John Benjamin Hickey (‘In Treatment’) on Emmy’s radar for playing white-collar criminal facing his demons

John Benjamin Hickey is best known to TV audiences for his Emmy-nominated role as Laura Linney’s sketchy brother on Showtime’s “The Big C.” Now the Tony-winning actor is likely to pick up a second Emmy nomination as a white-collar criminal facing his demons on a therapist’s couch on HBO’s “In Treatment.” Hickey delivers an incendiary performance as Colin, whose probation from serving a prison sentence for fraud is dependent upon shrink Brooke Taylor (Uzo Aduba) signing off on some court-mandated therapy. Is this mercurial fellow, who has spit at a female prison guard, been thrown over a stair railing by a psycho inmate and lost everything he once held dear, ready to go out into the world again?

Episode 2 best reflects Hickey’s nuanced performance. A monologue in which Colin tells Brooke how a computer search in the prison library revealed what the outside world thinks of him professionally on social media becomes the tipping point to an emotional disintegration in her meticulously decorated Baldwin Hills home. “When Martha Stewart went to jail, no one ever said, ‘That bitch can’t cook,’” he rails bitterly. Hickey paints a vivid picture of Colin’s pain, isolation and rage. Here is a man raised in a California hippie commune who thought he was a “good guy” because he financially supported the right liberal causes and “never voted for a Republican in my life.” Staring up from the abyss, he wonders, “How did I get here?”

Hickey, who won his Tony in the revival of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” is such an edgy, mercurial actor that he pushes Aduba to let down her guard as the dispassionate therapist. “Why do you need me to like you?” she asks him, bewildered. Their scenes crackle with theatrical intensity. Even after Colin recovers from his meltdown, he mockingly expresses his doubts about the therapy process itself. “If I wanted to sit around and talk about my emotions all day, I’d still be married,” he declares. Sure, he’s a self-involved mess who committed a crime and did the time but many of his points hit home. He’s desperate, he’s afraid and he has no one turn to. Ordinarily, an actor would have many episodes, sometimes an entire season, to register all these emotions. That Hickey can do so much in one episode puts makes him a serious contender for the Emmy.

Let’s look at his competition in Best Drama Supporting Actor. Michael Kenneth Williams is currently in first place for his work on “Lovecraft Country.” Four-time Emmy nominee Williams has been overdue for years now and was recognized for this performance by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, but the HBO series did not win one award in the Golden Globes or SAG contests earlier this year so the voter love is not there. Tobias Menzies is in second place as Prince Philip on “The Crown.” The royal’s recent death and the series’ overall excellence—the show may very well sweep the top categories, as it did at the Globes—give him a true advantage. Third-place choice Bradley Whitford has already won for this “The Handmaid’s Tale” role, though in the guest star category. John Lithgow, whose performance as Winston Churchill on “The Crown” a few years back was among the finest in his career, is in contention for the “Perry Mason” reboot. Giancarlo Esposito, like Williams, is overdue for a win, with Emmy-nominated work on “Breaking Bad,”“Better Call Saul” and “The Mandalorian,” but is the academy really going to give him its top honor for expensive popcorn fare?

That brings us to Hickey, currently in sixth place with 21-to-2 odds. Expect those odds to improve—and Hickey to surpass some of his rivals—as the voting deadline nears. As the nation comes out of the pandemic, “In Treatment,” which picked up two acting Emmys in 2008 for Dianne Wiest as Best Supporting Actress and Glynn Turman as Best Guest Actor, seems more relevant than ever. When people are voting, that’s going to count.

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