Road to the Emmys 2012: Drama

“Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
Strengths: Evocative period flavor, committed performances and shocking violence make for an often potent narrative brew where the focus is on the limits of personal ruthlessness.
Weaknesses: For a show about dangerous characters, there are whiffs of stodgy pretentiousness that threaten to make it all seem self-important rather than illuminating.
Best days ahead or behind? Bringing to a close the arcs of two major characters last season, with early hints that season three will make a leap in time, indicate a willingness to shake things up, which can only be good.
– Robert Abele

“Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Strengths: Show creator Vince Gilligan has repeatedly placed his characters in situations that look hopeless, only to connect every loose end in a satisfying and plausible way.
Weaknesses: It’s difficult to find any, unless you count the show’s ongoing darkness, which is a hurdle for some mainstream TV viewers.
Best days ahead or behind? The two-part final season is bound to leave viewers desperate for more of Walt and Jessie.
– Christy Grosz

“Dexter” (Showtime)
Strengths: America’s favorite serial killer has a code that gives law-abiding viewers a vicarious thrill whenever he rationalizes offing a bad guy.
Weaknesses: Dexter’s code has taken something of a backseat over the last season, allowing the show to veer further away from its moral compass.
Best days ahead or behind? A subplot involving brother-sister love has thoroughly creeped-out loyal fans and given the show a desperate air.
– Christy Grosz

“Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Strengths: The arrival of WWI effectively amplified the battles raging on the homefront over love and class. Matthew and Mary’s long-awaited engagement amid holiday snowflakes was period-drama perfection, while the inimitable Maggie Smith’s rendering of the dowager countess was itself a Masterpiece.
Weaknesses: The Brit hit suffered some growing pains in its sophomore season. At times, there were too many too-rushed storylines and underdeveloped characters. (We’re looking at you, Sir Richard, and Patrick, the bizarrely bandaged soldier.)
Best days ahead or behind? The dawn of the roaring ’20s will likely keep fans of Julian Fellowes’ highbrow soap in a lather, especially with the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Lady G’s mum.
– Shawna Malcom

“Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Strengths: Perfect casting and a willingness to go the brutal extremes found in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series have made this the definition of epic television.
Weaknesses: Those extremes, particularly the excess of violence and weird sex, have become the stuff of parody.
Best days ahead or behind? Martin now plans on writing seven volumes, so the source material will be there. Hard to imagine the series won’t take advantage.
– Glenn Whipp

“The Good Wife” (CBS)
Strengths: With its sophisticated twists and copious subplots, “Wife” continues to expect more from its audience than any other broadcast drama. Alicia and Will’s affair gave fans a taste of what they’d been craving, and their swift breakup wisely kept things from getting too sweet. The top-notch ensemble was only enhanced by impeccable guest turns from the likes of Carrie Preston and Matthew Perry.
Weaknesses: Will’s suspension storyline could’ve done without the arrival of his exasperating sisters, while Eli joining the firm felt like a case of “what do we do with this character until Peter runs for governor?”
Best days ahead or behind? The mysterious Kalinda’s impending face-off with her even more mysterious hubby, as well as the political and personal ramifications of Peter’s gubernatorial bid, should keep viewers happily committed to this “Wife.”
– Shawna Malcom

“Justified” (FX)
Strengths: The down-home charm of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) remains the fulcrum in an incredible world of beguiling criminals and Elmore Leonard-inspired storylines.
Weaknesses: Juggling all the characters seemed more challenging than ever, with many fighting for screentime that would develop them.
Best days ahead or behind? The past season seemed slightly inferior to the transcendent season that preceded it, but if the producers can harness the dramatis personae, new creative heights might still be scaled.
– Jon Weisman

“The Killing” (AMC)
Strengths: Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman continue to deliver strong performances, and the production values, particularly photography and score, remain superb.
Weaknesses: Narrative inertia persisted early in the season, with meandering subplots distracting from the central mystery.
Best days ahead or behind? Though the series improved as its second season progressed, it never quite recovered from the negative backlash following the inaugural year’s finale.
– Glenn Whipp

“Mad Men” (AMC)
Strengths: Complex, rich storytelling and plots that come layered with meaning set within a fully realized mid-20th-century world that’s both familiar and alien.
Weaknesses: Creator Matthew Weiner is uncompromising in his use of literary devices to give audiences a story they have to chew on, and many viewers will give up before committing themselves to it.
Best days ahead or behind? Though initial seasons might be hard to top, now that a finite end to the series has been announced, anticipating where the carefully-rendered arc of Don Draper and his band of not-so-merry gentlemen will end up makes each episode and each season ricer.
– Randee Dawn

“Shameless” (Showtime)
Strengths: A vigorously told, taboo-busting chronicle of clan togetherness, with sexual and criminal excesses played for laughs — it’s a tale of children in charge that’s only for adults.
Weaknesses: The effort to combustively mix good-natured intentions with over-the-top awfulness can get a little tiresome. How soon before nothing shocks its viewers?
Best days ahead or behind? Season two’s wrapping up of some turbulent flirtations with parental reunion and Fiona and Lip looking to escape was mighty strong — like this family, the show will make it all somehow work.
– Robert Abele

“Sons of Anarchy” (FX)
Strengths: The psychodrama of “Hamlet” molded to a gun-running biker club is still ingenious, and the honest, wrenching and occasionally scary lead performances only burnish it further.
Weaknesses: The storytelling can go off the rails when things get away from the central family dynamic, as season three’s Ireland adventure proved.
Best days ahead or behind? The club’s tense power struggles in season four were a brutal reminder of how powerful the show’s dramatic engine can be when the conflict stays internal.
– Robert Abele

“Southland” (TNT)
Strengths: Drama retained its dynamic energy and ability to surprise even as it explored a different narrative structure, rotating the focus among its ensemble during its gut-punching fourth season.
Weaknesses: Shifting emphasis gave Michael Cudlitz less to do early on, and he remains the best (though certainly not only) reason to watch the show. More Cudlitz, please.
Best days ahead or behind? No reason to think upcoming fifth season can’t maintain the show’s phenomenal run.
– Gl
enn Whipp

“Treme” (HBO)
Strengths: A siren song of a show that lures you in with rich music, cuisine and character depth.
Weaknesses: The legal labyrinth that Toni (Melissa Leo) finds herself trying to navigate sometimes felt dry, despite its importance.
Best days ahead or behind? “Treme” is a show that benefits from knowing its characters and ages well.
– Jon Weisman

“True Blood” (HBO)
Strengths: The potent mix of sex, blood, humor and horror-fantasy is like a genre playground of unpredictability, with often imaginative modern twists on supernatural creatures.
Weaknesses: As the cast gets larger, the need to include everybody in the outlandish storylines made for some draggy midseason episodes.
Best days ahead or behind? As long as the writers stay inspired by the romantic entanglements, swampy textures, vampire politics and guest stars (like season five’s Chris Meloni), there’ll be no rest for the show’s wicked talents.
– Robert Abele

“The Walking Dead” (AMC)
Strengths: Intense characters struggling with mortality and morality in a world where they’re outnumbered by zombies is engaging drama.
Weaknesses: The sometimes laconic pacing isn’t always appreciated by action-horror fans.
Best days ahead or behind? Even with Shane dead, there’s plenty of conflict, danger — even romance — for a powerful third season.
– Paula Hendrickson

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