Women in television sure are having a great time.  Although I’ve never met an actress whose greatest wish is to play a supporting character, I’ve met plenty that would be over the moon to land a role like the ones that have afforded 2011 Emmy nominations for the women who play them.

Acting, by its very nature is a “Hey, look at me!” profession.  Because of that inherent quality, most people who set out to achieve success as an actress are dreaming of a life as a leading lady.  Call it ego, call it blind ambition, but when it comes to acting who wouldn’t want the biggest role? But blind ambition can so distort the vision of a starry eyed girl that she can miss out on a whole world of genius possibilities.  So go the Prima donnas.

And then there are the ladies who approach their careers as craftspeople.  They come to do the work, do it well, with a sense of truth and a level of commitment that may not earn them eternal fame, but sometimes that ethic earns them the honor of Emmy recognition.  The women in 2011’s class of Emmy nominated dramatic supporting roles are richly talented, truthful actresses that deserve ultimate kudos for certain.  When this kind of cream can rise to the top of an otherwise bitter cup then TV suddenly becomes worth watching.

The actresses that currently are basking in the slightly dimmer but still brilliant glow of the supporting spotlight are:

Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder in Boardwalk Empire

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in Mad Men

Michelle Forbes as Mitch Larsen in The Killing

Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife

Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett in Justified

Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in The Good Wife

If you have been lucky enough to catch all of these performances through out the season then you will know how difficult it is to define a frontrunner.  Television is certainly enjoying a golden era of sorts.  The sheer volume of television shows being produced is mind blowing.  That abundance (if you believe in the law of averages) all but guarantees that a wealth of captivating performances in compelling and well produced shows are available. Writing and production quality are both strong elements in these dramas, affording these actresses ample opportunities to excel in their work.   

Kelly Macdonald has earned the right to brag about her acting chops.  If for no other reason, Macdonald’s feature film credits are a mix of beautifully drawn characters, all of whom Macdonald portrays with subtly and depth.  From Gosford Park to No Country for Old Men, I have enjoyed watching Macdonald work.  Her transition to the small screen is nothing but another wheat stalk in the turned brim of her cloche hat. Macdonald’s character on Boardwalk Empire is the deliciously complex Margaret Schroeder.  It is impossible to watch Margaret’s arch without the desire to help her and yet one never gets the impression that Margaret cannot help herself.  She is the less than fortunate wife of an abusive alcoholic and mother of his children.  Macdonald is able to bring this character to life with a blend of childlike vulnerability and grown up girl feisty determination.  Margaret is gentle but wise, smart and capable of handling the men in the world in which she finds herself.  Macdonald’s deftly skilled portrayal of this woman is certainly worthy of the win

Christina Hendricks has the dubious honor of being the only nominee with a Barbie doll made in the image of her character Joan Harris on AMC’s Mad Men.  Even though Barbie omitted Hendrick’s plentiful curves, Joan Harris still owns them and uses them well.  The draw about this character is not just her sexuality, however her sexuality certainly is an impossible force to resist.  Joan is a witty, smart and sometimes sarcastic character.  The time period, the social situation and the nature of the male-female connection are compelling elements in this drama and nowhere do these elements coalesce as perfectly as they do in Joan.  Hendricks is adept and lovely. Her only fault may be that she, at times, is just a breath away from the total truth of her character. But those moments are few and far between.  The meat of her arch might pale slightly in comparison to the other nominees, but the writing is still strong and Hendricks is more than a great set of “fill in the blanks”, she is a gifted actress and she deserves the nomination, if not the win

Archie Panjabi moved me tremendously in The Constant Gardener and in A Mighty Heartso I was more than excited to watch her do her thing in The Good Wife. Panjabi’s giant, doe-like eyes and her intense depth are undeniable gifts that make this actress come alive with little effort.  She brings a truth to her work that allows you to trust her, even if she is playing a less than centered character.  Kalinda Sharma, Panjabi’s role on The Good Wife falls into that very category.  Kalinda is a force of feminine strength as she owns her bisexuality with a sense of cool dismissal and she sinks her teeth into her job as a private investigator with a savory delight.  Panjabi’s only roadblock is the sometimes “written” quality of dialogue on The Good Wife.  Some pacing issues and editing faux pas leave me just shy of the suspension of disbelief that is required for a show to be fantastic.  This very issue may be the one that serves as the edge when the Academy votes for their winner, if even they aren’t aware of it. Panjabi, however, was the upset winner last year.

