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Emmy Nominations: Do Big Finales Skew Balance Between Old and New?

The Emmys forever seem to be grappling with a tension that, in award circles, is virtually unique to television — one that, thanks to a spate of big series finales, seems more sharply focused than usual this year. In the simplest terms, the choice boils down to paying tribute to the old, or ushering in the new?

While the Grammys, Oscars or Tonys are presented with a new list of candidates every year, the Emmys feature contenders that are frequently nominated — and sometimes win — year after year. Witness “Modern Family’s” gaudy five-year stranglehold on the best comedy category, or “The Daily Show” and “The Amazing Race’s” decade-long runs in their fields.

While the TV Academy is ostensibly charged with honoring the best programs from any particular year, it’s difficult not to take past performance and context into account. And that can cloud and complicate the decision-making process, especially in a year that saw a number of high-profile franchises officially sign off.

Few would argue, for example, that the last season of “Mad Men” was one of its best. But the show — a winner of four consecutive best-drama trophies at the start of its run — is certainly one of TV’s historic, signature dramas, which brings an element of nostalgia to its swan song, and perhaps particularly that of star Jon Hamm, who has never been recognized for his career-making work as Don Draper.

Then again, at least “Mad Men,” has tasted the thrill of victory as a series, just as Edie Falco was honored (OK, five years ago) for her “Yes, there’s life after ‘The Sopranos’” work in “Nurse Jackie,” another show that recently said goodbye. That’s more than can be said for other programs that finished their runs during the eligibility window, among them FX’s dark duo of “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and HBO’s splendid period piece “Boardwalk Empire,” which has a Golden Globe to its name but not an Emmy.

Even those programs, however, feel somewhat pallid compared to the twin loss in variety series, where “Late Show With David Letterman” and Jon Stewart’s stint on “The Daily Show” are coming to an end after 22 and 16 years, respectively. “The Colbert Report” makes that latenight exodus a hat trick, although its host, Stephen Colbert, isn’t exactly going away as he prepares to replace Letterman in September.

As crowd-pleasing as nominations for some of these series would be, going hog wild nominating such performers and programs risks making the Emmys feel like yesterday’s news. Moreover, there’s actually new blood that has excited viewers and voters — something that can’t be said every year — including Fox’s breakout hit “Empire,” CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” Amazon’s “Transparent,” AMC’s “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul,” and ABC’s “American Crime,” to name a few. And at the very least there are arguments to be made for the stars in other newcomers, such as Dominic West and Ruth Wilson in “The Affair,” “Fresh Off the Boat’s” Constance Wu, Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder” and Ellie Kemper in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Frankly, selecting newer shows is always a popular move, and serves the added purpose of making the academy look less stodgy; nevertheless, there’s a case to be made that there’s nothing harder or potentially more satisfying than sticking the landing on a finale, as “Breaking Bad” demonstrated with its back-to-back wins.

So which way will the old-versus-new pendulum swing? If the 2015 Emmy ceremony is anything like most of its predecessors, the voters will strike a balance between those two urges. And either way, it’s almost certain that whatever gets chosen and omitted with so much first-rate work from which to choose is going to leave a lot of people unhappy and grumbling about “snubs” — the one part of the process, seemingly, that never gets old.

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