The Emmy voters are nothing if not creatures of habit, so in a year of very few new breakout hits, it's no surprise that the surprises are far and few between. (For a list of top nominees, go here.)
But there were some doozies — the most startling being the snub for The Closer's Kyra Sedgwick, last year's unexpected winner for drama actress. As the TNT hit enters the beginning of its final stretch, Sedgwick was knocked out by new arrivals Mireille Enos, the haunting star of AMC's controversial The Killing, and Oscar winner Kathy Bates, who carries NBC's quirky sleeper success Harry's Law. (Frontrunner in the drama actress race is unquestionably The Good Wife's Julianna Margulies, as the CBS critics' darling boasts nine nominations, towering above all other network dramas, trailing only HBO behemoths Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones).
The other big headline involves the race for best comedy, a field comprised exclusively, and refreshingly, of network series. Not a single cable comedy in the hunt. None of those miserable HBO misfires or dour Showtime dramedies (though I'm a fan of Nurse Jackie). Finally, The Big Bang Theory makes the cut, a welcome comeback for the classic multi-camera/studio-audience format so often snubbed by Emmy voters. And the much-improved Parks and Recreation joins longtime (though increasingly uneven) NBC faves 30 Rock and The Office, though all will be playing catch-up to Modern Family, whose 17 nominations — the most for any comedy — include all six of the primary actors (including Ed O'Neill this time, thankfully).
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Let's break it down by genre, noting the good, bad — and the occasional head-scratcher.
The battle for best drama will be between two acclaimed period pieces: three-time winner Mad Men (with 19 noms) and HBO's prestige gangster ode Boardwalk Empire (18), which has the best shot at unseating AMC's signature show, although Good Wife is also deserving. And what a treat to see Friday Night Lights, in its last season, finally join the running for best drama. (FNL's final episode, nominated for writing, airs this Friday, and it's a wonderful summation for a great series that never got its due until it was almost too late.) FNL's nod almost makes up for the exclusion of FX's finest series, Justified — although it scored major nods for its key actors, including star Timothy Olyphant, and in supporting categories, supreme scene stealers Margo Martindale and Walton Goggins, with Jeremy Davies getting a guest actor bid as Margo's twitchiest son. Justified deserved that sixth slot over Dexter's spotty fifth season. And while it's encouraging that Game of Thrones, with its epic sensibility, defies the Emmys' tendency to ignore shows from the fantasy genre, it's too bad that Fox's mind-blowing Fringe was completely shut out and that AMC's graphic zombie chronicle The Walking Dead was relegated to technical fields.
Best actor: Always the toughest field of any Emmy category, but with three-time winner Bryan Cranston sidelined, the odds are better for overdue Jon Hamm or Hugh Laurie (who should have won when House was at its peak) to pull through at last. The spoiler: Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi. Thrilled for Kyle Chandler and Olyphant to be included, and surprised that Jeremy Irons, the decadent pope of Showtime's The Borgias, was passed over, given the industry's predilection for European Oscar winners; he was also ignored for his gripping guest work on Law & Order: SVU, possibly an even bigger surprise given that show's track record.
Best actress: Discussed earlier in the mention of the jaw-dropping Sedgwick snub. How she could be passed over in favor of Kathy Bates, from David E. Kelley's latest legal cartoon, or Mariska Hargitay is a mystery. Which leaves us with the stunning Margulies, whose fiercest competition may be Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss — with co-star Hamm, touting their brilliant work on the instant-classic "The Suitcase" episode. Also unhappily MIA in this category: Sons of Anarchy's Golden Globe champ Katey Sagal, and Fringe's Anna Torv, who raised her game in a dual role, even channeling Leonard Nimoy's voice during one memorable stretch.
Supporting categories: The Good Wife's surge includes Josh Charles joining Alan Cumming, while last year's winner Archie Panjabi and Christine Baranski are back. (Michael J. Fox should already be polishing his speech as guest actor.) Kudos to Justified's Margo Martindale and Walton Goggins, and to The Killing's Michelle Forbes, so wrenching as the grief-sticken mom. Choosing between Martindale and Forbes would be tough, but Margo's was a once-in-a-lifetime role, and she made the most of it. From HBO-land: Game of Thrones' "imp"-ish Peter Dinklage is an obvious choice, ditto Boardwalk's fiery Kelly Macdonald, but I'm surprised Michael Shannon, as Boardwalk's twisted Prohibition agent, wasn't recognized. (From the guest actress ranks, is it too much to hope that Randee Heller as Mad Men's ill-fated Mrs. Blankenship will win the day?)