Michelle Forbes must love her job.  Now, that may sound a little strange given the task she faces on the set, portraying a mother whose daughter has been murdered.  It is a reality that no mother would ever hope to be in but it is an imaginary circumstance that any actress would die to live under.  Mitch Larsen. Forbes’ character on AMC’s The Killing is a fierce, pragmatic, emotional, passionate lion of mother whose drive to get at the truth is palpable.  This is a role with a built in mine shaft of levels to play until the character is all the way under the reality of it all.  Forbes inches her way down a bit further with every episode and with every scene.  The underbelly of this character is slowly being exposed through the raw portrayal that Forbes delivers.  And still, there is more and more as she weaves her way through the complexities of grief, survival, doubt, angst, loss and confusion.  Forbes has brought a lot to her television roles in the past but this may be her finest moment as a supporting character.  She is an intense and wonderful actress and could very well steal this award in the blink of an eye.

There are schools of thought that teach that it takes 20 years or more to be a great actor.  That may very well be the case when it comes to Margo Martindale, a seasoned, brilliant actress.  In the world of supporting actresses, Margo Martindale has had an enviable career.  She is that woman that you know you know, but you may not place it right away if you saw her in a local coffee house.  What separates Martindale from her fellow nominees is her absolute genius character work.  Martindale is a lovely, disarming woman that does beautifully in roles that allow her soft and sincere nature to come out such as her role as Sister Colleen in 1995’s Dead Man Walking. But Martindale is often at her best in roles that have a little teeth and in the case of Justified, a proper mouth full of fangs. No, she isn’t playing a vampire like nearly every actor in Hollywood has done of late.  But Martindale is vampire-fierce as Mags Bennett, the powerful, arguably ruthless matriarch of the Bennett family on FX’s hit show, Justified.  The show itself is totally compelling and Martindale is a gripping performer.  The key to her incredible portrayal may be that Martindale does not judge Mags from the point of view of an actor playing a surly character and then trying to make the surly come out.  Rather, she crawls into Mags’ skin and finds the place where the character is totally “justified” in her actions.  No villain actually thinks of themselves as a villain, and Martindale is able to infuse Mags with a truth that almost makes the audience want to be on her side.  When it comes to the Emmys, Martindale definitely has me on her side.  I would love to see her take this award home.

Christine Baranski has the most Emmy nominations of the ladies in this category.  Baranski has earned an impressive 9 Emmy nominations over her illustrious career. She took home one statue in 1995 as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for CBS’s Cybill.  Baranski is a stupendous comic actress and more often than not, she finds herself being praised as one.  The body of dramatic work that Baranski has under her belt is also noteworthy, especially this year as she enjoys her second nomination for her role in CBS’s The Good Wife. Baranski plays Diane Lockhart, a top litigator and senior partner in a Chicago law firm. Baranski is a consummate actress.  She is never dull.  Her inherent wit and timeless, almost archetypical feminine power are qualities that define her as an actress.  She certainly deserves this and all of her nominations.  The flaw in Baranski’s performance is one that I touched on earlier in regards to Archie Panjabi and is very probably not in the actress’ control.  This script often feels written and the words coming off of Baranski’s tongue are mechanical in some respects.  Not in that fabulous “I’m a politician” mechanical sense. If that were so then the script would be brilliant.  The dialogue sometimes smacks of a writer eager to move plot along in the speediest way in order to make things happen and hold the interest of the viewer.  Baranski flows nicely with the challenge but it does ultimately do her some dis-service in relation to her counter parts.  Regardless, I do enjoy watching her on screen. She is a richly talented woman that shines despite the inadequacies of her writers.

The Emmy could very well walk home with any of these lovely and gifted women.  As the envelope is peeled back to reveal the happy winner, I will watch excitedly and applaud the recipient with respect.  As an actress, I can only aspire to be as truthful as this gifted group.  As an audience member, I am moved by each, wonderfully caught up in the journeys of their characters and eager to catch up with them as their new seasons begin in the fall.

Road to the Emmys Series

August 24: Miniseries/TV Movie Acting Roundup – Dantzler Smith

August 25: Outstanding Miniseries or TV Movie – Dantzler Smith

August 26: Outstanding Reality Competition Host – Erica Scandariato

August 29: Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series – Phil Wallace

August 30: Outstanding Reality Program – Erica Scandariato

August 31: Outstanding Reality Competition Program – Savanna New

September 1: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy – Dave Morris

September 2: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy – Kendra Beltran

September 6: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama – Angela Stern

September 7: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama – Adam Spunberg

September 8: Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series – Megan Lane

September 9: Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series – Megan Lane

September 12: Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series – Kit Bowen

September 13: Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series – Andrew Payne

September 14: Outstanding Comedy Series – Amy Lindorff

September 15: Outstanding Drama Series – Andrew Payne

September 18: 63rd Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards