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Emmys 2017: Handicapping the Top Series and Performer Races

It’s that time of year again, when champagne corks are popped all over Hollywood in honor of the Television Academy’s Emmy nominations. But the true celebration cannot begin until the winners are announced live on Sept. 17. With so much high-quality TV vying for the top prizes — and some surprises among the nominees — it’s shaping up to be one of the most competitive Emmy seasons in years. Here, Variety breaks down the key races.

Drama Series
Taking the torch from “Game of Thrones,” which has been the most-nominated series for the past few years, is fellow HBO genre series “Westworld.” The sci-fi thriller is tied with long-running variety sketch series “Saturday Night Live” at 22 noms this year, the most of any series. More notably, it’s also one of five freshman series in the race — and that buzz may well boost it over long-in-the-tooth “House of Cards” (six noms for the Netflix drama), or even two-time nominee AMC’s “Better Call Saul” (nine noms), though it’s coming off its strongest season yet. Netflix has two other solid contenders in the pack: breakout supernatural series “Stranger Things,” which is close on “Westworld’s” heels with an impressive 19 nominations, and period piece “The Crown” (13). Never underestimate the Academy’s love for all things British (see “Downton Abbey”). Hulu’s first entry into the field, the dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale,” made a splashy debut as well, with 13 overall noms. But voters could be swayed by the popular favorite: NBC’s “This Is Us” (11 noms), broadcast’s first dramatic series to make the ballot since 2011.

Drama Actor
Last year the Academy crowned a first-time nominee (“Mr. Robot’s” Rami Malek); this year voters left him out of the running. If they want to make that out-of-the-box win a trend rather than a one-off, they have several choices in the lineup: this year’s first-timers Anthony Hopkins (for HBO’s “Westworld”) or either of “This Is Us” co-stars Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia. Brown may be favored to win (still basking in his Emmy glow from last year’s turn as Chris Darden), but should he split the vote with his castmate, there’s competition from returning favorites Bob Odenkirk (AMC’s “Better Call Saul”), Kevin Spacey (Netflix’s “House of Cards”), Liev Schreiber (Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”) and Matthew Rhys (FX’s “The Americans”). This is Odenkirk’s third nomination in the role, while Spacey has seen the honor four times before, Schreiber twice, and Rhys just once (last year). Given the Academy’s snub of “The Americans” in the drama race, it’s Odenkirk who stands out among the vets.

Drama Actress
Only two nominees are returning from 2016’s slate — last year’s winner, Tatiana Maslany, was not even eligible due to the air date of her BBC America series “Orphan Black.” Among the returning stars — Viola Davis (ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder”), Keri Russell (FX’s “The Americans”) and Robin Wright (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) — Davis won the trophy in 2015, while Wright has been nominated since 2013 but never won. And “The Americans” may not have enough heat to carry Russell. So the race looks to be among the newcomers: Evan Rachel Wood (HBO’s “Westworld”), Claire Foy (Netflix’s “The Crown”) and Elisabeth Moss (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”). Moss, who was nominated six times in both the lead and supporting categories for her role on “Mad Men” but never won, is the one to beat here.

Comedy Series
Will the winner of the past two years’ top comedy honors prevail, or can a younger show break through? The returning champion, HBO’s “Veep,” is once again a heavy-hitter across comedy categories with 17 nominations, up one from 2016 and solidifying a new series-best record. This makes dethroning seem unlikely, especially since the closest one by the numbers is “Silicon Valley” (also from HBO), which is down one nomination from last year at 10. Among the rest of the competition, the sophomore season of Netflix’s “Master of None” comes in at eight nominations, with freshman powerhouse “Atlanta” from FX at six, and Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” at five for its third year. The broadcast competitors — ABC’s “Black-ish” and “Modern Family” — have fewer than five noms each. “Black-ish” took four, including the coveted lead actor and actress, in addition to comedy series and guest actress, while “Modern Family” only took three (series, supporting actor and sound mixing). “Atlanta” grabbed the Golden Globe, but “Veep” may well continue to ride the political wave to Emmy glory.

Comedy Actor
Two-time winner for his role on Amazon’s “Transparent,” Jeffrey Tambor seems like an easy winner once again. But his show surprisingly failed to score a series nom, and the roster boasts returning favorites Anthony Anderson (ABC’s “Black-ish”), Aziz Ansari (Netflix’s “Master of None”) and William H. Macy (Showtime’s “Shameless”), as well as newcomers Zach Galifianakis (FX’s “Baskets”) and Donald Glover (FX’s “Atlanta”). While Galifianakis is a wild card, fellow freshman Glover stands a strong chance at taking the trophy after winning the Golden Globe in the comedy acting category earlier this year.

