Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

2020 Emmys: ‘Watchmen’ could mark second program in Emmy history to sweep Limited Series acting categories

With a commanding 26 nominations, the most of any program this year, HBO’s Watchmen is poised to enter Emmy night with mammoth momentum – and a strong shot at several major wins.

Among the program’s recognition are six acting bids, spread across all four Limited Series categories – Lead Actress (Regina King), Lead Actor (Jeremy Irons), Supporting Actress (Jean Smart) and Supporting Actor (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jovan Adepo and Louis Gossett Jr.)

In the event Watchmen manages to collect all four Limited Series acting prizes, it will emerge only the second program in Emmy history to pull off this impressive feat. It was at the 2004 Emmys that another HBO production, Angels in America, scored trophies for a quartet of performers, in that case Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright. 

What are the odds of Watchmen triumphing across the board for its actors? Let’s dive into these four categories.

When it comes to the Emmys, both King and Smart have long been forces to be reckoned with. Both have three trophies under their belts and have actually faced each other in the same category, as King (American Crime) topped Smart (Fargo) for the Limited Series Supporting Actress trophy in 2016. Their sterling Emmy track records, coupled with overall affection for Watchmen, leaves them well-positioned to score fourth trophies.

That isn’t to say either actress is a shoo-in. King must contend with strong competition, including fellow Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, whose Mrs. America turn generated considerable attention and acclaim, while Smart faces five fellow Emmy winners in her category, including six-time champion Tracey Ullman (also from Mrs. America). Even though these categories are not without their suspense, Mrs. America’s haul of 10 nominations sure does pale in comparison to Watchmen’s 26. If a Watchmen wave is on the horizon, look for both King and Smart to prevail.

More uncertain is the Limited Series Supporting Actor race, which finds the three Watchmen nominees facing a pair of Hollywood gentlemen (Dylan McDermott and Jim Parsons), plus Tituss Burgess, now on his fifth nomination for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which competes this year in Limited Series after a healthy run of Comedy Series bids. It’s a tough race to forecast, in part because Tim Blake Nelson, also of Watchmen and considered by many to be a front-runner for the win, unexpectedly missed the cut. 

Parsons, a four-time Emmy winner for The Big Bang Theory, now on his ninth career nomination, is an Emmy mainstay that should never be underestimated and could very well pick up a fifth trophy here. With a lesser showing of 12 nominations, however, including no bid up in Limited Series, Hollywood does not seem to have the same sky-high enthusiasm with voters as Watchmen

If it isn’t Parsons, it will likely be one of the Watchmen gentlemen who triumphs here. While first-time nominees Abdul-Mateen and Adepo earned raves for their turns on the series – and sport knockout episode submissions that richly showcase their acting chops – it might be Oscar winner Gossett who holds an edge here. While Gossett has not been nominated for an Emmy in more than 20 years, he was a true Emmy favorite of the 1970s and 1980s, earning one win (for Roots) over seven career nominations. Moreover, this category has a history of honoring veteran actors, with the likes of James Cromwell (American Horror Story: Asylum), Paul Newman (Empire Falls) and Ben Gazzara (Hysterical Blindness) prevailing in recent years.

Where Watchmen most enters Emmy night as a bit of an underdog is in the fourth category, Lead Actor, another race that is difficult to project and arguably lacks a real front-runner at all.

Mark Ruffalo (I Know This Much Is True) and Hugh Jackman (Bad Education) perhaps seem best-positioned to claim victory here but neither of their programs were otherwise enthusiastically embraced by voters – in fact, Ruffalo is the lone nomination for his limited series. He faces the daunting statistic that no actor has triumphed in this category as their program’s sole recognition since Sir John Gielgud (Summer’s Lease) in 1991. Both Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Jeremy Pope (Hollywood) also saw their programs snubbed in Limited Series but, in a field so unsettled, cannot be counted out.

As for Oscar winner Irons, he graces a series that clearly has no lack of passion behind it. He also happens to sport an impressive Emmy track record himself, triumphing on three of his four past nominations. If there’s a significant hurdle for Irons, it’s that he’s arguably competing in the wrong category, with modest screen time more appropriate for a Supporting Actor bid. While there is the occasional exception, the winner of the Limited Series Lead Actor Emmy is, far more often than not, the unimpeachable lead of his series. Watchmen has only one leading actor and her name is Regina King.

It should be noted that several limited series over Emmy history have fallen short of all four wins, instead having to settle for a trio of prizes.

Another HBO effort, Olive Kitteridge, prevailed in Lead Actress (Frances McDormand), Lead Actor (Richard Jenkins) and Supporting Actor (Bill Murray) but couldn’t complete the sweep with a Supporting Actress (Zoe Kazan) win. Likewise, in a result that may mirror Watchmen’s fate, the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds was triumphant in three categories – Lead Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Supporting Actress (Jean Simmons) and Supporting Actor (Richard Kiley) – but fell short of a quartet with a loss in Lead Actor (Richard Chamberlain).

There are also several programs (John Adams, Temple Grandin, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Big Little Lies) that earned three acting trophies but did not have a nomination in a fourth acting category. 

Ultimately, it will be a flabbergasting shock if, considering all its acclaim, momentum and more than two dozen nominations, Watchmen goes home empty-handed among the acting categories. That King and Smart are among the most beloved Emmy mainstays makes it all the more likely it is in for a splendid showing. The question is whether Watchmen is really on the verge of pulling off what Angels in America did 16 years ago. 

Watchmen’s competition, namely Hollywood and Mrs. America, is arguably a little stiffer than the contenders Angels in America steamrolled over, namely The Reagans and Something the Lord Made. But Watchmen is also peaking at precisely the right time, not only due to the limitless critical acclaim but because its exploration of systemic racism feels more relevant than ever in the current moment.

Yes, Watchmen may go into the big night an underdog to completely run the board but if there’s a wave, which is more than plausible, don’t be surprised if its actors, Irons among them, ride it to victory.

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