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Emmys 2013: Who Should Win Best Actress?

In anticipation of Sunday night’s Emmy Awards, our critics debate who should win for comedy and drama.

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The 2013 Emmy Awards, honoring the best in television, are almost upon us. Hosted by the inimitable Neil Patrick Harris, the ceremony will air Sunday evening at 8 p.m. ET on CBS and feature several highly contested showdowns.

Over the next several days, Daily Beast culture writers Kevin Fallon and Marlow Stern will debate who we think should win the awards in the top categories. The first on our list is Best Actress, for which we’re tackling both drama and comedy.

Here is the list of nominees:

Outstanding Actress in a Drama

Connie Britton, NashvilleClaire Danes, Homeland (2012 Winner)Michelle Dockery, Downton AbbeyVera Farmiga, Bates MotelElisabeth Moss, Mad MenKerry Washington, ScandalRobin Wright, House of Cards

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy

Laura Dern, EnlightenedLena Dunham, GirlsEdie Falco, Nurse JackieTina Fey, 30 RockJulia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (2012 Winner)Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

Marlow: Let’s start with Outstanding Actress in a Drama. There are a whopping seven nominees (!), and yet Tatiana Maslany was still snubbed for her stunning work on the BBC America series Orphan Black. As far as the nominees are concerned, it’s great to see the lovely Connie Britton be nominated for her turn as a fading country music star on Nashville, Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy Olson was superb on Mad Men in all her stomach-stabbing glory, though perhaps overshadowed by Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) more dramatic story arc. Robin Wright exuded icy menace as Claire Underwood, the conniving, Lady Macbeth-like wife to Rep. Frank Underwood on the Netflix series House of Cards. But I’m going to be a bit of a bore and say Claire Danes deserves the prize for the second year in a row for her schizo turn on Homeland. Her Carrie Mathison went through a shitstorm this past season, from attempted suicide by sleeping pills to being captured by Nazir. Plus, the ugly-crying…I can’t get enough of it. Danes was born to play this role and she owned it again in Season 2.

Kevin: The only rationale I can come up with for the Maslany snub is perhaps she was so convincing playing seven characters on Orphan Black that the Emmys didn’t realize they were all played by the same actress. But hers isn’t the only oversight I’m bummed about. What will it take for an awards organization to recognize the startling blend of brutal realness and defeated humor Emmy Rossum brings to Shameless? I swear those doe eyes are capable of registering six emotions in half as many seconds. And it’s ridiculous that former winner Julianna Margulies was snubbed for what may be her best season yet on The Good Wife.

Both Britton and Wright, who are about as flawless as you’d expect them to be in their respective roles, deserve Emmys for their mesmerizing hair alone. I’d like to cuddle with Britton’s locks at night, and Wright might have the best haircut on TV, if not all time. Moss is way overdue for a win for Mad Men—and should have last year for “The Suitcase”—while Danes’s work cannot be undersold. Watching the range of her performance week after week is almost exhausting as a viewer. But for tackling the sheer craziness of Scandal with a mixture of grace and ferocity, and selling it all with an almost unfathomable groundedness, Kerry Washington deserves the win this year. Plus, she ain’t too bad at the ugly cry, either.

Marlow: I couldn’t agree more on the Emmy Rossum snub. It’s one of the rawest, grittiest performances on television and deserves recognition. The scene where Fiona gathers her supermarket coworkers in her home to discuss their creepy boss’s sexual harassment of them all, only to be completely blindsided by their apathy, is brilliant acting. I’m still playing catch-up on Scandal, but from what I’ve gathered so far in Season 2, Washington is so damn charismatic she elevates everything around her. But an ugly crier? No way! I don’t think Kerry Washington is physically capable of looking ugly. They stripped her of all her makeup in Django Unchained and threw her in a box, and she still put all the other women in that film to shame. But I have to go with Danes because of that scene. Homeland fans know which one I’m talking about. The scene where Carrie Mathison interrogates Brody, admitting that she wanted him to drop his family and be with her, and then flipping the switch on him and reading him the riot act. It’s some of the best acting I’ve seen by any actor, male or female, all year.

