DARREN CRISS, THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
WHY HE DESERVES A NOD: Gianni Versace may have gotten his name featured in the title of FX’s second American Crime Story, but it was Andrew Cunanan — played to haunting perfection by a not-so-Gleeful Darren Criss — who captivated audiences until the season’s unforgettable conclusion. With each gut-wrenching breakdown and unnerving look, Criss embodied a character capable of skyrocketing him from teen-TV heartthrob to Emmy-nominated powerhouse. And need we remind you about that infamous underwear dance? Playing this role took some serious, well, you know.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, PATRICK MELROSE
WHY HE DESERVES A NOD: The Sherlock star put down the deerstalker cap long enough to give a tour-de-force performance in Showtime’s stylish, darkly comic character study. A bitingly sarcastic and hard-partying bachelor, Cumberbatch’s title character had to process the death of his horribly abusive father… while also trying to kick a crippling heroin addiction. Patrick was kind of a jerk, to be fair, but Cumberbatch not only made him somehow charming, but also expertly exposed the deeply wounded soul underneath all the bluster.
TAYLOR KITSCH, WACO
WHY HE DESERVES A NOD: The former Tim Riggins found a way to lend a tender, devout humanity to infamous cult leader David Koresh in Paramount Network’s true-crime miniseries. Preaching to his followers with a gentle voice and an open heart, Kitsch’s Koresh was far from the madman we knew from ’90s headlines, but Kitsch didn’t shy away from the less admirable sides of Koresh’s personality, either. Deepening and building in power as the series reached its horribly inevitable conclusion, Kitsch’s performance here may stand as his best yet.
KYLE MACLACHLAN, TWIN PEAKS
WHY HE DESERVES A NOD: MacLachlan was handed an almost unenviable to-do list: 1) play the comfortably familiar Dale Cooper, 2) bring to life a dim “Dougie” doppelgänger and 3) fully realize “Dirty Cooper.” The distinctly strange latter two personae would command a great deal of the screen time, and yet we’d need to quickly engage with both. MacLachlan rose to the challenge, though, inviting us to empathize with Dougie while fearing Dirty Cooper. Dale’s eventual, crowd-pleasing resurfacing was but icing on the cake. Er, pie.
AL PACINO, PATERNO
WHY HE DESERVES A NOD: Ironically, you’re seeing Pacino on this list because we didn’t see him in HBO’s docudrama about the sacking of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The actor so completely vanished into the role of JoePa, nailing both his belligerence and inscrutable conflict, that it would be a crime if Emmy voters didn’t ensure that his name appear among those of the nominees.
JESSE PLEMONS, BLACK MIRROR
WHY HE DESERVES A NOD: The normally lovable Friday Night Lights alum showed us a ruthlessly dark side in “USS Callister,” starring as disgruntled tech wizard Robert Daly. Taking out his nerd rage on clones of his co-workers in a Star Trek-like virtual-reality universe, Daly was a tyrant in geek’s clothing, and Plemons played his surprise transition from hero to villain beautifully, adding an unsparingly cruel edge to a portrait of toxic masculinity gone very, very wrong.