The Emmy inroads that networks AMC and FX made this year are fully apparent in this category. Original basic cable nabbed its first-ever supporting actor nominations, meaning the infusion of fresh blood could spell victory for “Mad Men” or “Damages.”
That said, it’s a gallery of tainted creeps on view — sleazy businessmen, corrupt lawyers, a devious antihero — so voters will be responding to shades of darkness rather than heart-tugging qualities.
The only mostly lovable rogue, really, is William Shatner on “Boston Legal,” but it’s his fourth year running as a nominee, and he won for the show’s first year, which means he might have an uphill battle to score again. This is a tough category to win twice in.
The other returnee to the category is Michael Emerson, whose manipulative, desperate island protector Ben on “Lost” has become the show’s narrative linchpin, which might help his cause with voters who are addicted to the skein.
All eyes, though, will be on the cable invaders. Ted Danson will be looking for his first dramatic Emmy for playing the billionaire target of the seasonlong class-action lawsuit on “Damages,” a performance that tested the sitcom icon and showed new depths in the veteran.
The last two nominees qualify as “Hey, that guy” character types making the breakthrough into Emmy notoriety: Zeljko Ivanek (“Oz,” “24,” “Homicide”) as Danson’s Southern attorney Ray Fiske on “Damages” and John Slattery (“Desperate Housewives,” “Ed”) as the drink-loving, chain-smoking, womanizing boss Roger Sterling on “Mad Men.”
Emmy pedigree: Two wins plus 10 other noms
Best scene: A nervous Arthur Frobisher grapples with the fact that he could order a hit on the woman who poses the biggest threat in his lawsuit.
Why he might win: A beloved sitcom actor for decades — from “Cheers” through “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — Danson opened eyes with his full-throttle turn as a powerful, complicated and vulnerable business tycoon.
Maybe not: Veteran status could work against him if voters decide to go with a first-time nominee, and he could split votes with castmate Ivanek.
Emmy pedigree: One win plus one other nom
Best scene: Emerson shows the enigmatic Ben in all his ruthlessness, fear and despair, when he won’t back down from a gunman who murders his daughter right in front of his eyes.
Why he might win: As the only acting nominee for a show generally perceived to continue hitting all its marks and getting better with age, Emerson could return the show to Emmy glory.
Maybe not: As the most mysterious character on the show, voters might want to wait to know more about Ben before acknowledging Emerson’s work.
Emmy pedigree: First nom
Best scene: Ivanek’s ruined face says everything in the shattering conclusion to his character, as the depth of lawyer Ray Fiske’s compromised life sinks in following Patty’s blackmail offer.
Why he might win: It was a one-season role, and voters could feel Emmy good will for this journeyman character actor’s consistently subtle and pained performance.
Maybe not: Sharing the “Damages” spotlight with the better-known Danson might make the task more difficult for Ivanek.
Show: “Boston Legal”
Emmy pedigree: Two wins plus three other noms
Best scene: Denny wants to try a murder case without Alan’s help, and after being initially flustered, pulls out a victory with a wonderful closing speech.
Why he might win: Denny Crane is a popular character, and with ABC announcing the end of the show next year, voters may see fit to reward Shatner again.
Maybe not: Shatner’s a prior winner, and repeats in this category are rare, the last one being Ray Walston’s back-to-back awards for “Picket Fences” in the ’90s.
Show: “Mad Men”
Emmy pedigree: First nom
Best scene: A boozy after-hours romp brings on a coronary to Roger Sterling in “Long Weekend,” forcing the duplicitous executive to assess his hard-living ways.
Why he might win: “Mad Men” is hot, and Slattery’s bemused, acid-tongued rake consistently delivered the goods — from great lines to bad behavior, all with a bewitching world-weariness.
Maybe not: Slattery makes it look easy, and if voters are in a show-me mood, flashier turns might win out. Plus, if voters choose “Mad Men” as top series and Jon Hamm as leading actor, Slattery’s chances could be diminished.