Vets set stage for dramatic showdown

Several rivals vie for Emmy drama crown

Once more into the breach, these vets will try to make dear friends with Emmy.

“24” (Fox)
Strengths: Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) was taken beyond his save-the-world-at-any-cost heroism into a place of real emotion that he couldn’t always manage to suppress.
Weaknesses: Yet another mole in CTU and an over-reliance on torture scenes — plus the lackluster subplot of Dana Walsh (Katee Sackoff) being blackmailed by a guy from her past –stalled the momentum of early episodes.
Best days ahead or behind?: This was the final season, but with a feature film in the works, the end of “24” on the smallscreen could be the dawning of a new day.
— Paula Hendrickson

“Big Love” (HBO)
Strengths: Courageous, thought-provoking and most original in its storytelling.
Weaknesses: Suffered from a severe dose of sensationalistic plotting, its characters’ behavior becoming fairly ridiculous.
Best days ahead or behind?: The heights of its first three seasons might be a thing of the past, but it’s reasonable to expect lessons will be learned from the most recent season.
— Jon Weisman

“Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Strengths: It’s the whole package: superb acting, writing, directing, cinematography. You name it, “Bad” has got it.
Weaknesses: This is a stretch, but it’s not exactly the sexiest show on television. So if you’re looking for that sort of thing…
Best days ahead or behind?: The show has so consistently exceeded expectations, it seems tasteless to even ask.
— Jon Weisman

“Damages” (FX)
Strengths: Trying to figure the cat-and-mouse game between lawyers Patty Hewes, Ellen and Tom Shayes was always an anticipated challenge, and the Bernie Madoff-like spark of season three added to the fun.
Weaknesses: The multi-layers of espionage felt like the writers had nearly run out of ideas, but, more importantly, there were very few characters to root for anymore.
Best days ahead or behind?: It’s looking likely that the series won’t be returning, as ratings have been dismal.
— Stuart Levine

“Dexter” (Showtime)
Strengths: Dexter’s marriage, stepchildren and newborn son continued to add interesting new wrinkles to the compulsively watchable series.
Weaknesses: The banality of Dexter’s new suburban environment might have been just a little too dull for its own good.
Best days ahead or behind?: Blowback from season-ending shocker: Will Dexter be getting in touch with his feelings? Can’t wait to watch Michael C. Hall pull that one off.
— Glenn Whipp

“Friday Night Lights” (DirecTV/NBC)
Strengths: Through network and cast changes, “Lights” maintains its consistent excellence. The past season offered no shortage of powerful and well-earned moments.
Weaknesses: With shorter seasons in its DirecTV era, the show has more story to tell than time to tell it.
Best days ahead or behind?: The first season will probably always rank highest for its diehard aud, but the likely final season that’s upcoming will surely push the emotional buttons hard.
— Jon Weisman

“House” (Fox)
Strengths: Hugh Laurie’s skill at revealing bits of House’s psyche — with strong support from Andre Braugher as House’s no-nonsense psychiatrist — added new layers of interest to the self-destructive doc.
Weaknesses: Too many cases suffering from Formulaic Diagnosis Syndrome, accompanied by frequent patient seizures during MRIs, near-lethal complications from misdiagnoses, and weekly mentions of lupus and sarcoidosis.
Best days ahead or behind?: If circumstances keep forcing House to confront his issues, the show could get a clean bill of health.
— Paula Hendrickson

“Lost” (ABC)
Strengths: So many to choose from: Wonderful acting from pilot until the finale, storylines that dealt with such issues as faith, science and treachery, but most importantly, it came all down to characters that felt so real, it was heartbreaking to see them say goodbye.
Weaknesses: Some of the plot points were never properly tied up, and Charles Widmore’s purpose didn’t feel fully explained — minor quibbles compared to all “Lost” accomplished.
Best days ahead or behind?: The show just concluded its six-season run, but the beauty of DVDs gives viewers the ability to always revisit the island.
— Stuart Levine

“Mad Men” (AMC)
Strengths: Still nothing like the quiet storm of a “Mad Men” episode, which looks like a museum piece but is anything but tame.
Weaknesses: Showrunner Matthew Weiner plays with fire in testing the likability of Don and Betty Draper — though he rarely gets burned.
Best days ahead or behind?: Viewers might be wary about how “Mad” handles the Drapers’ split as well as the later, crazier years of the ’60s.
— Jon Weisman

“The Mentalist” (CBS)
Strengths: Simon Baker’s killer charisma, his good-natured sparring with boss Robin Tunney and witty banter juxtaposed against the creepiest of crimes make this a diverting thinking man’s procedural.
Weaknesses: The novelty of Baker’s mind games has faded a bit after three seasons, and supporting characters aren’t fleshed out enough. The show can feel run-of-the-mill when the Mentalist is not on screen.
Best days ahead or behind?: The addition of a hard-ass female boss feels like an awkward attempt to liven things up, but Baker’s unorthodox methods should keep the show worth watching.
— Graham Flashner

“Sons of Anarchy” (FX)
Strengths: Taut motorcycle club drama that keeps the testosterone at full boil, yet the genius of creator Kurt Sutter is that he always manages to somehow have auds root for guys who routinely steal, lie and, occasionally, kill.
Weaknesses: Besides Gemma’s terrific arc, it would be nice to give some of the female characters more to do than hang out in the club’s headquarters and satisfy the guys’ desires.
Best days ahead or behind?: As good as the first two seasons have been, there’s little doubt that upcoming seasons will be just as compelling.
— Stuart Levine

“True Blood” (HBO)
Strengths: The soul of the show remains the love between Sookie and vampire Bill, but certainly more high-spirited frivolity comes from the likes of Sam, Jason, Lafayette and Tara, who are still trying to figure out how to survive in a world turned upside down.
Weaknesses: The Michelle Forbes storylines went on way too long last season; it would be best for showrunner Alan Ball to get back to basics with his lead protagonists.
Best days ahead or behind?: If the disappointing season two was an indication, the first season might have been a high point, but we’re willing to keep an open mind.
— Stuart Levine

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