‘American Idol’ (Fox)
Why it’s great: Produced within an inch of its life, “Idol” nevertheless offers real drama, specifically the “Will justice prevail?” variety. When a singer actually does rise to the occasion, it’s rewarding on multiple levels.
What it can do better: After Hurricane Sanjaya and other subpar finalists dominated the past season, viewers have every right to demand that the judges give them a full top 12 they can be excited about. It may be time for the show’s relentless emphasis on showcasing poor performers, especially in the early weeks, to be tilted in favor of heating up the real competition sooner.
Why it could win: If the main criterion voters choose is pure viewer reach, “Idol” conquers all.
‘Friday Night Lights’ (NBC)
Why it’s great: Rescuing football, high school, Texas, marriage and family from the usual cliches, “Lights” humanizes its subjects with drama, comedy and, above all, insight. Within a given storyline, the plot twists are so nuanced that the characters really seem to wrestle with their dilemmas instead of having an agenda thrust upon them.
What it can do better: Aside from solving its major marketing conundrum, not much. If you’re nitpicking, “Lights” might choose to be careful about not going so often to a Big Story (steroids, infidelity, pregnancy, rape, racism, etc.).
Why it could win: They don’t call the show “critically beloved” for nothing. Celebrating the season of “Lights” has been at the top of the agenda for most reviewers all year long.
Why it’s great: It got us excited with its premise of real people with superhuman powers, then delivered an intricate yet well-paced and accessible serialized arc. And the life-loving Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) was an onscreen joy.
What it can do better: Not every character offered as much distinction as Hiro. In particular, Ali Larter’s dueling Niki/Jessica fell flat. More generally, the demands of the plot sometimes force so many characters to take on such a brave facade, their personalities start to seem too similar.
Why it could win: If the popular new show is remembered more for its midseason heights than its rather tepid season finale, its power won’t easily be denied.
‘Planet Earth’ (Discovery)
Why it’s great: Shot in more than 200 locations, the 11-part “Earth” is out of this world. This staggeringly impressive piece of filmmaking brings viewers right into the lion’s den, so to speak, with peeks into the natural habitats of creatures that have rarely, if ever, been seen on camera. To see it in high-definition makes the experience even more enthralling.
What it could have done better: Not much, except making sure the show’s camera operators are well-compensated for entering and working in terrains that no human should be exposed to.
Why it could win: It’s unlike anything else in the category, in that the experience of watching a nearly extinct animal search and kill its prey can’t in any way be compared to a singing competition or sci-fi drama.
‘When the Levees Broke’ (HBO)
Why it’s great: The Katrina catastrophe has been well documented, but Spike Lee and HBO were able to give the event a chance to breathe and be fully explained, presenting it in four acts that cover the heartbreak, struggle and loss for the citizens of New Orleans — while also focusing on their determination to fight on and rebuild both their city and their lives.
What it could have done better: Some of the stories can feel repetitive and, even though a point is well made, Lee sometimes goes back to an interviewee one too many times.
Why it could win: “Levees” captures the calamity and destruction of Katrina better than any three-minute news segment or weekly newsmagazine ever could.
‘The Wire’ (HBO)
Why it’s great: David Simon and his team continue to raise their game to exhilarating levels. These latest 13 episodes were told through the eyes of the four corner boys, vividly illustrating how their very existence hangs in the balance.
What it can do better: With so many good characters woven into the storylines, there are times that our faves — Omar, McNulty, Proposition Joe — aren’t seen for weeks.
Why it could win: It might not be an exaggeration to call “The Wire,” especially this past season, the best reviewed show in the history of TV. Those same critics who rave about the show are voting here, so if they stick to their words, an award here is a distinct possibility.