Emmy dilemma: What happens when the best submission is not ‘Outstanding’?

In 2012, when Maggie Smith won her second consecutive Emmy for “Downton Abbey,” against Critics’ Choice Award winner Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men,” many rolled their eyes, saying they should have known better than to bet against “freaking Dame Maggie Smith.”

Another upset winner last September was Jon Cryer, but most admitted he had the best episode and they expected him to lose for other reasons. So if Cryer could win solely because his submission, how did Hendricks lose to Smith with a better episode? Was it just her veteran status working overtime or were there other factors at play?

Upon nomination, performers from drama and comedy series submit sample episodes that represent their best work to a panel of Emmy voters who judge them against other submissions in each category. This system often defies “buzz” to produce winners who may seem surprising at first glance.

Despite his episode being very long with little visible emoting or dialogue, Louis C.K. was expected to win Best Comedy Actor last year because his show “Louie” was a critical darling.  But Jon Cryer’s episode was classic Emmy bait as it featured his character facing a slew of emotional and comic slapstick misfortunes in an extended dream sequence, but pundits dismissed him because “Two and a Half Men” is so critically reviled.

Three years ago, Kyra Sedgwick from “The Closer” upset Julianna Margulies from “The Good Wife,” who had recently been awarded by the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes, and Television Critics Association. The episode that Sedgwick submitted, “Maternal Instincts,” featured a harrowing performance, but she was widely dismissed because her show was aging and Margulies seemed unstoppable. Time and again, the best tape prevails.

But the system sometimes breaks down when a category is so weak that even the best performance is middling. Josh Charles was marginally considered the Drama Supporting Actor frontrunner in 2011 for “The Good Wife,” but as good as he was in his episode, Charles was ultimately playing just another courtroom lawyer, so voters likely ignored the tapes. Instead they chose the most original character of the men nominated, played by Peter Dinklage in “Game of Thrones.”

In 2012, Mark Margolis from “Breaking Bad” was the Drama Guest Actor frontrunner, but his range was limited in a silent role. In the absence of a knockout performance, voters again bypassed the tapes in favour of a more dynamic character: a hillbilly convict with an unorthodox haircut played by Jeremy Davies in “Justified.”

Hendricks was pegged by most pundits to win Drama Supporting Actress in 2012, a weak year for the category. She submitted “The Other Woman,” a strong episode overall that scored writing and directing nominations, but one with surprisingly limited screen time for her given that the episode hinged on the actions of her character. Instead, much of the episode was spent with other characters, including Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, who both submitted the episode in the lead-acting races. “The Other Woman” also lacked the kind of big emotional fireworks scene that often clinches Emmys.

Without a clearly “outstanding” performance to honor in the category, Emmy voters defaulted to their favorite actress among the nominees: beloved, two-time Academy Award-winner Maggie Smith.

So when predicting winners this year you should go with the best submission when predicting the Emmys as a general rule, but when none of the tapes seems “Outstanding” it’s often a toss-up. Could this affect this year’s hard-to-call races like Comedy Actor, Comedy Supporting Actor, and Drama Guest Actor? Or will Maggie Smith win again against strong competitor submissions and invalidate this theory?

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