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Television

Commentary: Del Toro and Dano merit an ‘outstanding duo’ Emmy for ‘Escape at Dannemora’

Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano, stars of Showtime’s ‘Escape at Dannemora’
Actors Benicio Del Toro, left, and Paul Dano, stars of Showtime’s Emmy-nominated limited series “Escape at Dannemora.”
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The envelopes may still be sealed, but it’s no secret that the 71st Primetime Emmys will dole out as much heartache as hoopla when dozens of television’s best shows and performers don’t win Sunday during the host-free ceremony at L.A.'s Microsoft Theater.

That’s right, it’s time to take a swig from that half-empty glass and lament all of your favorite performers and programs that most certainly won’t be honored because they’re up against the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” or “Veep” or a new “can’t-miss!” series that you missed because you were watching that other “must-see!” sensation.

Nominated for 12 awards, including lead actor, lead actress and supporting actor, nothing short of a nuclear meltdown or gross miscarriage of justice should (or could) stop Showtime’s gripping prison drama “Escape at Dannemora” from sweeping the limited series categories.

But the drama and its cast are competing with the nuclear power of HBO’s “Chernobyl” and the powerful rebuke against systemic racism that is Netflix’s “When They See Us,” not to mention FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects.” So the Showtime masterpiece’s chances of a sweep, or even a few significant wins, are about as likely as “Russian Doll’s” excellent Natasha Lyonne besting “Veep’s” untouchable Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

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If only the TV academy had planned for the record number of great limited series this year, or comedies, or variety talk series, it could have added more categories to deal with the onslaught of greatness.

I propose a new outstanding duo award, which this year would most certainly go to Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano for their haunting portrayals of escaped convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat. Together, they created one of the most dynamic and convincing TV odd couples since, well, “The Odd Couple” — but with rap sheets and murderous tendencies.

Based on a true story, “Escape at Dannemora” chronicles the events around Matt and Sweat’s 2015 escape from upstate New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, where both men were serving potential life sentences for murder.

Their breakout inspired a 23-day, $20-million manhunt and countless tabloid stories about their “love triangle” with Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the prison employee who helped them escape — played by Patricia Arquette, who is nominated for lead actress.

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Showtime’s miniseries offers the story behind those Page Six tales, and Del Toro’s performance as the manipulative, charismatic, greasy mastermind Matt is nothing short of chilling.

Del Toro is quietly terrifying as the charming sociopath who flashes a smile one minute then growls the next. Matt’s such a smooth talker and talented painter that he’s won over most of the jail’s correctional officers despite their knowledge of the heinous crime that landed him in prison. Matt and an accomplice stuffed their elderly boss in a car trunk, torturing and killing him.

Matt pours on the oily charm (matched only by the slick sheen atop his shoe-polish black hair) when he sees an able-bodied partner in the younger, skilled Sweat. The elder convict sells “his dream” of escape to Sweat like an inspirational speaker, even though they’re standing in line at the mess hall or walking the yard. He knows the the impressionable Sweat possesses the strength and skill needed to dig their way to freedom.

Yet in the Emmy competition for lead actor in a limited series, Del Toro is up against Oscar winners Mahershala Ali for “True Detective” and Sam Rockwell for “Fosse/Verdon,” as well as Jared Harris in “Chernobyl,” Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal” and Jharrel Jerome in “When They See Us.”

Paul Dano and Benicio Del Toro as prison inmates in ‘Escape at Dannemora’
Paul Dano at left as David Sweat and Benicio Del Toro as Richard Matt in “Escape at Dannemora.”
(Wilson Webb / Showtime)

Dano — up for supporting actor in a limited series with Asante Blackk, John Leguizamo and Michael K. Williams for “When They See Us” along with “Chernobyl’s” Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Whishaw for “A Very English Scandal” — brings an understated genius to his role as Sweat, a young man convicted of shooting and killing a police officer during the commission of another crime. Serving two life sentences, the seemingly unremarkable inmate has all but given up on ever making it outside until Matt rekindles that hope.

Together they formulate a plan that relies on both their skill sets, and personalities, to work. It’s a yin and yang that eventually spins out of balance — with deadly consequences.

Mitchell, who’s having a sexual relationship with both men, becomes involved in that spin cycle when Matt convinces her that she too can run away with them, but only if she helps them escape.

Arquette’s performance as the cranky, hard-to-love seamstress is also phenomenal. She’s a working-class 50-something stuck in a low-paying job, dead-end marriage and dreary, go-nowhere town. She’s looking for love, purpose and a way out of her confining circumstances. The men represent a new life, perhaps on the beach in Mexico, if they can all abscond from Dannamora as fugitives. For the lead actress Emmy, she is up against Marsha Stephanie Blake and Vera Farmiga for “When They See Us,” Patricia Clarkson for “Sharp Objects,” Margaret Qualley for “Fosse/Verdon” and Emily Watson for “Chernobyl.”

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Directed by Ben Stiller (yes, the guy from “Zoolander”), the most compelling aspects of the seven-part series are rooted in the relationship of the two diametrically opposed men. Their ability or inability to work together is the key to it all. And it’s the dysfunction within their relationship that proves far more nail-biting than the mechanics of their dramatic escape.

Timely themes about mass incarceration, a shrinking working class and the role today’s nonstop media machine on American opinion are also key elements here, just as themes of race, sexuality and gender are woven into so many other nominated series (“black-ish,” “Pose,” “Fleabag”) that may not take home Sunday’s big prizes because of the competition they face.

An Emmy, or 12, for “Escape at Dannemora” would be swell. But Television Academy attention is not required to see the brilliance in Del Toro, Dano and Arquette’s performances, or to recognize the series as one of the best dramas (limited or unlimited) of the past year.

So top off that half-empty glass and toast all the best shows that won’t be honored the way they should on Sunday. It was a very good TV year.


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