What does Hugh Laurie have to do to win an Emmy? This year he is a Best Drama Actor nominee for the sixth time for his role on FOX’s long-running medical procedural “House,” but he’s never won. It’s not a lack of industry support that has been holding him back; he’s popular enough among his fellow actors to have won two SAG Awards (2007, 2009). And he has also been popular with critics, winning two TCA Awards (2005, 2006). He also has a pair of Golden Globes (2006, 2007).
But Emmy voting works differently. Nominees are selected by a popular vote of the TV Academy, but winners are selected by judging panels that view sample episodes of the nominees’ work, and when presented with a single episode, voters often prefer to reward actors playing sympathetic characters, like the heroic crime-fighters who have won this category in the past, such as Kiefer Sutherland (“24”), Dennis Franz (“NYPD Blue”), and James Garner (“The Rockford Files”). James Spader won three times for “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” thanks in part to defiant closing arguments in which he stands up against injustice. Though Laurie plays a life-saving diagnostician, he spends most episodes insulting his staff, his superiors, and even his ailing patients. Such callousness might be a turn-off to voters, as it has been for Steve Carell (“The Office“) in the comedy race.
However, other unlikable characters have won this category in the past. James Gandolfini won three times for playing career criminal Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” including once for an episode where he beats his mistress. Michael Chiklis won for playing a corrupt cop on “The Shield.” And Bryan Cranston has won three in a row for playing an increasingly diabolical crystal meth manufacturer on “Breaking Bad.” These characters are no more likable than Laurie’s, but Hollywood often likes to honor bold villain performances; consider the Oscars, which have recently honored Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” and Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland.” Those are grand, operatic performances; the characters are unlikable, but so is Macbeth, and certainly no one in the acting community would penalize their peers for playing that role.
Maybe that’s the problem. Dr. House is not likable enough to hug, but he’s not monstrous enough to impress voters with emotional grandstanding. That shouldn’t have been a problem last year, when Laurie submitted a special two-hour episode of “House” in which he suffered withdrawal, was locked in a mental institution, and learned to humble himself. That was the longest, showiest, most sympathetic performance he had ever submitted to Emmy judges, and he still lost, for the third time, to Cranston.
Is it too late for Laurie to win? To many viewers and critics, “House” is yesterday’s news, and at a time when lofty, serialized dramas like “Mad Men” rule the Emmys, a weekly medical procedural like “House” seems especially dated. Last year, Kyra Sedgwick finally won after five nominations for “The Closer,” and this year the sixth time may be the charm for Carell in the Best Comedy Actor race. But both stars submitted strong episodes, and this year all Laurie has to offer is “After Hours,” in which House is once again sympathetic and humbled, but it includes a scene in which he performs surgery on himself that is so graphic even our editors Chris Beachum and Rob Licuria couldn’t sit through the whole thing, so it looks like Laurie will sit out another Emmy race. But will Laurie ever be honored? The series is past its prime, but will continue on for at least another season. Will voters keep giving him more chances, or has his time finally come and gone?