Last year was the first that cable shows outnumbered broadcast series in the Emmy drama category, a trend that was solidified with the 2011 nominations, which saw a quartet of shows coming from HBO, Showtime and AMC.A pair of the cable contenders are familiar names — AMC’s zeitgeisty “Mad Men,” looking for its fourth award in a row, and Showtime’s four-time nominee “Dexter,” looking for its first win. The other two indicate HBO’s strong year for freshman entries. The pay-cable powerhouse’s new hits “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” showcased once again the shrewd merging of genre and character study that has seen the cabler take the western (“Deadwood”), vampires (“True Blood”) and mobsters (“The Sopranos”) to the nominee circle before. Elsewhere, the continued success of CBS’s Julianna Marguiles starrer “The Good Wife” as a network law procedural with cable-like nuances and serialized sophistication earned it a repeat appearance in this category. Lastly, the first appearance of beloved underdog “Friday Night Lights” — for its final season, which ran on DirecTV before repeating on NBC — suggests Academy recognition of sorts for the entire critically acclaimed run of this low-key, slice-of-life drama about high school football in rural Texas.
Highlight: In a season filled with blistering mob violence, the early courtship scenes of Atlantic City bigwig Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Irish widow Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald) indicated a delicate touch with the show’s portrayal of emotionally isolated people.
Why it might win: With its rich period detail, gangster trappings and stellar creative pedigree (Terence Winters and Martin Scorsese), “Empire” scored on many fronts as a bold slice of criminal Americana in the wake of HBO’s groundbreaking “Sopranos” run.
Maybe not: Against tough competition, voters could find the lack of a central galvanizing character — and a first season with its share of structural and pace-related hiccups — reason enough to hold back on top-prize kudos until further seasons reveal themselves.
Highlight: In a hotel-room scene laced with criminal forethought and strange compassion, Dexter (Michael C. Hall) helps gang-rape victim Lumen (Julia Stiles) both prepare for a vengeance killing and suddenly recover from an emotional breakdown.
Why it might win: A widely lauded fourth season, which won John Lithgow a guest actor Emmy — gave way to an emotionally retrenching fifth that saw Dexter take a protective role, and showed this unusual premise still had plenty of odd contours worth exploring.
Maybe not: At the end of the day, it’s still a blood-drenched series about a serial killer — a hard road to hoe with Emmy voters — and after three strong seasons with a nomination and no award, voters might feel comfortable ignoring it once more.
“Friday Night Lights”
Highlight: A tense parole board hearing for Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) earns an expectedly moving testimonial from Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and an awkward yet unexpectedly stirring plea from hapless Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland).
Why it might win: Viewer and critical praise for how this under-appreciated series wrapped its always-struggling run was loud and clear, and Emmy voters may finally be coming around to why this Peabody-winning show had such a loyal following.
Maybe not: Sometimes a first nomination for a final season is too little too late for a series that rarely captured more than a fringe viewership. Emmy voters might consider its nomination a prize in and of itself.
“Game of Thrones”
Highlight: In a season chockablock with plot twists, the disturbing fate of castle-climbing kid Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) after witnessing a secret rendezvous between Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) was — for viewers unfamiliar with the books — a true shocker.
Why it might win: Like “Lost” in its Emmy-winning inaugural season, a fantasy-tinged premise struck a chord with viewers as a gripping ensemble drama with complexly woven storylines. It also resonated as a sweeping, old-school epic about power struggles among the wealthy and the survival instincts of outsiders.
Maybe not: As popular as the series is, the dungeons-and-dragons shadings may keep more realism-minded Academy voters away for now, and while sex and violence never stopped HBO from multiple “Sopranos” wins, the more graphic nature of those elements here could be an awards barrier.
“The Good Wife”
Highlight: It’s a tossup between divorce-minded Alicia (Julianna Marguiles) icily confronting her mother-in-law (Mary Beth Piel) about limiting her access to the grandkids, or Alicia putting Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) on the spot about the latter’s affair with Peter, punctuated by a cold, direct “How was my husband?”
Why it might win: Its status as the most refreshingly adult series among primetime network shows was only burnished after a watercooler-worthy second season. The show’s acclaimed mix of politics, personal lives, intrigue and legal drama is unique in television.
Maybe not: Despite over-arching storylines as nuanced as anything on cable, its procedural structure might still be considered a hindrance to Emmy voters who haven’t given such a show the top award in more than 10 years.
Highlight: Saying goodbye to cancer-ridden Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) — or Dick Whitman, as Anna knows him, prior to changing his identity — must come to grips with a loved one’s imminent death that also symbolically reflects a past he can never recapture.
Why it might win: Three wins in this category already is nothing to sneeze at, and the series’ fourth season showed further creative vigor with its character development, changes of scenery and controversial twists.
Maybe not: All streaks end sometime. The infusion of new blood in the category this year, plus the first appearance of an acclaimed show in its last season and a broadcast show considered on the rise could spell a change. Besides, recent news that a deal has been struck for further seasons might spur the Academy to give the show a kudos break.
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