, but hasn't been nominated since 2016.

    For Your Consideration: It's long since fallen out of favor with Emmy voters, and it feels like it was released lifetimes ago, but the final season of Orange Is the New Black was such a vital, muscular, and ultimately graceful ending to the series that it deserves to be recognized.

    Predicted Nominees: Succession, Ozark, Pose, Better Call Saul, The Crown, The Morning Show, The Handmaid's Tale, Killing Eve

    Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama

    Ineligible 2019 Nominees: This is the category that's stayed the most intact from last season. Only Game of Thrones' Kit Harington is ineligible this year.

    Returning 2019 Nominees: Last year's winner, Billy Porter (Pose) is back with even better storylines to support his push for back-to-back wins. Jason Bateman remains a threat for Ozark, a show whose press coverage finally seems to be growing into its surprisingly robust viewership (per Netflix). Former This is Us winner Sterling K. Brown was nominated alongside his castmate Milo Ventimiglia last year (and this year, they'll face more internal competition from Justin Hartley, who bumped up to a Lead Actor campaign). And then there's Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk, the sentimental favorite who has still never won.

    New Contenders: For a category without a ton of wiggle room, the competition is getting fierce. Both Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong from Succession look to be formidable competition, while The Crown's Tobias Menzies will try to follow up Matt Smith's Emmy nod from a couple years ago. Ben Mendelsohn is an Emmy fave who will be in contention for The Outsider, and it's probably not wise to count out Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winner Al Pacino, who's looking to get a nod for Amazon Prime's Hunters. Sir Patrick Stewart, who brings his formidable gravitas to Star Trek: Picard is a longshot, as is 2016 Lead Actor champ Rami Malek, despite the final season of Mr. Robot getting rather good notices.

    For Your Consideration: Netflix has stalled out on Mindhunter, but Jonathan Groff's performance as a decent but obsessed and often misguided criminal profiler is one of the many Emmy-worthy aspects of that show.

    Predicted Nominees: Billy Porter, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Jason Bateman, Bob Odenkirk, Sterling K. Brown

    Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

    Ineligible 2019 Nominees: Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke and House of Cards' Robin Wright are out of the picture this year.

    Returning 2019 Nominees: Last year's surprise winner, Killing Eve's Jodie Comer, and her co-star Sandra Oh are eligible again, but with the category a lot more crowded this year — and Killing Eve really limping through its third season — it won't be a surprise if one (or both) get snubbed. Also eligible this year from the 2019 field are Laura Linney (Ozark), Mandy Moore (This Is Us), and Viola Davis for the final season of How to Get Away with Murder.

    New Contenders: Here's where things get really crowded. The Handmaid's Tale's Elisabeth Moss (the 2017 winner) is once again eligible, as is Olivia Colman (playing the 2018 winning role of Elizabeth II) for The Crown, and Nicole Kidman (the 2017 winner in Limited Series) for Big Little Lies. Jennifer Aniston, who won the SAG Award for The Morning Show in January is also a contender. And then there's former two-time winner Claire Danes, up for the final season of Homeland.

    It was surprising last year when Julia Roberts couldn't snag a nomination for Amazon's well-reviewed Homecoming, which makes it hard to imagine Janelle Monae sneaking into the field for her performance in the show's second season. Also looking to make a surprise splash among the veterans is Euphoria's Zendaya.

    For Your Consideration: Despite being a perennial nominee for The Good Wife, Christine Baranksi hasn't been able to get arrested for her lead turn on The Good Fight. CBS All-Access snobbery? Perhaps. But Baranski has been delivering one of TV's most electric and fed-up performances of the Trump era, and Emmy voters ought to be paying attention.

    Predicted Nominees: Elisabeth Moss, Olivia Colman, Laura Linney, Jennifer Aniston, Viola Davis, Sandra Oh

    Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

    Ineligible 2019 Nominees: The supporting categories are where the Game of Thrones exodus will be more acutely felt. Last year's nominees Peter Dinklage (who won), Alfie Allen, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are out, as is House of Cards' Michael Kelly.

