At the 2010 Primetime Emmy Awards, presenter Edie Falco bluntly proclaimed that all six men nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series deserved to go home with the trophy. It was an open race full of well-established favorites (Michael C. Hall, Jon Hamm, Hugh Laurie), a returning champion (Bryan Cranston) and exciting new nominees (Kyle Chandler, Matthew Fox). One decade later, the category of Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the 2020 Emmys is filled to the brim with plausible winners. Unlike most categories this year, not a single nominee in this field can be counted out for a win.
The 2020 Emmy nominees for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series include Jennifer Aniston for The Morning Show, Olivia Colman for The Crown, Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh for Killing Eve, Laura Linney for Ozark, and Zendaya for Euphoria. Of these powerhouse actresses, three would be adding another Emmy to their collection: Comer, who won this category last year, Aniston, who won for Friends in 2002, and Linney, who has collected four Emmys over the years. Oh is the most overdue person in this lineup, amassing a whopping 12 nominations without a win. Meanwhile, Colman is on her third bid and Zendaya is a first-time nominee. So who will take home the coveted Drama Lead Actress Emmy? Let’s take a closer look at each nominee.
Jennifer Aniston – The Morning Show
Aniston’s heralded return to TV was a major success for the former sitcom star, getting nominated for a Golden Globe, winning a SAG Award, and now landing her seventh Emmy nomination. Her performance as news anchor Alex Levy, who is struggling to adjust to working without her recently-disgraced co-anchor played by Steve Carell, received great acclaim from critics, even those who were decidedly mixed on The Morning Show as a whole. In the pilot episode, which she submitted to Emmy voters, she first discovers the news about her co-anchor being a sexual harasser and spends much of the episode in a state of shock, putting on a brave face and finally unleashing all hell in the final moments. It’s expressive and gives Aniston a great amount of dramatic material with which to work.
There are many factors that could give Aniston a leg up in this race. The SAG win is proof that the industry is behind her, defeating the highly-favored Colman and recent Emmy winner Comer in the process. Emmy voters could be thrilled to see Aniston back home on TV all these years later. It is also clear that the acting branch loves The Morning Show, giving it a whopping five nominations for acting. However, the show not making it into a field of eight in Best Drama Series may be a telling sign that there’s not quite enough support to take her over the finish line.
Olivia Colman – The Crown
Colman’s performance as Queen Elizabeth has predictably landed her nominations and wins much like her predecessor on The Crown, Claire Foy. Playing Elizabeth in the 1960s and ‘70s, Colman took on an appropriately more reserved approach than Foy, with the royal now at middle age. She submitted the finale episode, “Cri de Coeur” to Emmy voters, which some interpreted as a mistake when she had such a clear showcase in “Aberfan.” The finale finds Elizabeth celebrating her 25th anniversary as Queen and dealing with the stress of Princess Margaret’s indiscretions. It is a decent submission but certainly not her best of the season.
Colman picked up a Golden Globe for the role plus a SAG Award as part of the ensemble of The Crown. She is gradually building up her nomination total at the Emmys, previously getting in for supporting turns in The Night Manager in 2016 and Fleabag last year. But is her work too subtle in comparison to her competition? Will her weaker submission matter? Will voters wait to reward her for her second (and final) season like they did with Foy? Does The Crown’s underperformance with acting nominations mean anything? There are too many question marks to confidently predict her at the moment.
Jodie Comer – Killing Eve
A number of awards experts were stunned when Comer took home the Emmy last year over Oh, her favored co-star. But it did prove that voters were diligently watching Killing Eve, considering most agreed it was really Comer’s season, as seductive assassin Villanelle. The third season continued to give preference to Villanelle as we saw in her episode submission, “Are You from Pinner,” which centers entirely around her character reuniting with her family back home in Russia. It is a true gift of an episode for any actress and Comer expertly navigates Villanelle’s mixed emotions and her ultimate realization she must take drastic action against her family.
The Emmys are notorious for their repeat winners so Comer should not be counted out of this race. Yet, this has not been the case in Drama Lead Actress since 2013 when Claire Danes repeated for Homeland. Voters may be looking to continue their pattern of spreading the wealth and may see Comer as already taken care of.
Laura Linney – Ozark
Linney continues to get better and better on Ozark and she received some of the best reviews of her career for the show’s beloved third season. As the scheming, complicated Wendy Byrde, Linney got to add new shadings to her performance as her character descended further into paranoia and darkness. The arrival of Wendy’s brother, played by the bafflingly-snubbed Tom Pelphrey, turned out to be exactly what Linney needed to explore her full capabilities as an actress on the Netflix drama. There is no further proof of this than “Fire Pink,” her episode submission in which she goes on a fateful road trip with her brother. It is brutal, devastating work that had many viewers calling for her to win another Emmy.
There is no doubt that Linney is one of the frontrunners to win this award. She is the biggest Emmy darling of this group, winning for four of her six previous nominations. She completely dominates the third season of Ozark, which doubled its nomination total from nine last year to 18 this year. What does give me pause, though, is the lack of supporting nominations for Pelphrey or Janet McTeer, who both share significant screen time with Linney in Season 3. She appears to be out in front to win this thing, but it’s a shakier prediction than before the nominations announcement.
Sandra Oh – Killing Eve
Oh is now on her third consecutive Emmy nomination for Killing Eve, a nomination that was far from guaranteed. The third season of the BBC America series was criticized for the relatively lopsided story focus that saw Oh’s titular character take more of a backseat to Comer’s Villanelle, and some awards prognosticators wondered if that could bear out in the nominations. But they both got in for the second year in a row and Oh has chosen to submit the Season 3 finale to Emmy voters. The finale ends with Eve really acknowledging her toxic relationship with Villanelle in a major way in a highly impactful scene on the London Bridge.
It is, hopefully, common knowledge now that Oh still does not have an Emmy. Even still, she has arguably been campaigning more than in years past and has navigated the controversy with the revelation of her show’s all-white writers’ room very well. While she simply does not have the material of the other five nominees here, voters may feel that she is strong working with what she’s given. Killing Eve is also nominated again for Best Drama Series so the Academy is clearly still onboard with the show, which tends to help.
Zendaya – Euphoria
And now we come to the biggest X-factor in this race. Zendaya’s nomination came as a major shock to many on nomination morning, not necessarily because of anything to do with her performance but because of who she beat out. With Emmy favorites like Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman, and Viola Davis in the race, Zendaya’s nomination was an unlikely one, especially when you consider the sexually explicit, in-your-face nature of Euphoria. The fact that she is nominated for playing recovering drug addict Rue Bennett shows that there is major passion for the young star. In her episode submission, “Made You Look,” Rue lies about being sober at her NA meeting, considers using again, deals with her complicated relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer) and educates the audience on the different types of dick pics. Needless to say, this submission has everything.
So what to do about Zendaya? Some predictors may automatically rank her in last place due to the confrontational aspects of Euphoria that might turn off some voters. This seems a bit too dismissive when there were clearly enough voters who were able to vault her into the top six over well-established Oscar and Emmy winners. Zendaya gets to bare her soul on the HBO teen drama and if enough members take the time to recognize what she’s doing, she could be more in the hunt than people think.
My winner prediction ranking for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series:
- Laura Linney – Ozark
- Jennifer Aniston – The Morning Show
- Zendaya – Euphoria
- Olivia Colman – The Crown
- Sandra Oh – Killing Eve
- Jodie Comer – Killing Eve