It's always anyone's guess which shows and stars will reign at the Emmy Awards (airing Sunday on Fox, 8/7c). Repeat winners are all too common, but longtime also-rans can triumph at any time. Here's a look at the most likely scenarios — and our druthers — in some of the top categories, when appropriate factoring in the episodes the stars submitted.
Could it be four in a row for the brilliant-as-ever Mad Men, or will HBO's lush Prohibition period piece Boardwalk be a spoiler? (Game of Thrones, though epic, seems less likely, given the Emmys' aversion to fantasy.) The Good Wife is the most satisfying and provocative network drama in ages, and a surprise win would delight me. Friday Night Lights' poignant farewell stole our hearts, and it would never be too late to give this wonderful series the recognition it deserves. But this category still seems to belong to cable for now.
Most Likely to Win: Mad Men or Boardwalk; Should Win: Mad Men
Always one of the toughest categories, this time featuring two long-overdue headliners who delivered standout episodes: Hamm's career high in "The Suitcase," a searing all-nighter of the soul (shared with Elisabeth Moss) and Laurie's harrowing exercise in gruesome self-surgery. With Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston ineligible this year, both finally have a shot. Chandler's farewell episode, also submitted by co-star Connie Britton, was a moving salute to TV's most believable couple, but if Boardwalk sweeps, look for Golden Globe champ Buscemi to sneak in as the cunning bootlegger.
Most Likely to Win: Hamm or Buscemi; Should Win: Hamm
Margulies should have won a year ago, and with last year's winner Kyra Sedgwick mysteriously sitting it out this time — new-blood nominees Bates and The Killing's pensive Enos pushing her out — the Good Wife star seems a lock this time for letting it rip when the normally composed, though always simmering, Alicia discovers her husband's latest betrayal — though Moss' tour-de-force on Peggy's worst birthday ever was just as sensational. (And don't count out Bates. The TV academy still worships David E. Kelley shows — look at last week's guest-actor win for Harry's Paul McCrane — so if there's a James Spader/Boston Legal factor at play here, we could all be wrong on this one.)
Most Likely to/Should Win: Margulies
So many deserving nominees and shows represented here, it's hard to play favorites. (Last year's winner, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, is ineligible, so whatever happens, it will be a fresh win.) I worry that the two Wife co-stars could cancel each other out, but Cumming has the showier role, so it could come down to him against the most significant scene-stealer on this list, Thrones' impish Dinklage, the best shot HBO's lavish fantasy has at a major prize.
Most Likely to/Should Win: Dinklage
Supporting Actress, Drama
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
Michelle Forbes, The Killing
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
Kelly Macdonald, Boardwalk Empire
Margo Martindale, Justified
Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife
Everyone I know or care to know is rooting for the superb character actress Margo Martindale to win for her tragicomic triumph as Justified's murderous mountain mama Mags Bennett. A close second is Forbes' wrenching work as the relentlessly grieving mother of The Killing's victim. And while Panjabi could easily score a repeat win as Wife's sexy confidante, shattered when her adulterous deception was revealed at season's end, the character who grew the most through her respective season is Boardwalk's deceptively demure Macdonald as the Irish widow with a will of iron. HBO clout could carry her all the way.
Most Likely to Win: Macdonald; Should Win: Martindale
NBC's three nominees may cancel each other out (newbie Parks being the best of this uneven lot), and Glee suffered a chaotic second season. It's refreshing to see a traditional hit sitcom like Big Bang in the mix, but it's hard to imagine anything unseating the delightful and insightful Modern Family from a second straight win.
Most Likely to/Should Win: Modern Family
While it's possible that past winners Baldwin and Parsons could be rewarded again for their iconic work, and we're thrilled to see Louis C.K. and LeBlanc singled out for playing darkly comedic versions of themselves, Emmy tradition suggests that the sixth, and final, time will be the charm for Office retiree Carell in honor of his sentimental swan song. It would make for a great Emmy moment.
Most Likely to/Should Win: Carell
The luminous Linney is 3-for-3 at the Emmys for past movie and guest performances, and she could easily score again for her first series lead, though typically for Showtime, the performance isn't particularly comic. I'd prefer SNL vet Poehler to finally win as Parks' lovably zany bureaucrat, playing sick in "Flu Season" for laughs.
Most Likely to Win: Linney; Should Win: Poehler
Which of the Family men will win this year, now that all are nominated? My money's on Burrell, whose slapstick doofus-dad antics almost literally bring down the house every week. Beloved veteran O'Neill may have an edge, earning payback for having been snubbed last year, and Stonestreet scored for his flamboyant clowning a year ago, but Phil Dunphy is one for the ages.
Most Likely to Win: Any of the Family guys; Should Win: Burrell
As the show's host, Lynch conveys so much goodwill on her own that voters may well overlook Sue Sylvester's over-the-top overkill of last season and award her a repeat victory lap. And never rule out the powerful nostalgia factor behind White's career renaissance. But the big-screen success of Bridesmaids may have raised the wonderful Wiig's profile enough to give the sketch pro the recognition she deserves. Either of Family's hot mamas would be acceptable as well.
Most Likely to Win: Lynch or White; Should Win: Wiig
HBO traditionally dominates this field, and with 21 nominations, the gorgeously produced but turgid Mildred leads the entire Emmy pack. But every so often, there's a Masterpiece worth celebrating, and the splendid period drama Downton Abbey had character, pace, humor and heart galore. It's the one I'd watch again. (In the lead acting races, Kate Winslet as Mildred is a lock, and look for Edgar Ramirez to add to his prizes as international terrorist Carlos from the Sundance miniseries.)
Most Likely to Win: Mildred Pierce; Should Win: Downton Abbey
Until last year's Top Chef upset, a win for Race was always a given. It's still the most spectacular show of its type, but with a resurgent Idol defying naysayers in the wake of Simon Cowell's departure and the dynamic Dance finally getting a nod, there's plenty of true competition. If I could vote, I'd go for the eclectic talent on display in Dance, but am betting the Emmy traditionalists will either return to form or finally christen TV's #1 show.
Most Likely to Win: Race or Idol; Should Win: Dance