    Returning 2019 Nominees: Is this finally the year that Jonathan Banks wins an Emmy, after five unsuccessful nominations across both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul? If he does, he may once again need to fend off co-star Giancarlo Esposito, looking for his third nomination. Last year's This Is Us haul brought Chris Sullivan his first Emmy nomination, and he's looking to make it two in a row.

    New Contenders: Again, a formidable bunch, including three actors who were nominated the last time they were eligible: Stranger Things' David Harbour, Homeland's Mandy Patinkin (looking for his fifth nomination and first win), and Westworld's Jeffrey Wright.

    Three-time Emmy winner Bradley Whitford was bumped up from Guest Actor status on The Handmaid's Tale (for which he won in 2019, in a quirk that saw episode-specific achievements eligible even as the show was not) to Supporting Actor, with a performance so spotlighted, it'd be a surprise if he misses.

    Succession promises to be a big player here, with both Kieran Culkin and Matthew Macfadyen delivering fantastic performances that each offered plenty of voter-friendly moments. Billy Crudup stole scenes left and right as The Morning Show's sleazy network executive, a performance that should more than earn him a nod. Josh O'Connor got a lot of deserved attention for playing Prince Charles on The Crown. And after Julia Garner surprised many with an upset win in Supporting Actress last year, many expect her Ozark co-star Tom Pelphrey to see similar success this year.

    For Your Consideration: While David Harbour has the Emmy track record for Stranger Things, his character's arc last year was so irksome, it'd be a shame to see it rewarded, especially when his co-star Joe Keery built his former antagonist character, Steve Harrington, into such a complicated and honestly delightful presence in the underrated third season.

    Predicted Nominees: Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Mandy Patinkin, Bradley Whitford, Billy Crudup, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macdafyen, Tom Pelphrey

    Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama

    Ineligible 2019 Nominees: Again, the absence of last year's glut of Game of Thrones performers — supporting actress nominees Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, and Gwendoline Christie — leaves the door wide open in this category.

    Returning 2019 Nominees: Surprise 2019 champ Julia Garner (Ozark) is back in contention, as is Killing Eve boss lady Fiona Shaw.

    New Contenders: It's a fascinating breakdown, actually. Three recent winners are looking to get back in the game: 2018 winner Thandie Newton (Westworld) is eligible again, as are 2017 winners Laura Dern (when Big Little Lies was a Limited Series) and Ann Dowd (The Handmaid's Tale).

    Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter laid down what should be the blueprint for an Emmy-winning season of television on The Crown, and she should probably seen as the category's frontrunner at the moment. Succession's Sarah Snook delivered such a great performance last season that she nearly fooled viewers into thinking Shiv Roy was a good person. And then there is Meryl Streep, whose performance in Big Little Lies verged on campy, but will likely be too delicious for Emmy voters to resist.

    In terms of more longshot possibilities, Better Call Saul fans are going to scream bloody murder if the Emmys don't eventually nominate Rhea Seehorn, but Emmy voters can be vexingly stubborn. The Outsider's Cynthia Erivo gave one of TV's best performances last season, and if Emmy voters give her a look, they will hopefully agree. Also, if Ozark ends up cashing in big, we could see a nod for Janet McTeer here.

    For Your Consideration: June Carryl was the best and most affecting part of Mindhunter's second season, playing a community activist with implacable fury. Also, Pose's second season offered a devastating story arc for Angelica Ross, who in a perfect world would get accolades to spare for her performance.

    Predicted Nominees: Julia Garner, Thandie Newton, Laura Dern, Helena Bonham-Carter, Meryl Streep, Sarah Snook, Cynthia Erivo, Ann Dowd

    The 2020 Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 28 at 8:00 AM ET.

    Talk about the 2020 Emmy Awards in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, Better Call Saul, Big Little Lies, The Crown, The Handmaid's Tale, How to Get Away with Murder, Killing Eve, The Morning Show, Ozark, Pose, Succession, This Is Us, Westworld