Competition for Emmy nominations among this year’s Outstanding Comedy Series contestants is no laughing matter. The showdown between two 20th Century TV hits is more intense than ever, with Modern Family showrunners Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd trying to score their second consecutive Emmy win, while Glee executive producer Ryan Murphy is hoping to edge them out. That is, if one or more of a duo of up-and-comers — Community or Parks and Recreation — don’t act as spoilers. Then again, past Emmy stalwarts 30 Rock or The Office could resurface. Or Showtime’s bold, female-skewing dramedies Nurse Jackie or newbie The Big C might seize the spotlight. And don’t rule out the possibility of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory finally scoring a nod in its fourth season, or How I Met Your Mother receiving recognition in its sixth. And then there are the underdogs. As The Middle’s co-showrunner Eileen Heisler (with DeAnn Heline) says about ABC’s Wednesday night lineup, “We’re really grateful to Modern Family for bringing attention to family shows. We’ve benefi tted from their success, but I think it takes a little longer for people to realize the next door neighbor in The Middle is edgy and wry.”

If Modern Family does repeat, no ABC sitcom has managed that feat since Taxi more than 30 years ago. Of course, NBC’s won three years running. And Frasier took home a record five in succession between 1994 and 1998. So it can be done. But that doesn’t mean Modern Family’s Christopher Lloyd thinks it’s a shoo-in. “Among certain segments of the blogosphere who first anointed the show that everybody is supposed to be watching, there’s another rush to declare that it stinks now. And then there will be others who’ll want to say ‘I told you so’ when it wins again.”

There’s general agreement it would take a miracle for any freshman broadcast network comedy to crash this year’s top comedy series’ Emmy party, with the possible exception of Fox’s Raising Hope. Though there’s a sliver of daylight for a newbie cable show like The Big C, despite the fact it’s a dramedy. Cable continues to make inroads in the comedy series categories, evidenced by Showtime’s Nurse Jackie capturing eight Emmy nominations last year, including one for top comedy; with Showtime’s Weeds as well as HBO’s Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm landing series nods in recent years. This year, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland has Emmy buzz. But only one cable comedy has ever won: HBO’s Sex and the City in 2001.

Here’s our assessment of the chances for this year’s comedy series in alphabetical order:

30 ROCK
Although the NBC hitcom’s three-year winning streak ended last year (done in by ABC’s freshman breakout, Modern Family), it remains an industry darling — with good reason. While not as consistent as its earlier seasons, its comedy quality never seems to wane. So, without ever actually going away, it could be primed for a comeback. But the show, which celebrated its 100th episode this season, may also be mistakenly placed in the “been there, done that” category, even with red-hot writer/producer/actress/author Tina Fey at the helm (the recent Tracy Morgan scandal notwithstanding). But if the Academy revisits NBC’s quirky workplace comedies, they just might opt for the newer Parks and Recreation or Community.

THE BIG BANG THEORY
As popular as this CBS smash is, it has yet to be Emmy nominated despite originality in its scripts and ensemble. Kudos to the producers for broadening the cast this season and stepping up the romance for Mayim Bialik’s and Melissa Rauch’s roles, especially after Jim Parsons was acknowledged as last year’s Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series winner for nerd-chic hilarity. If you’re going to vote for a Chuck Lorre show this year, this one’s decidedly less baggage-laden than Two and a Half Men, which lost its Sheen.

THE BIG C
With lead Laura Linney considered a shoo-in for an Emmy nod, a side effect is that her show’s chances of breaking into the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy race likely increases as well. Question is, did they increase enough? Is the TV Academy ready to honor a dark comedy centering on a woman’s battle with cancer? Perhaps it’s time. If so, there could be two Showtime noms in this category for the first time, assuming Nurse Jackie repeats. Says showrunner Jenny Bicks, “It’s not going to be an easy fight for us.”

CHUCK
Forever floating on the renewal bubble (it will live on for a fifth and final short season of 13 episodes next season), Chuck has a well-earned reputation as The Little Show that Could. But, plucky as it is, the unlikely spy yarn remains a significant Emmy long-shot. Besides, NBC already has a couple of potential sleeper contenders at the ready in Parks and Recreation and Community.

COMMUNITY
What is arguably NBC’s most innovative comedy shoots high creatively but has yet to land commensurate ratings. Critics, however, have been quick to sing the show’s praises, perhaps loudly enough to help get it noticed by Emmy voters. Remember when Fox’s Arrested Development used critical praise to trump low viewership? Showrunner Dan Harmon likens Community’s comedy to “Krispy Kreme — we just have to get it into people’s mouths.” Or, in the case of Academy voters, into their DVD players.

COUGAR TOWN
In its second season, the wine-soaked “Friends for grownups” really came into its own as an ensemble comedy rather than just a Courteney Cox vehicle. And it’s even poking fun at the icky title that long ago ceased to have anything to do with the series premise. Nonetheless, it’s probably not ABC’s Wednesday night show with the most heat in this comedy category because of Modern Family.

EASTBOUND & DOWN
This back-to-fi rst-base comedy about a washed-up baseball player enjoys the prestige of HBO and the marquee value of Will Ferrell as a producer. But it’s perhaps too raunchy for older TV Academy voters. Given that producer-star Danny McBride says this forthcoming third season will be its last, Eastbound & Down likely will strike out Emmy-wise.

