As members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences mull over the actors they'll choose to nominate for this year's 55th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, we have one teensy-weensy piece of advice: Listen to that little voice in your head. You know, the one that says it's not too late to make up for ignoring Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Farscape all these years. It's also the one that whispers names you might not realize you should know mysterious monikers like Reiko Aylesworth and Neal McDonough. Perhaps most importantly, that voice belongs to people like us TV Guide critic Matt Roush and your pals at TV Guide Online. So, without further ado, here's the drama-series acting lineup, which we suggest you peruse closely:
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Ben Browder, Farscape: Far more than just another handsome mug, Sci Fi's lost-in-space cadet spent his final season in orbit coaxing out of his alien posse and, in turn, viewers attributes that are decidedly human. Whatever the constellation, this guy's a star.
Michael Chiklis, The Shield: Not since Dennis Franz's NYPD Blue heyday has there been as complicated a detective on the beat as this white knight in a black hat... or is it the other way around? Either way, we marvel all the same at the way his portrayer deftly plays both good cop and bad cop.
James Gandolfini, The Sopranos: Forget the Emmy, slip this really, really goodfella a Zoloft! While Tony's marriage came crashing down, the HBO made man made us understand why his salary demands were an offer that his bosses ultimately couldn't afford to refuse.
Peter Krause, Six Feet Under: Although his mortician character's relationship with Lili Taylor generated no more passion than the average funeral march, HBO's brooding poster boy mustered up enough intensity to bring the whole show to life.
Kiefer Sutherland, 24: As the hardest-working agent in counterterrorism, Donald's son plays everything from addled dad to action hero. And don't be fooled by how easy Sutherland makes the juggling act look: This sort of tour-de-force performance is not all in a day's work!
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Amy Brenneman, Judging Amy: A soap-opera heroine couldn't ask for a broader range of calamaties than that which befell her honor this year: a custody clash, the murder of her stalker, the death of her would-be stepdaddy... Seriously, if Brenneman doesn't deserve an Emmy trophy, then at least her character ought to be allowed to carry one around you know, for protection.
Edie Falco, The Sopranos: If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then a woman scorned must take notes from Carmela's portrayer. The outrage she unleashed on James Gandolfini's two-timing Tony packed a bigger punch than the bruiser could possibly hope to deliver with his meaty fists.
Jennifer Garner, Alias: Whether Sydney is up to her corset in espionage or under the covers with her baby-faced colleague, Garner keeps the action admirably rooted in real emotion. Heck, she even made us feel her pain when she was forced to finish off her beloved roommate's evil twin.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Isn't it about time that Sunnydale's Chosen One was the Academy's chosen one, too? Not only has Mrs. Freddie Prinze Jr. been saving the world in halter tops since before girl power came into vogue, she's done so with a tongue that's as sharp as her wooden stakes.
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU: Due to the fact that Det. Benson deals with one horrifying case after another, it could be argued that, to do her job, all Hargitay need do is look... well, horrified. But watch closer, and you'll see the way she deftly hints at the mounting toll Benson's profession is taking, even as she maintains an air of femininity and righteous anger. It's a neat trick made all the neater by the fact that it's so easy to miss.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Xander Berkeley, 24: George Mason may have been one nasty SOB, but damn if, in the end, the contrarian's alter ego didn't make it hard for us to hate him. Sacrificing himself to save the life of his foil, Kiefer Sutherland's Jack, Berkeley made the g-man's final hour his finest one.
Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos: We know we're supposed to just say no to drugs, but we can't deny it when Christopher began his downward spiral, we were hooked. What's more, Imperioli's hopped-up high jinks made the episode in which the Sopranos laid down the law must-see intervention.
Tom Lenk, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Thanks to erstwhile Nerd of Doom Andrew, although it was the end of the world as we know it (again) this year, we felt fine. Lenk's adorably dippy line readings broke up the maiming and killing, and made him a shoo-in for future sitcom stardom, if not an Emmy.
Neal McDonough, Boomtown: D.A. David McNorris may be the most obnoxious tube good guy this side of Xander Berkeley's 24 alias, but if there's one thing he believes in, it's justice. That said, there is but one way that the Academy could see that justice is served: Give a nod to the guy who plays him.
Donnie Wahlberg, Boomtown: The haunted look in Joel Stevens's eyes never lets us forget that if we were to walk a mile in this cop's shoes, we'd get a broken heart, as well as sore feet. So our hats off to Marky Mark's big bro, who has taken pains and we do mean pains to make this average Joel extraordinary.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Reiko Aylesworth, 24: Dressler may be the least showy role in this category, yet Aylesworth whom we once dubbed TV's best-kept secret still manages to shine. Rarely moving from behind a computer, she makes a big impact by imbuing her character's little gestures with hidden meaning and untold import.
Penny Johnson Jerald, 24: Turncoat. Traitor. Bitch. There's no end to the names you could call vengeful former First Lady Sherry. However, we can come up with only two words to describe the work of her portrayer: absolutely dazzling. Wickedness hasn't been this much fun since J.R. got out of the oil business.
Gail O'Grady, American Dreams: On its face, NBC's Sunday-night sleeper hit looks at the 1960s through the eyes of its endearing teen heroine. But below the surface, it's mom Helen who is undergoing the more stunning awakening. Every time a radical notion occurs to her, and O'Grady's lovely peepers light up, we share her excitement and anxiety.
Lena Olin, Alias: In any acting contest this year, Jennifer Garner's double-agent Mommie Dearest is bound to have an edge, because, for all practical purposes, she's playing a dual role. How do you top a double bill? Well, in Olin's case, she takes both of Irina's two faces and makes each of them fascinating.
CCH Pounder, The Shield: Pounder has always been a performer of uncommon power and presence and an entity that Hollywood has rarely been able to figure out what to do with. But at last, in Det. Claudette Wyms, she's found a part to which she can give her all. The results? Kaboom. The lady blows us away.