Mad Men (AMC)
Why It Was Nominated: Because it’s television’s reigning gold standard, that’s why, with 19 total nominations this year (more than any other series and second among all shows behind the HBO mini Mildred Pierce, which tallied 21). Matt Weiner 1960s ad agency hour has won three times in a row here and by winning a fourth would tie Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and The West Wing for the most Outstanding Drama Emmys. In its fourth season, critics and fans seem to be in agreement that Mad Men remains at the top of its game. So if it’s still about quality, just hand the Emmy over.
Why It Has To Win: Mad Men is on a roll, one that shows no signs of derailing with wins this year from the Television Critics Association and the inaugural Critics Choice Award. “They did some of their best work this season,” one producer says, “and the level that Weiner is operating at sort of leaves a lot of us in awe. It’s astoundingly good.” This show appears to be that rarest of exceptions: One that started out hot and has grown only hotter year after year as well as backlash-proof.
Why It Can’t Possibly Win: There are a couple of monkey wrenches that could squelch this year’s anticipated Mad Men coronation. One is the fact that, unlike its first three years in Emmy contention, the show had no fresh episodes this summer during voting time — pushed to next spring by Weiner’s protracted contract negotiations. The other is those very negotiations themselves that found the headstrong Men creator-showrunner all over the media with the sometimes acrimonious back-and-forth. “There will be some who don’t vote for the show out of jealousy directed at Weiner,” a voting writer believes. “But it’s hard to know how much that will matter.”
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
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Why It Was Nominated: The epic and ambitious Prohibition-themed mob extravaganza epitomizes what HBO does best — that is, giving people who know what they’re doing like exec producer Martin Scorsese and showrunner/Sopranos alumnus Terence Winter the time, budget and creative freedom to achieve greatness. In this case, that equates to 18 Emmy nominations in its first season. Boardwalk embodies the cinematic-quality cache’ that’s made HBO product catnip to the TV academy. Having Scorsese’s name attached doesn’t hurt, either.
Why It Has To Win: This looked to be much more of a slam-dunk when Boardwalk premiered 11 months ago. Critics raved (mostly), the numbers were solid, it was renewed for a second season the day after its premiere, and then the show won every award in sight over the ensuing four months. While that all happened a seeming lifetime ago, the Scorsese factor can’t be ignored or minimized. If anything is going to knock Mad Men from its pedestal, this looks to have the best shot.
Why It Can’t Possibly Win: Voters have notoriously short memories, even when there are DVDs there to remind them. The buzz and momentum for Boardwalk, which returns for its second season on Sept. 25, has long since disappeared. That won’t help its cause. Also, for all of HBO’s Emmy prowess, it has taken this category only twice: The Sopranos in 2004 and ’07. Mad Men has already won more than that all by itself. As one TV academy member assured me: “Mad Men will lose one of these years. This just doesn’t look like it’s the year.”
The Good Wife (CBS)
Why It Was Nominated: There’s not a lot of debate that this is the best drama presently on broadcast television, which isn’t merely damning the second-year show with faint praise. Co-showrunners Robert and Michelle King have figured out a way to skirt the creative limitations of broadcast television to give The Good Wife cable-level creativity and production values. That’s no small achievement when they’re having to churn out 22 episodes a season rather than 10, 12 or 13. That’s why this is the only network series to crash the category this year, its second consecutive nod and one of nine honors total.
Why It Has To Win: The fact that Good Wife is the only broadcast entry gives it an outsider status that has a chance to resonate with the larger academy membership. A director and academy member told me, “I think I’m voting for The Good Wife, in part because it’s not one of the hip Chosen Ones.” To that point, this is also the only show among the nominees with a retro feel that recalls the glory days of network primetime. And it boasts a cast that’s at least on par with Mad Men, headed by nominee Julianna Margulies and fellow nominees Christine Baranski, Archie Panjabi, Alan Cumming and Josh Charles.
Why It Can’t Possibly Win: Margulies, with her more subtle and nuanced performance, will never be everyone’s cup of java. That alone could kill any outside shot Good Wife might have to pull off an upset. Also, the last time a CBS series won the Emmy for top drama was in 1994 for David E. Kelley’s quirky Picket Fences. That’s 17 years ago. So the network is either overdue or destined to remain overlooked.
Game of Thrones (HBO)
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Why It Was Nominated: The HBO freshman fantasy surprised a lot of people in the way it swelled its fan base beyond the comic book crowd as it moved through its first-year run, helping it to land a surprising 13 nominations. A producer said to me, “What’s kind of amazing about that total is that only one of them (Peter Dinklage for supporting actor) was for performing. So it’s already built a lot of respect for its technical work early on.”
Why It Has To Win: Were the impossible to happen and Game of Thrones somehow knocked off the heavy favorites, we’d imagine that Matt Weiner would likely require electroshock therapy to restart his heart. It could happen. How? A producer theorizes: “It’s got the buzz going for it, I’ll tell you that. People I would never have expected to be addicted to it made this appointment viewing.”
Why It Can’t Possibly Win: The show’s graphic blood-and-guts and the subject matter itself are pretty much guaranteed to turn off a sizable contingent of voters for a show that’s also still a bit too unproven. That could well change down the road for co-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who also snapped up a writing nod. Not too shabby in their first go-around.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV)
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Why It Was Nominated: The departing, much beloved Texas high school football-themed drama snatched its first and last Outstanding Drama Series nom the old-fashioned way: By earning it. Friday Night Lights was praised as a rare — and tragically low-rated — broadcast gem when it ran on NBC. Now it generates the first-ever major category nomination for DirecTV in its fifth and final season as well as acting nods for leads Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler and a writing one for Jason Katims. That it’s been canceled makes the honors bittersweet, but sweet all the same.
Why It Has To Win: A surprising amount of veneration has come the show’s way this year, including a Peabody Award and a trophy as Program of the Year from the Television Critics Association. “What I sense,” a series writer told me, “is that people are feeling guilty Friday Night Lights hasn’t gotten its due, in the same way that The Wire didn’t. So there’s a bit of trying to remedy that, I think.” Will that be enough to generate an upset win? The recent momentum swing — along with its swan-song status — says it’s possible.
Why It Can’t Possibly Win: On the other hand, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the TV academy bequeaths its highest series award to a series that closed out its run on DirecTV. In Emmy history, only Barney Miller in 1982 won a top series Emmy for the first and only time in its final season. It’s unlikely Lights will be the second given the heft of the competition.
John Goldwyn Prods, The Colleton Co. & Chip Johannessen Prods
Why It Was Nominated: It’s the fourth consecutive year that Dexter has been honored in this category, the first time that’s happened for an original Showtime series. The academy appears to be a sucker for the show’s serial-killer-with-a-heart-of-gold narrative, and for star Michael C. Hall. Enough to nominate them year after year, anyway.
Why It Has To Win: Let’s say someone hacked the computer program that tallies winners and altered the results so Dexter came out on top. Realistically, that’s probably the show’s best chance this year. This would be the biggest upset in Emmy history.
Why It Can’t Possibly Win: Dexter is clearly respected enough to generate nominations but has been around too long to stand as a serious competitor. It comes off of something of a transitional year following a fourth season of great suspense and a towering recurring role by John Lithgow. Nothing similar happened in Season 5, which may be one reason why showrunner Chip Johannessen was replaced for Season 6 by Scott Buck.