TV has been so exceptional the past few years, it's no wonder that with so many equally deserving Emmy nominees, the actual choice of winners can seem, well, kind of arbitrary. So instead of wasting time worrying about who actually deserves to win, we're looking back at the past several years of winners and losers and attempting to uncover some order—and our own awards-show-prediction-algorithm-metric thingy—in the Wild West that is the Emmys.
Remember: The 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards air on Sunday, September 23.
• • •
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: The Back-to-Back Brigade
Tony Shalhoub (Monk) won in both 2005 and 2006, Alec Baldwin (30 Rock) won in 2008 and 2009, and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) won the past two years. If patterns persist, it's now time to crown a new two-year king. Parsons is nominated again—but three would be pushing it—so among Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Louis C.K. (Louie), Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), and old hat Alec Baldwin, the question is: Who both deserves the award and has the juice to deserve it again next year?
Survey Says: We're going with Mr. C.K. His show is groundbreaking, funny, poignant, and consistently acclaimed, and Louie wasn't nominated for Best Comedy Series, so this could be Emmy's way of throwing him a bone. And if his standup career is any indication, he's not running out of material anytime soon—so he'll be ready to win again in 2013.
• • •
Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Playing Leapfrog
Unlike with the comedic actors, in this category repeat wins don't happen often—but repeat nominations do. And interestingly, an actress who wins one year will often be nominated the next, only to be trumped by a new queen bee. In 2007, America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) beat out Tina Fey; in 2008, Fey beat out repeat nominee Ferrera. In 2009, Toni Collette (The United States of Tara) beat out Edie Falco; in 2010, Falco snagged the award over Collette. And last year, Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly) beat out Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation)—so does that mean it's repeat nominee Poehler's year to win?
Survey Says: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), Lena Dunham (Girls), Zooey Deschanel (The New Girl), and Falco are all on the ballot too. If the pattern persists and Poehler gets the gold, it's too bad for Louis-Dreyfus, who's proven all over again that she's one of the best comedic actresses around. (Then again, patterns be damned; it is the Year of Lena Dunham, after all…)
• • •
Writing for a Comedy Series: The Law of Averages
In 2007, this Emmy stopped being given to a show's head writer or writing staff in favor of recognizing a specific writer (or writers) for a particularly stellar single episode in a series. Thus, multiple episodes of the same show can now be nominated in the same category, and as history shows, the award often ends up going to whichever show has more than one nod. (From 2007 to 2009, 30 Rock scored several nominations in this category and won each year.) This time, Parks and Recreation has two Season 4 episodes on the ballot, and none of its competitors (Girls, Louie, and Community) has more than one. The two nominated episodes of Parks ("The Debate" and season finale "Win, Lose, or Draw") were both standouts, but the latter, written by the show's creator, Mike Schur, was a nearly perfect comedic script. Schur has said he wrote the episode to function as a series finale before he knew if the series would be renewed (it was)—so it has all the touching elements of a farewell episode, while amping up all the characters' quirks to remind us why the show has been so special.
Survey Says: In this case, hopefully the pattern endures and Parks wins. (Then again, the Girls pilot is nominated, and Lena Dunham may well prevail.)
• • •
Outstanding Comedy Series: To the Cool Kids Go the Spoils
In the past five years of comedy-series Emmys, three of the awards have gone to 30 Rock and two have gone to Modern Family. Just like People's 50 Most Beautiful People or the MTV VMAs, this award does take the merit of the nominee into account but also seems to inevitably go to the hippest cultural touchstones of the moment. During 30 Rock's three-year sweep, Tina Fey was the queen of pop culture and killing it as Sarah Palin; Modern Family's bitingly funny and timely take on gay culture sent its cool points way up. So if this category's pattern continues, who's this year's shoo-in? If you're paying any attention, you know that would be Lena Dunham.
Survey Says: Our money's on the fresh and uniquely wonderful Girls.
• • •
Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Process of Elimination
What kind of intel can we extract from the past few years of dramatic-actor Emmys? For one thing, that Bryan Cranston's streak may be over—after three consecutive wins for playing the implosive Walter White on Breaking Bad (2008-10), he lost last year to Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler, which could have signaled the end of his reign. Homeland's Damian Lewis (pictured above, left) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) gave solid yet subdued performances this year, and past years have shown that the award usually goes to someone with more grit. Jon Hamm had a great arc as the happily married Don Draper who also becomes petty and paranoid about his relevance in the ad world—but his performance didn't have anywhere near the heft as the previous season, when Draper had a full existential meltdown. And that leaves two perennial losers: Michael C. Hall (Dexter), who's had four nominations and no wins. And Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire)—who's been nominated a total of five times (twice for Boardwalk) but has never won.
Survey Says: Maybe this is the year Emmy makes good on all those noms—since Buscemi's eked out one more than Hall, we think it could be his year.
• • •
Lead Actress in a Drama Series: The Justice League
This award almost exclusively goes to commanding actresses who play high-powered, brilliant, ball-busting, take-no-shit crime fighters: between 2007-10, the award went to either The Closer's Kyra Sedgwick or Damages' Glenn Close, and The Good Wife's Julianna Margulies took it in 2011. This character-based precedent rules out Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery. Close and Margulies could always win again, and Kathy Bates (Harry's Law) does play a ball-busting lawyer. But none of the current nominees came close to the emotional fervor of Homeland's Claire Danes (pictured above, right), as a tireless CIA agent who becomes over-the-top obsessed with investigating a military hero who she suspects is plotting against America.
Survey Says: If the most highly charged and propulsive do-gooder must win each year, this award belongs to Danes.
• • •
Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series: The Law of Averages, Take 2
Much like in the comedy-writing category, this Emmy tends to go to the show with multiple episodes up for the award. In 2007, The Sopranos had three nominations and took the win; from 2008-10, Mad Men had multiple noms and won each time. The pattern was broken last year when the Friday Night Lights series finale won (even though Mad Men had two nominations), but you can chalk that up to a special case of a beloved series coming to a deeply heartfelt and satisfying conclusion; fans would have rioted over any other outcome. With no monster tear-jerker series finales to contend with, if this year follows suit, Mad Men (with three nominations) should win this category. And among the episodes nominated, "The Other Woman" (when Joan sleeps her way into a share of the company and Peggy quits) has an edge: Jon Hamm just told New York Magazine that this was his favorite episode of the year. And who are we to refute Don Draper? (See how far that gets you, Peggy.)
Survey Says: We're going with Jon-boy on this one.
• • •
Outstanding Drama Series: Mad Men Domination
This is often the category with some of the stiffest competition, but for the past four years Mad Men has come away with the win. If history is our precedent, there's no reason to believe the reigning champ won't win again, and it's deserving in any case—this was the tense season when Lane committed suicide in a heartbreaking twist, Peggy left the firm, Joan grappled with her self-worth and ambition, and Megan broke out as Don's ever-complicated new wife. Of course, Breaking Bad was utterly explosive, Game of Thrones only got more addictive, Downton Abbey amped up the drama, Boardwalk Empire was as gritty and stunning as ever, and Homeland absolutely killed it.
Survey Says: It was an exceptional season for all the nominees, but if Emmy voters are exhausted by all the excellence, they might follow the path of least resistance and hand Mad Men the win. But if it turns out that they're more exhausted with seeing Mad Men snag all the awards, Homeland could very well walk away with the upset.
• • •
—Rachel Rosenblit is a New York-based entertainment writer.