Ray Richmond is contributing to Deadline’s 2011 Emmy coverage. Here’s his scorecard assessing the Outstanding Lead Comedy Series Actor race.

Steve Carell, The Office
Why He Was Nominated: It’s Carell’s sixth consecutive nomination for his role as the dunderheaded Michael Scott on The Office, and his departure from the NBC comedy this past spring spawned a big-time farewell. Credit network marketing as well as the fact Carell has wide popularity throughout the industry. You get the feeling that he could have stayed on this show for 15 years and been nominated every time.
Why He Has To Win: It literally is now or never, and Carell’s submission for the Emmy (his swan song, “Goodbye, Michael”) was a potent blend of pathos, tears and mirth that also generated a nod for writer/exec producer Greg Daniels’ teleplay. If that isn’t enough, there’s the feeling that Carell’s body of work on a show that began life as a warmed-over imitation of the British edition deserves a golden sendoff. “Carell didn’t try to squirm out of his TV contract even after becoming a feature guy,” a writer and academy member notes. “That scores big points.” Historically, both Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) and Michael J. Fox (Spin City) have won trophies on their final lap.
Why He Can’t Possibly Win: Well, he hasn’t taken the thing home in five previous tries, so it’s possible Carell simply has a big “Bridesmaid” tattoo etched on his forehead. The Office is also seen as having lingered a bit too long at the dance by some. It’s possible that he already blew his best shot here: when the series earned top comedy honors in 2006. And sentiment doesn’t always carry the day, as the perpetually passed-over John Goodman (0-for-7 for Roseanne) could attest.

Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Why He Was Nominated: This is Parsons’ third consecutive nomination for playing Big Bang nerd supreme Sheldon Cooper, and as the defending category champ he continues to be regarded in the Hollywood creative community as perhaps TV’s funniest character. It made his 2010 win seem pretty much preordained after the wide view that he’d been snubbed the previous year. To be sure, the guy is no longer TV’s best-kept secret.
Why He Has To Win: Everybody still loves Jimbo. Plus, it can only help that Big Bang now carries widespread TV academy bona fides following its first nom for Outstanding Comedy Series. And it stands to help more than hurt that Parsons’ castmate Johnny Galecki is nominated alongside him. That’s happened previously with only two pairs of sitcom lead actors: Jack Klugman and Tony Randall for The Odd Couple (1971-75) and Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc for Friends (2002). Lastly, winners in this category have lately repeated: Tony Shalhoub (2005-06) and Alec Baldwin (2008-09).
Why He Can’t Possibly Win: There’s that whole splitting of the vote thing involving performers from the same series. After Parsons snared the prize last year, there’s no longer the insistent drumbeat to honor him. That chatter has now transferred to Carell, who has no more opportunities.

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Why He Was Nominated: You can’t have this category and not nominate Baldwin as long as 30 Rock is on the air and he’s a part of it. As a producer tells me, “You know they’re all scared to death that Alec is going to follow through on his promise and step away after his contract expires this season. I mean, how can you have a 30 Rock without Jack Donaghy?” Iconic characters like this surely don’t come around all that often. That’s why Baldwin has earned a nod all five times he’s been eligible.
Why He Has To Win: A third triumph for Baldwin (following victories in 2008 and ’09) is well within the realm of possibility. For consideration this time, he submitted the episode “Respawn,” in which he makes Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) pretend to be his kidnapped wife. Maybe voters will toss him another statue as a gift in the hope it will convince Baldwin to stick around awhile, as his notorious past public meltdowns fade from memory.
Why He Can’t Possibly Win: If you’re going to reward a middle-aged actor in this category, Carell is probably going to get the nod over Baldwin in the interest of fairness. The buzz accompanying his work has likewise subsided for someone the academy figures his been sufficiently feted. It’s also possible that Baldwin’s politics (and rumors of a future New York mayoral run) have become a turnoff.

Louis C.K., Louis
Why He Was Nominated: Actually, there was nothing that Louis C.K. didn’t get nominated for this year. He earned four Emmy nods in all, including for writing and picture editing as well as his acting. (He already lost the first two last Saturday but has two more opportunities today.) No one landed as many Emmy noms in 2011 as did this man, and his getting singled out for the FX comedy on which he does everything but prepare lunch supplies intriguing possibilities.
Why He Has To Win: This is where things really get interesting. Louis is the guy whom every critic and comedy industry analyst in America yearns to see pull off an upset. There’s nobody in comedy right now who can touch C.K. in terms of pure hard-core popularity, and he has the same edgy chops that helped pave Ricky Gervais’ win in this category in 2007 for HBO’s Extras. A voter told me, “Don’t discount the fact that Louie was running original episodes during the voting period. Considering the short memories we’re talking about, that absolutely helps his chances.”
Why He Can’t Possibly Win: C.K. still isn’t quite mainstream enough to snare a decidedly mainstream award, and the fact his series airs on FX is seemingly more curse than blessing. This isn’t a network that instantly pops to mind when thinking about quality comedy, even if Louis is beginning to change that. This looks to be the year when sentiment (Carell) trumps cutting-edge (C.K.).

Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory
Why He Got Nominated: After his castmate Parsons landed nominations twice in succession, it’s finally Galecki’s turn at the Emmy dance. It’s his first nomination, one that wasn’t expected but that most see as deserved for his work as Big Bang’s Leonard Hofstadter. Credit it to the academy’s full-on embrace of the CBS multi-camera comedy as a quality player.
Why He Has To Win: Galecki’s submitted episode, “The Benefactor Factor,” colorfully showcases his comedy chops, finding Leonard having to fend off the advances of an older woman. The academy occasionally likes to show its willingness to reward first-timers and do the unexpected thing. That’s where Galecki’s best chance resides.
Why He Can’t Possibly Win: The more likely scenario is that he and co-star Parsons cancel out one another. Just because Parsons already has won doesn’t mean voters are determined to spread the wealth to other Big Bang talent. Upsets happen, but probably not this one, as Galecki isn’t nearly high enough on the buzz chart. Maybe in another year or two.

Matt LeBlanc, Episodes
Why He Was Nominated: After the disaster that was the Friends spinoff Joey, the academy was perhaps looking to show LeBlanc it forgave him. That explains this one, the actor’s fourth nomination after earning nods for Friends in 2002, ’03 and ’04. He’s still looking for his first win, here for portraying a fictitious version of himself (no small feat) on the first-year Showtime comedy.
Why He Has To Win: If LeBlanc is a long shot to take the gold here, the fact he was honored for Episodes — which has aired only seven episodes to date, and those at the beginning of the year — demonstrates the guy’s popularity. As one series comedy writer confided to me, “No one who I know thought LeBlanc had a performance this good in him. It was a deceptively difficult role that he nailed.” His submission was the show’s Season 1 capper in which LeBlanc has an affair with a married woman.
Why He Can’t Possibly Win: Never say never, but Episodes is too far removed from the radar for LeBlanc to be considered a series contender. He’s also going to lose points for portraying himself, which some will view as an acting slam-dunk — even though it’s not.