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

Laura Linney, The Big C
Why She Was Nominated: Because, well, the TV academy couldn’t very well not nominate her. Her role as the cancer-stricken Cathy Jamison in The Big C showcases Linney’s mesmerizing acting range and depth. And she’s also a three-time Oscar nominee. That fact alone earns Linney significant brownie points and makes her Emmy nomination a foregone conclusion no matter the project or role. Having a past cinematic pedigree remains plenty huge.
Why She Has To Win: Simply stated, Linney never loses. She’s been nominated for Emmys three times: lead actress in a movie/miniseries twice (2002 for Showtime’s Wild Iris, 2008 for HBO’s John Adams) and as guest comedy actress once (2004 for Frasier). She’s won every time. Moreover, Linney’s The Big C submission is the pilot episode that finds her shifting effortlessly between high emotion and dark humor. Oh, plus the past pair of winners in the category — Toni Collette and Edie Falco — hailed from similar Showtime dramedies.
Why She Can’t Possibly Win: Someday, somebody will figure out that if you’re doing a seriocomic turn in a half-hour series, it’s likely more serio than comic. Falco said it herself onstage after winning last year for Nurse Jackie: “Oh this is just the most ridiculous thing that has ever happened in the history of this lovely awards show. Thank you so much. I’m not funny.” Linney isn’t as purely funny in her role as are her competitors here — and, well, this is supposed to be a comedy award. If that matters.

Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
Why She Was Nominated: Poehler is no longer seen as a Saturday Night Live refugee but a primetime treasure in her own right. Her confidence and irreverence have grown exponentially since Parks and Recreation premiered a few years back, and this year she earned noms for both acting and as a series producer. “Amy is just killing it every week on this show,” believes an actor and voting academy member. “She’s also surrounded by a hysterical and highly underrated cast.”
Why She Has To Win: Having now spent a couple of years paying her dues — and with five total Emmy nominations to her credit — Poehler is a known commodity whose genius has been anointed by fellow genius and best pal Tina Fey. Her episodic submission, “Flu Season,” perfectly showcases her comedy chops as her alter ego Leslie Knope fights off flu symptoms and her medication’s narcotic side effects. As if all of that weren’t enough, she’s turned 40 on Friday, so the birthday gods are with her.
Why She Can’t Possibly Win: Buzz isn’t always enough, particularly when you’re surrounded by Linney on one side and Fey on the other as Poehler is this time. And again, the past two years this category has been less about bringing the laughs than it has the tears. Agrees a series producer, “If they’re going to insist on giving this Emmy to someone delivering dramatic work, then change the name of the category to Lead Actress Doing Whatever.”

Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Why She Was Nominated: Are you kidding? Duh! This makes 19 Emmy nominations for Fey if you add them all up. She’s won seven of them, including lead acting for 30 Rock in 2008. She remains a comedic goddess also nominated for producing 30 Rock and guest acting on SNL (she lost). Over the past year, she also added a bestselling memoir to her credit sheet. A cabinet post can’t be far behind, particularly if you-know-who makes a late entry into the presidential race.
Why She Has To Win: This wouldn’t be as major an upset as it might seem. Fey turned in for consideration a lively and energetic performance in the submitted episode that features guest Matt Damon playing her boyfriend. So there’s the added star power. An Emmy-winning writer told me, “I’d vote for Tina Fey if she were nominated for supermarket checker.” If there’s a backlash against another Showtime actress taking the prize, Fey could again sneak in.
Why She Can’t Possibly Win: The vibe with voters is that they’ve honored Fey enough. She’s already taken home Emmys in five different categories, for her acting, writing and producing skills. The lady also hasn’t exactly been underexposed the past five years. After five years, Fey is likely in the honored-just-being-nominated phase of her 30 Rock life.

Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Why She Was Nominated: She won for lead actress a year ago, and Falco has proven an immensely popular performer with the TV academy over the past dozen years — so popular that she carted off the statuette for a role on Nurse Jackie that even she admits isn’t at all funny. This is Falco’s ninth nomination, and she’s previously won 50% of time (including a trio of wins for The Sopranos in 1999, 2001 and 2003).
Why She Has To Win: Well, as last year’s triumph attests, voters love Falco so much that they’ll even honor her for her comedy when she’s not trying to generate laughs. A producer tells me, “I think they just voted for Edie last year out of habit, without bothering to check the show and the category.” If it happened once, it could happen again.
Why She Can’t Possibly Win: But it probably won’t. Linney will be drawing more of the “serious actress doing quasi-comedy” vote. It also isn’t likely to help that in appearing so shocked while chastising the academy for awarding her when she’s “not funny,” the love affair with Falco will diminish. Voters could well tend to believe her now.

Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly
Why She Was Nominated: The newest kid on the comedy block received her first-ever Emmy nod for Mike & Molly in large measure off of her much-buzzed performance in the feature Bridesmaids. Heat continues to build for McCarthy as a talent, which is why she was able to overcome the stigma of being on a CBS series few are talking about.
Why She Has To Win: An upset possibility looms. Of all of the contenders in this race, McCarthy may be the best pure comic. A contingent of voters will gravitate her way simply because she stars on a traditional comedy. Then there is her growing film resume (she’s currently shooting a Judd Apatow feature) and the sense that McCarthy’s star is about to shoot into orbit. A voting writer told me, “I think Melissa will draw a lot of the young vote.” A hit movie (Knocked Up) also helped Katherine Heigl win the Emmy for Grey’s Anatomy in 2007.
Why She Can’t Possibly Win: It’s rare that an actress wins in her maiden Emmy voyage. The usual routine calls for a couple of losses before one is deemed worthy of drawing the winning hand. It also isn’t as if the competition isn’t thick. Barring a small miracle, McCarthy’s time lay down the road, though not that far.

Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope
Why She Was Nominated: Some were surprised by this, but they shouldn’t have been. Plimpton has been bubbling under the radar ever since she hit screens as a kid in the mid-1980s in The Goonies. She’s a highly respected talent who has drawn raves and Tony nominations for her Broadway work of late as well as plenty of chatter for Fox’s Raising Hope.
Why She Has To Win: “A lot of people I’ve spoken to positively adored Martha in the episode she’s up for,” says a fellow actor. “It’s about her character (Virginia Chance) struggling to get her family together for a picture, and it’s just hilarious.” Having an inspired submission should count for something. In a perfect world, it would even be enough to propel Plimpton to a shocking upset win.
Why She Can’t Possibly Win: This isn’t anything close to a perfect world. Having nothing to do with how good Plimpton is on Raising Hope, both she and her series lack the sufficient buzz for an actress landing her second nomination (the first coming in 2002 as a guest on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU). This nom serves as category filler in terms of having a real chance, but the suspicion is that Plimpton will be back here again before too long.