Pete Hammond

With peer group voting now going in full force for the Primetime Emmys and most ballots in key marquee categories like Drama and Comedy due Aug. 26  (others that will be presented on the Creative Arts Ceremony on Sept. 10 are actually due today). It’s time to handicap the race and see who should be preparing those pithy 45-second thank you speeches for the Fox telecast on Sept. 18. Take it with a grain of salt, though, since all these categories are voted by a comparatively small number of Academy members who receive the DVDs at home and must verify that they have watched each episode submitted. It’s a process that often produces some surprises.

There is no question that some of Emmy’s hottest, most unpredictable races this year are happening in the Drama Series categories with tight contests across the board. Here’s a primer for those voters who need help and those viewers ready to enter their office pool (do they have those for Emmys?)

Drama Series

Perhaps the most prestigious — and sought after — Emmy, it has gone to AMC’s Mad Men the last three years in a row, but the 60′s-set Madison Avenue drama faces the most serious threat yet from a quintet of  contenders including two from the resurgent HBO, who had a shot at one time of getting Mad Men but let it slip through its fingers. HBO has been paying for that mistake on Emmy nights since 2008. Will it wreak revenge this year?

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire certainly had the big ‘Mo after its early fall debut virtually sweeping every major award for TV including a DGA trophy for exec producer and pilot director Martin Scorsese, the New Series WGA award (although it lost to Mad Men in the overall category), a pair of Golden Globes including Best Drama and Actor in a Drama Series for star Steve Buscemi and a pair of SAG awards including Buscemi as Actor and the Ensemble Cast honor. But recently it has found itself the bridesmaid against resurgent Mad Men, which has won the Television Critics Association award and the inaugural  Critics Choice award, plus it actually took its biggest haul of Emmy nominations ever with 19, one more than Boardwalk, although both are impressive totals. With AMC’s The Killing and The Walking Dead not placing in this category, the cable net can put all its marbles behind Men while HBO has hedged its bet with the fantastic fantasy and intrigue of Game of Thrones, which seems to have gathered a lot of fans since its debut in the second half of the season. Emmy rules prevent anyone associated with the networks or shows from signing up to vote in these categories, so HBO does not have to worry about canceling itself out with its own votes, but the vivid period pieces that have got them back in this race for the first time since The Sopranos still could split and open to door to a fourth Mad Men win. Unlikely winners are Showtime’s Dexter with its fourth nomination here and DirecTV’s fine Friday Night Lights, which is getting some late love in its final season, winning a Peabody and a first Drama Series Emmy nod. The most likely spoiler, though, is the only purebred broadcast network nominee, CBS’ The Good Wife, which somehow has managed to inject cable-quality first-rate weekly drama into a network that seems more interested in spinning off procedural series. The category used to be exclusively composed of shows from the big 4 nets, now it’s an anomaly, but the Academy might want to make a statement.

Also, Mad Men, which has always had the advantage of lots of extra promotion by launching its new season just as Emmy voting is taking place is AWOL this summer (contract negotiations forced a 5th season delay to next spring) so maybe that has opened an opportunity for the others.  Still, Men had a stellar fourth season, as evidenced by all those nominations and looks like it is the one to beat again in this category.  It’s Matt Weiner’s to lose.

Acting in a Drama Series

There are genuine horse races in both lead categories  with some hefty competition. For Lead Actress and Actor, though, my guess it is finally Mad Men’s time to shine. Incredibly, the series has yet to cop its first acting Emmy, but thanks to a tour de force episode, The Suitcase, focusing solely on Don and Peggy (played by three-time nominee Jon Hamm and two-time nominee Elisabeth Moss), both may well find themselves marching to the Nokia Theatre podium to grab an Emmy. These types of episodes are irresistible to the actors who vote, and both stars really got a chance to shine. Before last year’s Emmy show, I asked creator Weiner if he thought Hamm would finally win, and he told me it didn’t matter because he had the episode for the next season that would place him in the winners’ circle. That time has come, and fortunately for Hamm, the man who has beaten him three years running, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, is out of the race this year due to ineligible air dates for his series. If either Mad Men performer were to falter, the most likely winners would be awards show vet Julianna  Margulies for her sophmore season on The Good Wife and  Globe and SAG winner Buscemi on Boardwalk Empire, although with Cranston out of the mix  the Academy could also decide to finally reward frequent nominees Michael C. Hall of Dexter or Hugh Laurie of House. It’s unlikely the very deserving first-time nominee Timothy Olyphant of Justified or Kyle Chandler’s swan song in Friday Night Lights can compete, but Emmy often has surprised us, so don’t give up the faith.  In Lead Actress, there doesn’t seem to be much heat for FNL’s Connie Britton, Law & Order: SVU’s Mariska Hargitay or the very deserving Mireille Enos on The Killing (especially since she didn’t solve the crime!). A real dark horse, though, could be the beloved nine-time Emmy nominee and never winner, Kathy Bates in the old-fashioned but swell-rated Harry’s Law.

In the supporting role categories, Margo Martindale’s single season of Justified has one shot to win it all for her extraordinary acting even though she faces stiff competition from The Good Wife duo of Christine Baranski and last year’s winner Archie Panjabi as well as Mad Men’s delectable Joan Harris in the form of Christina Hendricks. For Supporting Actor in a Drama Series it is a wide-open field, but I have a hunch either Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones or Alan Cumming’s ever-fascinating Eli Gold in The Good Wife could take it.

The clearest cut races, though, are in Writing and Directing for a Drama Series. In terms of the latter, Emmy voters are not going to invite Boardwalk Empire’s Martin Scorsese to their party without letting him take home the golden girl herself while Weiner should easily take his fourth consecutive Drama Writing Emmy for the aforementioned The Suitcase episode of Mad Men. If ever there was a script with appeal to writers it’s that one.

Coming up: The likely winners in Comedy.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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