As you read this, voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences are busily poring over their 2010 Primetime Emmy Awards ballots, selecting up to six individuals or programs in each category that they feel are worthy of nominations. Tellingly, few if any of them watch as much television as professional critics, so it falls to us to offer them some much needed guidance as they take on what might be an understandably overwhelming challenge.
Below are my suggestions for the top programs and performers in the drama and comedy series categories. To qualify, series must have been televised and the performers' work seen between June 1, 2009 and May 31, 2010.
Television being as richly rewarding as it is these days, it is damn near impossible to narrow most of these categories down to a mere six suggested nominees, so in some cases I won't. Each category is followed by my choice for the program or performer that deserves not simply to be nominated, but to win.
Outstanding Drama Series
Breaking Bad (AMC) - Breaking went to some very bad places in its third season with several nerve-frying episodes that will be talked about for years to come. This was the best drama series on advertiser supported television, but it faces a strong challenge for the honor of TV's best from pay-cable favorite Dexter.
Damages (FX) - As with Breaking Bad, the third season proved the best yet for FX's unabashedly grown-up legal thriller. This series may be too good for basic cable. HBO, anyone?
Dexter (Showtime) - John Lithgow's season-long guest turn as a serial killer so twisted he makes Dexter Morgan look like a mild mannered accountant may give this show the boost it needs to finally win TV's top honor.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC) - This modest production remains scripted television's most extraordinary accomplishment, having maintained maximum dramatic impact and strong emotional connections throughout four seasons without benefit of stories revolving around cops, doctors, lawyers or serial killers. So why does the Academy shamefully ignore it?
Lost (ABC) - Although it ended a bit too easily (with most of its characters conveniently assembling in an all-purpose purgatory where time and narrative continuity didn't matter) there is no denying that this mad mix of science-fiction, the supernatural and powerful character-driven drama remained TV's wildest ride until its final frame.
Mad Men (AMC) - The destruction of the Drapers' marriage, the revelation of Don's damning secrets and the turmoil at Sterling Cooper made for so much great drama that a three-peat victory for Mad Men in this category would not be unwelcome.
My choice for the big award here is a toss-up between Breaking Bad and Dexter. I'll be thrilled with a win for either one. Meantime, I don't really expect the egregiously overlooked Friday Night Lights to be nominated, so look instead for CBS' freshman hit The Good Wife or HBO's Treme or True Blood to be among the chosen.
Outstanding Comedy Series
Archer (FX) - Family Guy fans won't agree, but FX's animated spy spoof quickly established itself as the smartest and funniest cartoon series on television. It's also the sexiest, for whatever that's worth.
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) - The most reliably funny situation comedy on television has done so well in its third season that CBS next fall will use it to open its all-important Thursday night lineup. But I fear the Academy will pass it by once again.
Glee (Fox) - It's not every season that television produces a true pop-culture phenomenon, and it's even rarer when said success expands the definition, the understanding and the future expectations of its genre. Glee scored at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards earlier this year, making it a formidable contender here.
Nurse Jackie (Showtime) - There's nothing funny about the title character's drug addiction, and it sometimes seems as if the writers of this series are cramming two season's worth of storylines into one season's worth of episodes, but even with these issues Nurse Jackie is the most entertaining comedy series on pay cable.
The Middle (ABC) - Last season's happiest surprise was the success of The Middle, a sitcom that revolves around an absolutely average family dealing with the everyday lunacy of working class life. Even if the Academy chooses not to honor the Hecks, here's hoping they stick around for years to come.
Modern Family (ABC) - One of the many great things about ABC's smart and sophisticated single-comedy smash is that it takes the most overplayed sitcom concept in the book - the foibles and frustrations of a funny, well-to-do family - and makes it feel so fresh and new it's as if we have never seen it before.
The competition here comes down to only two contenders: Glee and Modern Family. The latter is arguably the best comedy in this category, but if buzz counts for anything Glee will be golden. As for the nominations, it's okay with me if the Seinfeld reunion arc on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm earns the show a nomination and displaces one of the above. Meanwhile, it won't surprise me if CBS' uneven How I Met Your Mother and NBC's tired The Office and tiring 30 Rock are favored over Nurse Jackie, Archer and The Middle, but I can dream, can't I?
