If the competition for lead actress in a drama seems like a repeat from last season, that’s because it is.
Five veterans are returning for the second straight year, and they are among the top names in the business, with eight Emmys and 33 nominations among them. But this time newcomer Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men” has crashed the party thanks to a rules change that expanded the number of nominees from five to six in several major categories.
Three of the vets play cops: Mariska Hargitay (“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”), Holly Hunter (“Saving Grace”) and Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”). Hargitay is the only one of the three to previously win this category (2006). This also marks the fourth straight year Hargitay and Sedgwick have been nommed here. Hunter joined them last year after the first season of her show.
Wearing a badge is not a prerequisite to winning, as Glenn Close will attest. She was nominated in 2005 for playing a police captain in “The Shield” but went home empty-handed. A statuette came last year in her first season as the ruthless attorney in “Damages.”
Sally Field, a perennial Emmy favorite, is the only other current nominee who has won in this category. Her “Brothers and Sisters” matriarch was feted in 2007.
And while Moss is a fresh face on the Emmy circuit, a Screen Actors Guild nomination this year for actress in a drama gives her experience on the awards scene. “Mad Men” won SAG’s drama series ensemble award.
Emmy pedigree: Two wins plus nine other noms
Best scene: In the season finale, “Trust Me,” Close’s high-powered attorney discovers that her protege, Ellen (Rose Byrne), has been working with the FBI to build a case against her. She moves to frame Ellen for bribing a judge.
Why she might win: Close is a commanding presence on screens of any size, and her cutthroat attorney found a way to elevate her game for the sophomore season of the well-written, taught drama.
Maybe not: There hasn’t been a back-to-back winner in this category since 1995-96 when Kathy Baker was honored for “Picket Fences.”
Show: “Brothers & Sisters”
Emmy pedigree: Three wins plus five other noms
Best scene: In “A Father Dreams,” an overbearing Nora (Field) and Scotty (Luke Macfarlane) battle over the proper care of Kevin (Matthew Rhys), who’s recovering from a liver transplant. And despite Nora’s protests, she is reintroduced to a high school crush (Nigel Havers), but a lot has changed between the two.
Why she might win: Much like a playmaker on a basketball team, many of the show’s storylines run through Field’s character as the matriarch of the sprawling Walker clan. Field also has the support of several generations of Emmy voters.
Maybe not: Field always delivers solid work, but “Brothers & Sisters” this year didn’t receive the notice that was given to the vehicles that some of her fellow nominees drive.
Show: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
Emmy pedigree: One win plus four other noms
Best scene: In December’s “PTSD” episode, Hargitay’s Det. Benson investigates the murder of a soldier who earlier had been raped. While breaking up a fistfight in a hotel room, she is slammed against a wall and goes into shock. The fight triggered flashbacks of when she was sexually assaulted while undercover in a women’s prison.
Why she might win: Hargitay takes full advantage of her multilayered role, playing a street-smart New York cop who also has the empathy to emotionally relate to crime victims without compromising her professional standards.
Maybe not: While fans of the “L&O” franchise are familiar with Hargitay’s range, occasional viewers who happen to be Emmy voters may figure they’ve already visited this precinct and don’t need to go back.
Show: “Saving Grace”
Emmy pedigree: Two wins plus four other noms
Best scene: In the season premiere, “Have a Seat, Earl,” Hunter’s Det. Hanadarko is off-duty,but she still puts in a full day chasing down a subject who turns out to be on the FBI’s most-wanted list, and back home is secretly detaining the priest who molested her as a child.
Why she might win: Hunter brings a unique approach to Grace, as demonstrated by the “Earl” episode. Her instincts as a cop help her catch a priority criminal, and she shows great restraint in punishing the priest even as she expresses her pain. And since voters have recently been rotating the Emmy among the vets in this category, this could be Hunter’s year (or Sedgwick’s).
Maybe not: While Hunter’s work has been consistently strong and the skein has a loyal following, “Saving Grace” may get lost in the Emmy shuffle because of its lack of notice in other categories.
Show: “Mad Men”
Emmy pedigree: First nom
Best scene: Peggy (Moss), who rekindled a romance with Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) shortly after his wedding, finally let him know the outcome of their liaison in “Meditations in an Emergency,” the season finale. “I had your baby, and I gave it away,” she told him.
Why she might win: In the man’s world that this period drama inhabits, Moss’ subtle and precise performance shows that she can more than hold her own with any of the guys. If Emmy is looking to anoint someone new, Moss would be a worthy pick.
Maybe not: While Moss plays a junior copywriter at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, her fellow Emmy nominees are the centerpieces of their respective shows.
Show: “The Closer”
Emmy pedigree: Three noms
Best scene: In the “Cherry Bomb” episode, a high school girl who was raped apparently hangs herself. Sedgwick’s LAPD deputy chief suspects foul play involving the son of a sheriff’s commander. Her investigation leads to a confrontation with the boy’s overprotective father and the uncovering of a ruthless sexual game.
Why she might win: Sedgwick excels at playing Brenda as a multidimensional character — tough and forceful when she’s interrogating a suspect and compassionate with crime victims. Also, if voters are in fact rotating the Emmy among the vets in this category, it might go to Sedgwick (or Hunter).
Maybe not: For Sedgwick, turning in consistently strong performances is important to the success of the skein, but it may not be enough to close this deal.