Primetime thesps dig deep to earn first Emmy nods

The 2009 Emmy nods include a batch of major-category nominees who had been previously eligible but didn’t get the pat on the back from voters until this year.

Though some contenders obviously benefited from an increase in available nomination slots this time from five to six (or in some cases seven, thanks to ties), the work of several thesps became tangibly more Emmy-worthy as time passed and they grew more comfortable with their characters and their series’ plotting.

Aaron Paul, nominated in his second season on “Breaking Bad” for drama supporting actor, says his experience working with 2008 lead drama actor winner Bryan Cranston has helped him grow.

“Everything Bryan does is so honest and genuine, it’s not forced,” Paul says. “Working opposite someone like that makes me a much better actor — he’s taught me a lot of things.”

Paul also attributes his nomination to the “Breaking Bad” writers delving deeper into each character, with the role of Jesse — originally slated to be killed off in season one — given new import in the second season.

“We saw much more where Jesse was coming from,” Paul says. “And in season two, he was constantly beaten down — anything that could go wrong goes wrong. He grew a tougher skin, a harder shell.”

Paul also notes he did a lot of research on drug abuse — particularly by watching a lot of “Intervention” episodes — to help him understand the highs and lows of addiction.

All this work primed Paul to be ready for the increased spotlight that came to “Bad” in its sophomore year.

“Cranston won the Emmy last year, which made more people aware of the show’s existence, and no doubt led them to watch season two — where Paul was every bit as good as Cranston,” Newark Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall says. “Cranston’s win also, I’m sure, helped ‘Breaking Bad’ crack the drama series list just as much as the expanded field did.”

In other words, while Paul and other first-time nominees — including Aussie actress Rose Byrne of “Damages,” Kristen Wiig of “Saturday Night Live,” Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” and Sarah Silverman for her surreal Comedy Central show — can’t say the increased field hurt them, it’s not as if they backed into their noms.

HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” and Jemaine Clement did not have a particularly long wait for their first Emmy noms, which came in the comedy skein’s sophomore effort. While the show continued its deadpan humor and amusing musical interludes, showrunner James Bobin feels he, Clement and co-Conchord Bret McKenzie matured as writers.

“We hadn’t written together before, so season one was a new experience,” Bobin says. “We were more confident in season two. We had the chance to flesh out other characters, in terms of creating a more well-rounded show instead of just a Bret-and-Jemaine-centric show.”

Similarly, showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas of “How I Met Your Mother,” which pushed through for a series nomination on its fourth try, see the past season as the one where they really got the system down, where both cast and writers hit their stride more confidently.

“By the fourth year, we felt like seniors,” Bays says. “We know the characters better, we know what works and how to get the best performances out of our actors.”

Two-time comedy series champ “30 Rock” was an Emmy fave from the get-go, but some key members of its supporting cast had to wait until this past season to get noms: Jack McBrayer (Kenneth), Tracy Jordan (Tracy) and Jane Krakowski (Jenna).

Krakowski credits the abundance of great material she was given to work with this past season in particular.

“Tina (Fey) and the writers gave me the opportunity to stretch my skills,” she says, “to grow into Jenna and all the wacky characters she gets to become inside our fictional world.”

Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen, co-creators of HBO drama “Big Love,” which broke into a crowded Emmy drama field in its third season, also had a sense of stepping up their game, which, Scheffer says, “meant crafting a season that wasn’t just strong on emotional, family drama.”

“Our intention was also to use our large, superb ensemble to burn through as much or more story than any other show on TV,” he says. “Basically, to go for broke.”

For AMC’s “Mad Men,” several critics have noted that season two saw more complexity given to the show’s female characters. First-time nom Elisabeth Moss felt a kinship with those other women and her own character, seeing Peggy grow from Don Draper’s secretary to junior copywriter at Sterling Cooper.

“I truly love to play her,” Moss says. “And to work with this incredible cast and crew and get to say the words the amazing writers write is a gift to an actor.”

For all these nominees, both shows and individual performers, there’s a palpable sense of appreciation for working on the right show at the right time, the right combination of vivid characters and writing. This year, Emmy was watching.

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