Emmy upsets abound in supporting races

Gold Derby editors are predicting wins for Margo Martindale (“Justified“), John Slattery (“Mad Men“), Jane Lynch (“Glee“), and Ty Burrell (“Modern Family“) in the drama and comedy supporting races at the Emmys this year, but these categories are notoriously difficult to predict. Are they really out front, or do voters have an ace up their sleeve?


The supporting categories for comedy have resulted in fewer upsets than their dramatic counterparts, but there have been a few shockers. In 1990, reigning champ Woody Harrelson (“Cheers“) was expected to repeat after ending four years of domination by John Larroquette (“Night Court“) in 1989, but on Emmy night Alex Rocco won for “The Famous Teddy Z.” Eventual four-time champ David Hyde Pierce was the overwhelming favorite in 1994 for “Frasier‘s” debut season, but he lost to Michael Richards (“Seinfeld“). In 2001, Robert Downey Jr. was heavily favored to win for his one-season stint on “Ally McBeal” after winning SAG and Golden Globe Awards for the role, but his cast-mate Peter MacNicol walked away with the prize instead. Most recently, in 2009, when three-time winner Jeremy Piven (“Entourage“) was left off the shortlist, most predicted that Neil Patrick Harris would finally win for “How I Met Your Mother,” but he was bested by Jon Cryer for “Two and a Half Men.” To add insult to injury, Harris was the host of the Emmy telecast that year.

The buzz strongly favored Lisa Kudrow (“Friends“) or three-time winner Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”) to win Best Supporting Comedy Actress in 1995; even fellow nominee Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Seinfeld”) told red carpet interviewers one of them would win. But it was Christine Baranski (“Cybill”) who prevailed, a big surprise considering that mid-season replacement “Cybill” aired only thirteen episodes during the eligibility period. The very next year, Dreyfus returned the favor by defeating Baranski, who was expected to repeat.

Kudrow won in 1998, and most pundits expected her to win again in 1999, with Lucy Liu (“Ally McBeal”) and Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond“) considered potential spoilers. No one expected Kristen Johnston‘s win for “3rd Rock from the Sun.” Johnston had won two years prior, but the show had dipped in quality since then.

Recent years have produced a slew of surprises in the category. Jaime Pressly (“My Name is Earl“) was nominated in 2006 and lost despite strong episode submissions, which were considered the class of the field, so pundits were taken aback when she won the following year for the episode “Jump for Joy,” in which she had comparatively little screentime. Jean Smart (“Samantha Who?”) was a surprise nominee in 2008 and even bigger surprise when she beat Amy Poehler (“Saturday Night Live“) and Vanessa Williams (“Ugly Betty”).

Upsets abound in the drama categories. In 1995, Ray Walston (“Picket Fences”) won Best Supporting Drama Actor, defeating a pair of actors from NBC’s Emmy darling “ER”: Eriq La Salle and Noah Wyle. And his repeat win in 1996 further raised eyebrows; everyone had predicted an easy win for Stanley Tucci (“Murder One“).

Gordon Clapp received his first nomination for “NYPD Blue” in 1994, but was subsequently snubbed for the next three years; usually, actors and programs that fall off of Emmy’s radar are gone for good. But Clapp returned to the race in 1998 – and won! In 2009, many believed Aaron Paul would win for “Breaking Bad”; he submitted a powerful episode in which he tried to protect a young boy from his meth-addicted parents. He lost to Michael Emerson (“Lost”) that year, but Paul won the following year for what was considered a weaker episode.

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But the biggest Emmy upsets have come in the race for Best Supporting Drama Actress. This category has such a long history of upsets that this year’s presumed frontrunner, Margo Martindale, may actually be the underdog. Valarie Mahaffey (“Northern Exposure“) took down Mary Alice (“I’ll Fly Away”) in 1992. Alice had the stronger submission and was considered a heavy favorite. Alice won the following year with a weaker submission.

1994 saw the domination of the category by the women of “NYPD Blue.” The show had the most buzz and set a new record for the most nominations for a drama. Many felt that it was a close race between co-stars Sharon Lawrence and Gail O’Grady, but Leigh Taylor Young earned a victory for the second season of “Picket Fences,” a series that certainly made a habit of beating the odds. In 1996, Tyne Daly won for “Christy,” which aired only a dozen episodes that season before being canceled; most predicted 1995 winner Julianna Margulies (“ER”) to repeat. In 1999, Holland Taylor, who appeared in only six episodes of “The Practice” that season, won the supporting race over frontrunners – and previous winners – Camryn Manheim (“The Practice“) and Kim Delaney (“NYPD Blue”).

The bulk of upsets, however, have come in the past decade. Since 2005, every winner has been a surprise. In 2005 and 2006, Blythe Danner (“Huff”) defeated Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson from “Grey’s Anatomy,” both SAG winners. In 2007, the two “Grey’s” actresses were defeated again, this time by their co-star Katherine Heigl. No one expected Dianne Wiest (“In Treatment”) to win in 2008 or Cherry Jones (“24“) to win in 2009; “24” had lost the category three years earlier for a more acclaimed performance by Jean Smart, and despite critical raves for previous stars like Dennis Haysbert and Penny Johnson Jerald, no supporting actor had ever won for the FOX action drama. Last year, Archie Panjabi received an unexpected nomination for “The Good Wife.” Most thought that if anyone won a supporting Emmy for that series it would be Christine Baranski; when Panjabi won instead, she looked just as surprised as those watching from home were.

Are Ty Burrell and Margo Martindale safe this year? Could Jane Lynch and Josh Charles be vulnerable? The supporting categories have a way of surprising us. Just when we think we know which way the wind is blowing, Emmy voters change direction.

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