Emmy voters are creatures of habit, known for nominating the same shows and stars year after year. Many deserve to be: Modern Family, Mad Men and their stellar casts, to name a select few. But in each of the top categories, there's opportunity to welcome new blood or correct past oversights. So here's a short list of some of the breakthroughs and/or underdogs I'd love to see make the cut when the nominations are announced Thursday morning.
Outstanding Drama Series: Make way for PBS' marvelous Downton Abbey, shifting from miniseries to series contention in its second year and likely to be a major spoiler. The sure bet to join it and such stalwarts as Mad Men, The Good Wife and Breaking Bad (returning from a year off) is Showtime's riveting terrorism thriller Homeland, powerful enough to threaten Mad Men's winning streak. I'd also love to see FX's so-cool-it's-hot backwoods crime saga Justified finally bust through.
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Outstanding Comedy Series: It's time to retire past-their-prime NBC holdovers The Office and 30 Rock for the fresher, deeply personal and painfully funny cable cult sensations Girls (HBO) and Louie (FX), each so distinct, biting and original. I'm still pitching for ABC's underrated The Middle to emerge from Modern Family's shadow to be celebrated as TV's most realistically raucous family sitcom. And if they must nominate another NBC comedy to stand alongside Parks and Recreation, let it be riotous "fan favorite" Community, the most adventurous and mind-blowing show too few people were watching last season.
Outstanding Lead Actor, Drama: With Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston back in the running for his fourth win, and Mad Men's Jon Hamm still waiting for his first, the two most obvious new contenders should be Homeland's Damian Lewis as the tormented war hero/possible sleeper terrorist and Kelsey Grammer showing his dark side on Starz' Boss as a ruthless Chicago mayor harboring a fatal secret. Don't be surprised if movie legend Dustin Hoffman edges in for his underwritten role as an ex-con on HBO's short-lived Luck. And don't count out one last hurrah for House's Hugh Laurie, who incredibly has never won despite six nominations.
Outstanding Lead Actress, Drama: This year's runaway front-runner is Homeland's sensational Claire Danes, ferociously unsettling as a bipolar CIA agent who might implode before she can locate the sleeper-agent bomber. Also hoping Downton's Michelle Dockery will get noticed as the romantically resilient Lady Mary. (Maggie Smith is a sure bet in the supporting category as the withering Dowager Countess.) And while Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss is sure to be nominated for Peggy's boldest year of change to date, will voters be as kind to the willowy Jessica Paré as Don's unexpectedly independent new trophy wife? Zou bisou bisou!
Outstanding Lead Actor, Comedy: There's no denying past winners Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock and Jim Parsons (and probably his The Big Bang Theory co-star Johnny Galecki), but if Larry David gets nominated again, which seems likely, for playing a gnarlier version of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's time for Louie's Louis C.K. to rise from the gloom of the stand-up cellars to the spotlight for going a similar route with even less vanity. Don Cheadle's blistering performance as an unscrupulous management consultant on Showtime's House of Lies is work too bold to ignore. No lie.
Outstanding Lead Actress, Comedy: As TV's quirkiest New Girl, the dazzling Zooey Deschanel leads a pack of new talent in a suddenly crowded category, where attention should also be paid to funky Girls auteur Lena Dunham — physically and tonally like no TV heroine ever — 2 Broke Girls' tart-tongued spitfire Kat Dennings, and HBO leading ladies Julia Louis-Dreyfus (as the hapless Veep) and Laura Dern as an Enlightened woman who often seemed unhinged. And if there were any justice, The Middle's Patricia Heaton (and Eden Sher as her long-suffering daughter Sue in the supporting category) would be recognized as TV's most hysterically relatable mother-daughter act. Why the Heck do they keep getting ignored?