Emmys nominees: Tapes may shape races for series’ familiar faces

Emmy voters cast their picks based on sample episodes

Upsets. Those are what make the Emmy ceremony the most exciting kudocast to watch. Sure, Marcia Gay Harden pulled off a supporting actress shocker at the most recent Academy Awards, but those kinds of jaw-droppers are rare beasts at the Oscars, Grammys and Tonys.

Just recall some of the big surprises last year: dramatic dark-horse victories by Patricia Heaton (comedy actress), Sela Ward (drama actress) and “Malcolm in the Middle” (comedy writing and directing). A year earlier, “The Practice” stunned TV critics by winning the verdict as best drama series during the height of Sopranosmania.

What about this year?

It all depends on the one factor that makes the Emmy trigger so many surprises – the videotapes submitted by the nominees as samples of their best work.

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters are forced to do something that the Oscars, Grammys, Tonys and Golden Globes electorates don’t have to bother with: They must watch samples of the nominees’ work or else they can’t vote. The tapes are shipped to TV Academy who sign an affidavit swearing that they watched them before they ink their ballots.

The Acad will not reveal what sample episodes the nominees submitted until the voting concludes Aug. 17, but some speculation seems safe.

Since lead actors submit a single episode to voters, it’s obvious which one “The Sopranos'” Lorraine Bracco will pick: the riveting rape segment.

TV Guide critic Matt Roush calls it outstanding, and it gave Bracco a chance to show off a wide range of emotions spanning fear, rage, despair and, ultimately, quiet moral resolve. Historically, Emmy voters tend to reward thesps who display the most range.

Bracco’s victory is not a shoo-in, though. Her co-star and past winner Edie Falco had two strong episodes this year (“Second Opinion” and “Amour Fou”) and another previous champ, Sela Ward, may seduce voters with the deft way she handled a pesky flirt at work on “Once and Again.” But Bracco – who’s normally discounted in this lead race because she’s considered a supporting player by many TV critics – could pull off a classic Emmys upset.

Heaton has a strong chance of staging another upset this year, assuming she gave voters “The Cannister” episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” In it, she got to flash her full acting chops, spanning high comedy and deep drama as she battled mom-in-law from hell Doris Roberts over whether or not Heaton returned a kitchen cannister she borrowed.

Heaton will have to get around Calista Flockhart, however, who could give voters one of several socko “Ally McBeal” episodes in which she set off sexy sparks with Robert Downey Jr. At past Emmys bouts, Flockhart was once considered a front-runner, but she lost twice (both times to “Mad About You’s” Helen Hunt). Now she’s considered an underdog and could finally prevail.

Lots of Emmys pundits thought Martin Sheen would soar to victory with “The West Wing’s” record sweep last year, but he ended up losing to “Sopranos'” James Gandolfini. Now, Sheen could rally thanks to “Wing’s” season finale in which he chews out God before the altar of the National Cathedral. That kind of emotional grandstanding is often an actor’s salvation with ATAS voters.

“West Wing’s” Bradley Whitford is considered an early fave for supporting actor because of his strong perf in the Christmas episode, but watch out for Michael Imperioli, who could find his way into the winner’s circle thanks to that psychological meltdown he had when he got lost in the snowy woods in “Sopranos.”

The races for comedy and drama series are impossible to forecast due to many wild cards: Nominees submit 8 sample episodes – or roughly one-third of the TV season. But expect the usual shockeroos. Five-time past champ “Frasier,” for example, could come roaring back just like “Cheers” and “L.A. Law” used to do in their later years when most pundits had written them off.

In the past 12 years, “Picket Fences,” “Law & Order,” “Will & Grace” and “Ally McBeal” also made fools out of many haughty “experts” who dared to predict the unpredictable Emmys.

Tom O’Neil oversees the Web site http://www.goldderby.com, which tracks the Emmys race by analyzing the episodes submitted by the nominees. He’s also the author of Variety‘s book “The Emmys.”

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