Kevin: Kerry vs. Claire is a Sophie’s Choice for me, really, and I agree that the interrogation scene—“that scene”—is perhaps the best acted of the year, with credit to both Danes and costar Damian Lewis. But that “riot act”? Washington reads them six times an episode in a 22-episode season. She chews up those epic Shonda Rhimes monologues—and, as it happens, the character she’s usually devouring with these speeches is the president of the United States. It’s not easy to sell soap opera without verging on camp, but what Washington is selling, we’re buying.

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While Outstanding Actress in Drama is easily a two-way race for me, narrowing down this year’s comedy nominees is not nearly as simple. It’s disappointing that after being nominated for her first season on New Girl, Zooey Deschanel couldn’t pull off a repeat nod for the far superior Season 2, and we were all rooting a little bit for Everyone’s Fictional Best Friend, Mindy Kaling, to eke out a surprise nod for The Mindy Project. But in my eyes, the surprise of the season was Lea Michele’s soaring performance on the last season of Glee, elevating a show that can, at best, be a bit of tonal circus. Of the real nominees, what Lena Dunham accomplishes in the “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls, which is her Emmy submission, is astounding. It’s strange to call a comedic performance unsettling, but that’s precisely how I felt after watching her strip her soul naked in that episode, an exquisitely performed pas de deux between Dunham and costar Patrick Wilson. Tina Fey brought 30 Rock down its home stretch with all the wacky dignity one would hope for. But the decision here, I think, is between Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler. Louis-Dreyfus attacks each of Veep’s biting punchlines like a comedic viper. But Poehler’s brand of madcap earnestness deserves to be rewarded. Louis-Dreyfus won last year. It’s Poehler’s turn.

Marlow: Zooey Deschanel was really robbed in this category for her fantastic work on what I agree is a far superior second season of New Girl. The way she handled the ebb and flow of Jess and Nick’s relationship foibles was both hilarious and touching. (For that matter, Jake Johnson was screwed out of a nom too, but that’s an argument for another time.) I love both Amy Poehler and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and fans of Louis-Dreyfus also need to check her out in the charming rom-com Enough Said, which is now in theaters. But Lena Dunham deserves the prize here. In “One Man’s Trash,” we see Hannah Horvath convey all the emotions in a relationship in a single episode, from lust at first sight to heartbreak. But the cocaine episode—Episode 3: “Bad Friend”—is just stunning. The coked-up dancing to Icona Pop, the coke-fueled truth-telling with Elijah in the bathroom, the way she handles her quasi-homeless stalker, Laird, and the confrontation with Marnie (Allison Williams)—so, so good. And, in addition to the coke and the middle-age gentleman caller, we also witnessed Hannah’s cringe-worthy struggles with OCD, her ups and downs with Adam (Adam Driver), and her sex in the woods with Jessa’s teenage stepbrother. Dunham took us on a helluva ride this past season, and for that, she’s my pick.

Kevin: The Hannah Horvath emotional roller coaster of Season 2 of Girls was, you’re right, harrowing. It was so harrowing, in fact, that I often wanted to get off the ride, which is a testament to how fearless Dunham was with her performance. But while the roller-coaster ride Poehler took us on this season on Parks and Rec was considerably less rickety, it wasn’t any less a thrill. (Plus, it had the added benefit of being laugh-out-loud funny, a shade of Dunham’s Season 1 performance that was sorely missed this past year.) Poehler submitted the two-part midseason episodes “Emergency Response/Leslie and Ben,” in which Poehler’s Leslie Knope gets married. “Emergency Response” allows Poehler to show off her zany, frantic Lucille Ball–like comedic skills, as Leslie is held hostage solving fake emergency response disasters, while “Leslie and Ben” spotlights her surprising range. Emmy voters love to choke on their laughter and then wash it down with some tears, which makes Poehler’s tape the perfect submission. So I am right and you are wrong.