Writing-directing: Hard to imagine anything trumping Matthew Weiner's "Suitcase" script for Mad Men (which is up for two), although The Killing's pilot and Friday Night Lights' finale are terrific choices. In directing, who's going to deny Martin Scorsese for helming Boardwalk's pilot? (The pilots of Game of Thrones, The Killing and The Borgias are also in the directing mix.)
Best comedy: Discussed above. Can't imagine anything denying Modern Family a second straight win. Biggest omissions: ABC's underappreciated family comedy The Middle and NBC's incredibly ambitious Community, which earned its stripes this season far more than the played-out Office and most of the forced antics of 30 Rock. I also have a soft spot for ABC's poorly treated Cougar Town and Fox's raucous newbie Raising Hope, but those were always long shots.
Best actor: Biggest surprise, hands down: Louis C.K., the dangerously edgy stand-up star of FX's best comedy, Louie. Close runner-up: Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki, playing the sort of foil (to Jim Parsons' brilliant Sheldon) that often gets overlooked. Most deserved: Matt LeBlanc, spoofing his own post-Joey career in Showtime's underrated satire Episodes. Frontrunner: Steve Carell for his sentimental farewell lap on The Office.
Best actress: Thrilled to see Martha Plimpton, as Raising Hope's sardonic too-young-to-be-a-grandma, get a nomination, though sorry that The Middle's harried hausfrau Patricia Heaton was snubbed. I get that Melissa McCarthy's industry profile grew with Bridesmaids, and I've loved her since Gilmore Girls, but Mike & Molly, really? The Big C's Laura Linney, always a class act (even in a muddled series), is probably the front-runner here, while Edie Falco, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have their champions. (Also on my personal MIA list: Kaley Cuoco, who delightfully holds her own amidst the Big Bang geeks, and Cougar Town's Courteney Cox.)
Supporting categories: All six Modern Family stars are represented, and I'd like to think Ty Burrell (a klutzy first among equals) and either Sofia Vergara or Julie Bowen could win in their respective fields. I adore Jane Lynch, but the writing for Sue Sylvester went horribly awry this season, so it's someone else's turn — and while we can't help but join the Betty White bandwagon, not so much for Hot in Cleveland, OK? (In the guest categories, lots of Saturday Night Live guest hosts, including double-dipper Tina Fey and Justin Timberlake, and Glee headliners like Kristin Chenoweth and Gwyneth Paltrow, but the real puzzlement is Raising Hope's Cloris Leachman, who was a regular cast member in everything but actual billing. At least she won't have to go head-to-head with Betty White. And Will Arnett's 30 Rock notice means he and wife Amy Poehler will get to attend as side-by-side nominees.)
Now for a few thoughts on other races:
In the late-night battle (known as the Variety, Music or Comedy Series category), the big news is upstart Conan unseating the traditional kingpins of Leno — who may never recover from the NBC primetime debacle and its fallout — and even Letterman. Go, Team Coco! Nice to see the on-the-rise Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in the running, although ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! also deserves recognition here. Not that anything is likely to beat The Daily Show, whose cultural impact reigns undiminished.
In the world of reality competition shows, how thrilled am I that Fox's summer smash So You Think You Can Dance and its scintillating host Cat Deeley have finally broken through? It's about time. (Anyone still choosing the cheesy America's Got Talent over this has my sympathies.) I'm not sure why the tide has turned against Survivor so fully — in favor of the fading Project Runway? — but Jeff Probst will likely continue to own the host category, although watching Tom Bergeron and the delicious Deeley navigate their live and unpredictable dancing competitions can't be as easy as they make it look.
And finally, movies/miniseries, a type of TV so marginalized — except on HBO, which is so dominant it explains the channel's staggering 104 nominations — they've now combined the category. Biggest shocker: 10 nominations for the derivative, dreary and critically drubbed The Kennedys (dropped by History, picked up by Reelz). The nominated actors (Greg Kinnear as JFK, Barry Pepper as RFK, Tom Wilkinson as papa Joe; thankfully not Katie Holmes' pitiable Jackie) were fine, but contenders including BBC America's Luther, Sundance's Carlos and PBS' Upstairs Downstairs reboot are more worthy.
Not much to argue about in the acting categories. Kate Winslet is a lock as Mildred Pierce, and I'm hoping Idris Elba (also garnering a comedy guest-actor nod for The Big C) will triumph in the title role of the riveting Luther, while Downton Abbey's hilarious Maggie Smith isn't likely to be forgotten. The top prize, however, belongs to the true Masterpiece — Downton Abbey — not to HBO's overproduced, overlong and turgid Mildred.
So what did you think of this year's nominations?