Why we could be underestimating ‘Euphoria’s’ Zendaya in the Best Drama Actress Emmy race

Zendaya just bagged her first career Emmy nomination in Best Drama Actress for her performance as Rue Bennett on the gritty teen drama “Euphoria.” She trails “Ozark’s” Laura Linney, “The Morning Show’s” Jennifer Aniston and “The Crown’s” Olivia Colman in fourth place in our combined odds, with “Killing Eve’s” leading ladies Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in fifth and sixth, respectively. We underestimated Zendaya for the nom — she was in ninth place — but we definitely should not do so for the win.

Of “Euphoria’s” six citations for its inaugural season, Zendaya is its lone one above the line. She and Aniston are the only two nominees in the category whose shows aren’t shortlisted for Best Drama Series. Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder,” 2015) and Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black,” 2016) most recently triumphed in this category without their shows nominated for the top prize, the latter of whom did so as “Orphan Black’s” sole nom (“Murder” scored an additional bid for guest star Cicely Tyson). Since program categories are voted on by the entire TV academy, but the acting races exclusively by the actors’ branch, a show’s omission in series doesn’t unequivocally connote a dearth of support from actors. Just look at Aniston’s “The Morning Show,” which produced five acting noms but still didn’t crack the drama series lineup, or conversely, “Stranger Things,” which was blanked in the acting races but made the series cut.

SEE ‘Euphoria’s’ Zendaya could break the Emmy record that Jodie Comer just set

Zendaya is contending as her show’s only acting bid, but she wouldn’t be the first to win under such circumstances. Maslany, Billy Porter (Best Drama Actor for “Pose,” 2019), Regina King (Best Limited Series/TV Movie Actress for “Seven Seconds,” 2018), Donald Glover (Best Comedy Actor for “Atlanta,” 2017), Louie Anderson (Best Comedy Supporting Actor for “Baskets,” 2016), Rami Malek (Best Drama Actor for “Mr. Robot,” 2016) and Maggie Smith (Best Drama Supporting Actress for “Downton Abbey,” 2016) are among those who’ve recently pulled off this feat. Both Malek and Porter were their show’s only acting nom in their respective lineups, just like Zendaya is this year. When performers are singled out this way, it signals passion for their work, which is often enough to carry them all the way to a victory.

“Euphoria” impressively overcame the Emmys’ usual apathy toward teen dramas, Zendaya being the first drama actress nominee from one since “My So-Called Life’s” Claire Danes in 1995. The TV academy has also been increasingly more welcoming of younger talent, especially of performers in their 20s. Just last year, at 25, “Ozark’s” Julia Garner became the youngest Best Drama Supporting Actress winner since 1979’s champ Kristy McNichol (“Family”); at 21, “When They See Us’” Jharrel Jerome became the second youngest Best Limited Series/TV Movie Actor victor (and the first to triumph in his 20s); and at 26, Comer became the youngest Best Drama Actress winner. Zendaya, who turns 24 on Sept. 1, could break that record.

Most known for her turns in Disney’s “Shake It Up” (2010-13), “The Greatest Showman” (2017), “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) and its 2019 sequel “Far From Home,” Zendaya does a 180 as Rue, a 17-year-old who returns home from rehab after a near fatal drug overdose just in time for her junior year of high school. Thanks to the actresses’ detailed work as a narrator, you are instantaneously immersed into the mindset of a drug addict, who doesn’t intend to harm anyone but detach herself from what is nagging her on the inside.

SEE Here are the 34 first-time acting Emmy nominees this year

It’s in Zendaya’s episode submission, “Made You Look,” the third installment — in which Rue blames her drug-dealing friend Fezco (Angus Cloud) for her downfall after he refuses to give her new drugs — that we finally see Rue pour out her anguish. The crack in Zendaya’s voice at the utterance of “You did this to me” encapsulates the suffering her drug use has prompted and how it transitioned into harmful addiction. It’s a stark contrast to the relief and numbness Rue feels when she’s high.

Zendaya weaves tender, almost childlike beats into her performance as Rue finds solace in Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new girl in town, establishing a counterbalance to the predominant feeling of gloom and doom. It’s rather unsurprising, however, that the ups and downs of their relationship end up playing into Rue’s depressive episodes later in the season, in which Zendaya creates a sense of claustrophobia with her grounded depiction of outright isolation and internalization. Finally, she gets to show off her musical chops with an impressive song-and-dance number (“All for Us” – Emmy-nominated for Best Original Music and Lyrics) that closes out the season.

On the whole, Zendaya gives the type of immersive turn that helped catapult the last five winners in this category (the other two being “The Crown’s” Claire Foy, 2018, and “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Elisabeth Moss, 2017) to the top. If she triumphs, she would extend a five-year trend of the drama actress Emmy going to a performer who’s never won before, and would join Comer and Davis as the only ones this past decade to have succeeded on their first tries. Like Comer, Zendaya could capitalize on the breakthrough glow, and like Davis — who, after playing stereotypical Black roles, got to dive into a flawed lawyer and professor on “Murder” — on playing against type.

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Emmys 2020 Best Drama Actress
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