Emmy Week (and a half) at HitFix continues with a look at Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama, which in some ways was the hardest category I had to deal with.

As usual, Fienberg and I are going with the official Emmy ballot, and approaching the matter in two ways: Dan speculates on who will be nominated (along with some wishful thinking), while I say who would be on my hypothetical ballot.

Dan's gallery is up, and after the jump are my (tough) choices...

I didn't have as many actors on my not-so-short list as I did for the comedy and drama supporting actor categories, but with those, I was ultimately able to winnow it down to six and feel happy with those choices. Lead drama actor, on the other hand, was a real bear, so much so that I'm actually going to write a few words about some of the people I just couldn't find room for on the list, and why. You may not agree with those rationalizations, and there may be times when I don't, either, but I had to find some way to cut this puppy down to six names, and these were the reasons that made sense to me as I did it.

Kyle Chandler, for example, was his usual fantastic self on "Friday Night Lights," and as with Connie Britton, it's an embarrassment that he's never even been nominated before. But I feel like he was given material that was ever-so-slightly less memorable than in the show's first three seasons (or than Britton got in the episodes that have yet to air on NBC), as Coach took a bit of a backseat to players past and present, and to his wife.

Even though I've tired of "Dexter" as a whole, meanwhile, Michael C. Hall keeps me watching and will absolutely deserve his likely nomination. But this year turned into an acting duel between Hall and John Lithgow, and Lithgow emerged on top. That's no sin; it's just the slimmest of excuses to omit Hall in favor of someone else.

In a similar vein, Charlie Hunnam really came into his own in this triumphant second season of "Sons of Anarchy. But this was ultimately Katey Sagal's season more than it was his.

In the final season of "Lost," Matthew Fox took a character who had been one of my least favorite ever (at least in terms of prominent characters on shows I otherwise loved) and made him someone I liked and cared about. That's no small accomplishment. But the structure of "Lost" meant that even as the series lead, he drifted in and out of the narrative, and still was behind supporting players like Josh Holloway, Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn in terms of performers who impressed me and made me care the most. Great work in the finale, to be sure.

As to the actual six, in alphabetical order:


Bryan Cranston was not the favorite going into either of the last two Emmy seasons, yet he won the category both times, and could easily keep doing it for as long as "Breaking Bad" is on. That speaks to the laziness of Emmy voters, but also to the fact that Cranston is astonishing as Walter White. Given all the praise I've heaped on Aaron Paul in some of the previous Emmy posts, I imagine someone could ask why I wouldn't disqualify Cranston for the same reason as the men above. To that, I would say that, incredible as Paul was as a solo act, both men were at their best as a duet. Just watch the two of them stuck in the lab all day in the episode "Fly," arguing and unburdening themselves, to understand their combined brilliance.

Jon Hamm needs to win one of these trophies sooner or later for creating one of TV's most iconic and fascinating characters of the 21st century. He just has the poor fortune to overlap in era (and channel) with Cranston. Hamm managed to find some compelling new layers in the onion that is Don Draper, and if he submits "The Gypsy and the Hobo," he might actually have a shot at winning, if only for the way all the air seems to leave Don's body when it becomes clear how much Betty knows.

After I saw the two-hour "House" season premiere, I predicted that this would finally be the year Hugh Laurie won an overdue Emmy. I didn't like the rest of the season nearly as much as "Broken," but that takes nothing away from the work Laurie did (particularly early and late in the year, when the writers were still paying more than lip service to the idea of House trying to change). And his performance in "Broken" was so good and touching and simple that he'd deserve a nomination even if he had spent every other episode that season just cracking inappropriate jokes.

This year, there were few fusions of actor and character as perfect as Timothy Olyphant as 21st century gunslinger Raylan Givens. The swagger, the anger, the laconic humor all fit him as perfectly as Raylan's Stetson. Raylan is simultaneously a character part and a star turn, and Olyphant expertly handled both the emotional work and charisma necessary to pull it off. 

Wendell Pierce was the nominee I had the hardest time with, because his storylines weren't nearly as meaty as those of the other five nominees, or even of some of the final cuts listed above. "Treme" is a show light on plot to begin with, and Pierce's itinerant trombonist Antoine Batiste had the lightest plot of anyone on the show: less a story arc than a series of vignettes about the various gigs Antoine fell into and out of in the months after Katrina. Ultimately, a couple of things tipped the scale in his favor. First, Pierce as Batiste is so superhumanly charming that the lack of an arc feels besides the point; you just want to spend time with this man and soak up the atmosphere of this strange but swinging world in which he lives. And he then, by extension, makes the larger world of "Treme" feel rich enough to want to spend time in even when not much seems to be happening with the other characters. Second, there are moments when Pierce is called upon to be more than a suave man with a horn and a lack of proper cab fare, and he nails it every time. A scene in the Mardi Gras episode where Antoine and a Japanese tourist discovered a common bond was one of the most beautiful I saw on any drama this season, and he has a few knockout moments in tomorrow's finale.

Looking at the four also-rans and five nominees above him, I still can't quite believe Ray Romano would be the sixth and final man to make my cut. But that's how good he was on "Men of a Certain Age." As someone who had seen his more emotional scenes on "Everybody Loves Raymond," I knew he was a better actor than given credit for, but I still wasn't prepared for the depth of feeling and the delicate power he brought to his role as neurotic, gambling-addicted Joe. You look at the "MoaCA" cast and you assume Andre Braugher is going to be doing all the heavy lifting while Romano stands around and cracks jokes. Instead, it was Braugher who got most of the laughs and Romano who did most of the emotional heavy lifting, and it quickly ceased to seem like a poor use of resources. Like "Treme," MoaCA" is a show where not much seems to happen, yet Romano made us feel the weight of all those little moments just as much as some of the above actors did in more classically dramatic circumstances.

Other tough omissions: Clarke Peters and Steve Zahn from "Treme," Nathan Fillion from "Castle," Tim Roth from "Lie to Me."

Dan and I will wrap this up next week with our picks for drama and comedy series. In the meantime, I imagine these choices will engender more argument than several previous categories combined, so have at it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com