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Kyle Chandler- Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Michael C. Hall - Dexter (Showtime)
Jon Hamm - Mad Men (AMC)
Hugh Laurie - House (Fox)
Timothy Olyphant - Justified (FX)
This may finally be Michael C. Hall's year coming off his big wins at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. But Jon Hamm outdid himself last season, especially in the episode where he revealed the shocking secrets of his past to his suddenly assertive wife, so he's a fine choice, too. Bryan Cranston was as creepy and conflicted as ever, so a third consecutive Emmy would not be undeserved. Sadly, Jensen Ackles of Supernatural isn't even in the running, though I would hold his work up to just about anyone else's in this category. Simon Baker of CBS' The Mentalist doesn't make my list, but I won't be surprised if he makes the Academy's.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Glenn Close - Damages (FX)
Holly Hunter - Saving Grace (TNT)
January Jones - Mad Men (AMC)
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife (CBS)
Katey Sagal - Sons of Anarchy (FX)
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer (TNT)
What a challenging category! Glenn Close was breathtaking as ever as powerhouse attorney Patty Hewes on Damages, a role that has already brought her two Emmys. But this feels very much like Julianna Margulies' year for her much quieter turn as a legal professional on a learning curve on The Good Wife. And yet, it can be argued that nothing these two women did can compare to the galvanizing force that Katey Sagal brought to the second season of Sons of Anarchy, a show Academy members will likely ignore. (If they ignore Sagal as well, I would like to see Anna Paquin of True Blood or Mary McCormack of USA Network's In Plain Sight among these nominees.) All that said, it would be a shame to let Saving Grace run its course without recognizing the uncompromised intensity of Holly Hunter's performance - unless the Academy finally decides to award the Emmy to the equally deserving Kyra Sedgwick.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock (NBC)
Larry David - Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
Joel McHale -- Community (NBC)
Matthew Morrison - Glee (Fox)
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Tony Shaloub - Monk (USA Network)
Alec Baldwin has owned this category in recent years and he's looking like a winner all over again, though Matthew Morrison and Emmy favorite Tony Shaloub are strong contenders. Me, I'm rooting for Jim Parsons. His performance in The Big Bang Theory is the one people will still be laughing at years from now in syndication.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Toni Collette - United States of Tara (Showtime)
Courteney Cox - Cougar Town (ABC)
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Tina Fey - 30 Rock (NBC)
Lea Michele - Glee (Fox)
Mary-Louise Parker - Weeds (Showtime)
Given the demands of her role on United States of Tara as a woman dealing with multiple personalities, Toni Collette would seem to be a lock here for a second consecutive win, though long-time Academy favorite Edie Falco deserves something for her increasingly intense work on Nurse Jackie. It's hard to imagine any of the other likely nominees in this category winning over Collette or Falco, but if the Academy should decide to focus on comedic rather than dramatic (or musical) talent it wouldn't suck if they showed some love to Courteney Cox, the first member of the Friends cast to score a second hit on television. Of course, she needs to be nominated first!
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Justin Chambers - Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
John Goodman - Treme (HBO)
Josh Holloway - Lost (ABC)
Michael B. Jordan - Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)
Taylor Kitsch - Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)
John Noble - Fringe (Fox)
Dean Norris - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Cambell Scott -- Damages (FX)
Martin Short - Damages (FX)
This category is so overstuffed with extraordinary performers that I can't help but overindulge and list ten of my favorites as deserving nominees. (Even that would be hard to do had Zach Gilford of Friday Night Lights, John Lithgow of Dexter, Walton Goggins of Justified and Gregory Itzin of 24 not submitted themselves in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series category. I thought they were all crucial supporting players on their shows.) And yes, I realize that John Slattery of Mad Men, Bruce Campbell of USA Network's Burn Notice and Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson of Lost also did outstanding work this season. I expect to see Martin Short or Aaron Paul take home the award.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Sharon Gless - Burn Notice (USA Network)
Christina Hendricks -- Mad Men (AMC)
Elisabeth Moss -- Mad Men (AMC)
Sandra Oh - Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
Chloe Sevigny - Big Love (HBO)
Chandra Wilson - Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
Lily Tomlin was a revelation as the scheming matriarch of a disgraced society family on Damages, but she has submitted her work in the category Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series (where her most formidable challenge should come from Tyne Daly in Burn Notice). Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad also gave an outstanding supporting performance this year, but she's a potential nominee as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. With Tomlin and Gunn out of this category, this may be the year that the Academy decides to finally recognize either Sandra Oh or Chandra Wilson, who were both spectacular in the nerve-frying season finale of Grey's Anatomy. In a perfect world Gabrielle Anwar of Burn Notice and Callie Thorne of FX's Rescue Me would be nominated here, but they haven't been nominated in the past and I don't think this year will be any different.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Ty Burrell - Modern Family (ABC)
Chris Colfer - Glee (Fox)
Peter Facinelli - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Simon Helberg -- The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Kunal Nayyar - The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Ed O'Neill - Modern Family (ABC)
Here's another category overwhelmed by deserving potential nominees. I think the six listed above were the funniest of all, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Jeremy Piven and Kevin Dillon of HBO's Entourage, Neil Patrick Harris of How I Met Your Mother and/or Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family to displace some of them (especially the underappreciated Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar). I think Ty Burrell is the front runner, but I'm gonna go out on a limb here and pick Peter Facinelli of Nurse Jackie as the best of the bunch. His comedic and complex portrayal of the egotistic yet insecure Dr. Fitch Cooper is a true original. (Note to Facinelli: If you are nominated and you do win, hold the F-bombs on Emmy night, dude.)
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Eve Best - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Julie Bowen - Modern Family (ABC)
Jane Lynch - Glee (Fox)
Elizabeth Perkins - Weeds (Showtime)
Anna Deavere Smith - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Sofia Vergara - Modern Family (ABC)
The smashing Jane Lynch is the popular choice for her instant classic portrayal of acerbic Sue Sylvester, the sinister cheerleading coach with a hidden heart of gold on Glee. But my vote would go to Julie Bowen for her restrained but hilarious turn as a quietly neurotic wife and mother on Modern Family.