On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. “Mad Men” explored the paradigm-shifting era of ’60s America through the rollercoaster lives of deeply flawed men and women working in the ad industry (plus their assorted friends, family and lovers). “Game of Thrones” weaves an epic saga of treachery, heroics and loss (so, so much loss) out of the skirmish for control over a fantasy kingdom. But they’ve both risen to the top of the heap in one of Emmy’s most crowded competitions to date.
THE ODDS: It might boil down to just how sentimental Emmy voters feel. AMC’s “Mad Men” has bagged four drama series prizes in the past, and would set a category record with one more win for its acclaimed final run. But HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is arguably TV’s hottest drama and its dragon-sized (if frequently controversial) fifth season clearly connected with voters. With 24 noms, it not only set a personal record, but also reaped the most Emmy noms of any program this year.
THE CASE FOR ‘MAD MEN’: If you’re making a list of all-time best dramas, “Mad Men” would (or certainly should) be on it. Creator Matthew Weiner graduated from the writing staff of “The Sopranos” to crafting his own series that proved beyond a doubt basic cable could rival premium in terms of quality and ambition. Yes, “Mad Men” has already received its Emmy due, but ending a series in peak form is arguably even more difficult than launching it. And “Mad Men” nailed the finish.
THE CASE FOR ‘GAME OF THRONES’: Smallscreen fantasy used to be ridiculed for tacky visuals and low-caliber storytelling. Now it’s TV’s fastest-growing genre. Pretty much all the credit goes to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ lavish adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels. The showrunners departed from that source material more than ever in the show’s fifth season to craft their own enthralling storylines and jaw-dropping action sequences. Even with a raft of imitators, nothing else compares.
Better Call Saul” (AMC)
The “Breaking Bad” spinoff will be one to watch in coming years, but if it cops the prize in season one it would be quite the surprise.
“Downton Abbey’ (PBS)
The period sudser remains a class act, and served up some delicious plot twists this year. But it’s unlikely to return to the winners circle before next year’s grand farewell.
Besides “Mad Men,” it’s the only nominated show to have already won in this category. After an unnervingly subpar third season, the rebooted thriller returned to form in season four.
“House of Cards” (Netflix)
Don’t put anything past that diabolical schemer Frank Underwood. He landed the presidency, maybe he can land an Emmy too.
“Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix)
Though it received fewer noms than any of its competitors, this prison-set dramedy is one of TV’s most idiosyncratic visions and deserves to be a darkhorse threat.