ENTOURAGE
After landing nominations in the top comedy category for three years running, HBO’s Hollywood insider send-up didn’t make the cut the last go-round. If shut out again, it’s because Academy voters have moved on from an aging series that returns for its shortened eighth and final season on July 24th. It didn’t help when news leaked out in May that HBO pulled it from broadcast syndication by Warner Bros Domestic TV.

EPISODES
If the television industry’s insiders love anything more than laughing, it’s laughing at itself (see 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm). And there’s been buzz about how this Showtime Brits-out-of-water comedy reinvented Matt LeBlanc. But, even if he might, the series probably doesn’t have a high enough profile yet to garner an Emmy nod.

FAMILY GUY
In 2009, the Fox show that wouldn’t die became the first animated series in nearly half a century to win an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. But it was shut out the very next year. So expect the next TV Academy recognition for Family Guy around 2060. One question mark is whether the toon’s unique in-your-face way of campaigning for Emmy helps or hurts to sway voters. Then again, this is the comedy series category.

GLEE
There’s virtually no way this innovative Fox musical comedy won’t be nominated this year (although Season Two has lost some momentum) after conventional wisdom declared a toss-up whether it or Modern Family would win in 2010. Voters could well decide that, this time around, they’ll recognize their other favorite. Especially when co-creator Ryan Murphy is wearing his heart on his sleeve and demonstrating almost daily to industry insiders how much he hopes to get gold.

HOT IN CLEVELAND
TV Land’s women-of-a-certain-age comedy is riding high after its SAG Awards nomination and its surprise win for the ubiquitous Betty White. But it’s still an uphill climb against shows from bigger networks. Aside from a possible nomination or win for White in the Outstanding Supporting Actress category, this traditional three-camera sitcom remains unapologetic about the show’s old-school approach.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER
Nominated only once for Outstanding Comedy Series (in 2009), this low-profile CBS series seems destined to have to pin its Emmy hopes on Neil Patrick Harris again. (No other cast member has ever been recognized.) But the writing is better than it has to be, and the series has more heart than hype. Academy voters should take a closer look.

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA
This FX comedy over six seasons has developed an enviable hipster rep, but hasn’t managed to score a nomination — worthy and outrageous as the show is. Barring some extremely effective campaigning, that seems unlikely to change this year. FX still has never scored a nom in the comedy category and only (once) Damages for top drama.

THE MIDDLE
Although being paired with Modern Family has been a ratings boost for ABC’s other family comedy, this Midwestern next door neighbor is also overlooked. Yet, this is a solid series in its own right, even if more traditional, so maybe that tide will begin to turn. “It probably is a little bit more challenging when you are doing a show about normal people,” says Eileen Heisler, co-creator and co-showrunner with DeAnn Heline.

MODERN FAMILY
This ABC hit hasn’t lost a bit of its luster since its victory last year. So, barring an upset, it remains not just a surefire nominee, but the show to beat. And that leaves co-showrunner Christopher Lloyd nervous. He observes, “No one wants to be the one in charge when the show starts to flip and when people start to say, ‘Meh, it’s seen better days.” But that day is nowhere in sight with those edgy scripts and that ensemble cast.

NURSE JACKIE
Coming off of last year’s nominations and win for star Edie Falco, the Showtime black comedy ought to be a lock to repeat for a nod. That is, unless it’s knocked out of the running by the cable network’s newer dramedy, The Big C. Linda Wallem, co-showrunner with Liz Brixius, wants “people to know it’s a comedy. I think it’s a comedy born of the absurdity. We have characters that couldn’t exist in a drama.”

THE OFFICE
NBC’s workplace comedy has been recognized every year since its debut when it took home the prize. But factor in Steve Carell’s swan song, and it’s a real contender for a comeback win and not just a surefire nod. Which would be a coup, according to former Office writer-producer and Thursday night neighbor Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur, after a coupla years of Academy voters writing off The Office as “old news.”

PARKS AND RECREATION
Last year Amy Poehler snuck into the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy race. Continuing that slow-but-steady build this season, the show itself could get in the game for the first time. The prevailing industry wisdom is this is the sleeper to watch out for. Unless TV insiders continue to think that, because it was first contemplated as a spinoff and has the same handheld documentary style, this is The Office in a different setting.

RAISING HOPE
Although most of the Fox hit’s raves have focused on Martha Plimpton, the scene-stealer actually anchors Gregory Thomas Garcia’s rock-solid family comedy. Voters who check it out for her ought to be pleasantly surprised by the series quality of the whole. It’s the only first-year network comedy series with any sort of legs at all, but it doesn’t have an awards high-profile.

UNITED STATES OF TARA
Emmy voters love Toni Collette, and she won the Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy in 2009 and was nominated again the following year. (Says series creator Diablo Cody regarding Collette: “Any actress playing nine characters is perhaps at an advantage when awards season rolls around.”) But the series itself vies against fellow Showtime titles like The Big C and Nurse Jackie, and its recent cancellation won’t help.

WEEDS
Though this arch Showtime series is as well-respected as its acting ensemble, Emmy has only nominated it once for Outstanding Comedy Series (in 2009), and no cast member has ever won. This late in its run, that lack of momentum is going to be difficult to overcome. And it doesn’t seem like the pay channel is going to campaign hard for it.