Comedy Actress
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has taken this category every year since HBO’s “Veep” premiered in 2012, and 2017 looks to continue that tradition. She’s also poised to break some records: Her sixth consecutive nom for her role as the profane politico Selina Meyer puts her in line to tie Cloris Leachman’s record of eight Emmy wins as a performer, as well as break the record of five wins for by a performer for the same role. Joining Louis-Dreyfus on the ballot are Pamela Adlon from FX’s “Better Things,” Tracee Ellis Ross from ABC’s “Black-ish,” Allison Janney from CBS’ “Mom,” Ellie Kemper from Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and both Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin from Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.” Strong competition indeed, but an upset is unlikely.

Limited Series
For a second year in a row, FX comes in with two notable contenders: “Feud: Bette and Joan” achieved 19 nominations, while the third installment in anthology drama “Fargo” received 16. But HBO is offering stiff competition: Its high-profile adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel “Big Little Lies” from David E. Kelley also received 16 nominations and boasts rare turns on TV for stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. The premium cabler also has the gritty crime drama “The Night Of,” which scored a strong 13 noms. The fifth slot went to National Geographic’s “Genius,” which landed 10 noms — impressive but not enough to topple the favorites. While “Fargo” claimed the prize in its first season, this time it’ll have to cede the trophy to either “Feud” or “Big Little Lies.”

TV Movie
HBO’s Bernie Madoff project, “The Wizard of Lies,” is the frontrunner here, not only for its pedigree but also for tying with number of overall nominations (at four) with PBS’ “Sherlock: The Lying Detective.” “Sherlock,” last year’s winner, is a strong number two in the category, but the race is more complicated by the fact that HBO has another contender in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book adaptation stars Oprah Winfrey and could have an edge if the Academy can’t bear to see her walk away empty-handed (she was snubbed in the actress race, but is eligible here as a producer of the project, which earned only one nom). The category rounds out with “Black Mirror: San Junipero” from Netflix, which received two noms for this episode of the anthology drama (“Nosedive” landed one as well), as well as “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors” from NBC, which received one nom.

Limited Series/Movie Actor
Four-time nominee for PBS’ “Sherlock,” Benedict Cumberbatch is nominated once again, this time for “Sherlock: The Lying Detective.” His consistent presence on the ballot would mark him as the automatic frontrunner — and he’s played spoiler before (he took the trophy from the heavily favored Billy Bob Thornton in 2014). However, this time around he is up against Robert De Niro (HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies”), who could take the title on name recognition alone. John Turturro and Riz Ahmed — both first-timers in this category — both delivered powerhouse performances in HBO’s “The Night Of,” though they could split the vote. Ewan McGregor (FX’s “Fargo”) may sway some voters impressed by his dual role, while Geoffrey Rush (National Geographic’s “Genius”) is likely a long shot.

Limited Series/Movie Actress
Seven-time nominee (and two-time winner) in this category, Jessica Lange, is back again, this time representing FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.” She is joined by her “Feud” co-star Susan Sarandon, as well as “Big Little Lies” co-stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, “Fargo’s” Carrie Coon and “American Crime’s” Felicity Huffman. This is the third time Huffman has been nominated in this category, while it marks the second for both Kidman and Sarandon; it’s the first ever for both Witherspoon and Coon. This one’s too close to call — voters will be torn between the co-stars of “Feud” and “Lies.” And they love nothing more than rewarding a movie star for doing TV.

Variety Talk Series
Politics is dominating the headlines as well as this race: The lineup reflects those shows that tackled the news onslaught headlong. Returning champ, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” is once again the one to beat, with eight noms across categories. But he’ll have to fend off popular new nominees, TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (which scored seven noms), as well as the host of the award show itself: Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” made a triumphant return to the category with three noms. And then there’s Colbert’s CBS stablemate James Corden, who landed two for his popular “Late Late Show” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which has three noms. HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” made the cut with only one nomination — a surprising choice, perhaps, given the recent controversy surrounding his racially insensitive remarks.

Reality Competition Series
For the second year in a row, this race boasts a first-time contender. After winning the trophy for reality host at the 2016 Emmys (and moving to VH1), “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is up for the top series prize, knocking long-time Academy favorite “Dancing with the Stars” out of the running. In fact, “Drag Race” has the second-most nominations out of all reality competition series this year with eight, making it a strong freshman contender to take on category champs “The Amazing Race” (three noms) and “The Voice” (eight noms) this year, both of which have won multiple times. “The Voice” has won for the last two years, while “Race” has 10 wins to its credit. The rest of the line-up looks very familiar: Lifetime’s “Project Runway” has five, while Bravo’s “Top Chef” and category sophomore “American Ninja Warrior” from NBC have only one nomination each.

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