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Deciding between veteran titans and rising stars

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Pity the poor Emmy judge. Not for all of the performances they have to wade through, but for having to decide between veteran titans and rising stars.

For having to pick between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and America Ferrera, Sally Field and Edie Falco, Vanessa Williams and Elizabeth Perkins, Chandra Wilson and Rachel Griffiths. Or any of their nominated competition in the actress categories for the Primetime Emmys. This cup doesn't just runneth over -- it practically bubbles with talent. The 23 nominees in the actress categories have 71 nominations and 13 Emmys between them -- and the ones who are still trying to grab that first Emmy have just as much of a chance.

Which makes trying to pick through the names an embarrassment of riches (or FX's "The Riches," in the case of Minnie Driver), both for lead and supporting roles. Perhaps recognizing this, there are those who are already working on looking for the silver lining in case they don't win.

"I'm a supporting actor in a business of stars, which means I don't as a rule get a lot of attention," acknowledges Conchata Ferrell, who was nominated along with castmates Holland Taylor, Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer for CBS' "Two and a Half Men." "This kind of recognition allows me to step forward and take a bow, which to my mind really is the best part about the nomination. It's not the winning. It's the recognizing."

Here, our attempts to wade through and properly recognize those who are most likely to go home happiest on Emmy night.

Lead Actress/Comedy Series

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (CBS)
America Ferrera, "Ugly Betty" (ABC)
Tina Fey, "30 Rock" (NBC)
Felicity Huffman, "Desperate Housewives" (ABC)
Mary-Louise Parker, "Weeds" (Showtime)

Two years ago, this category was packed with "Desperate Housewives" regulars, with Huffman, Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross holding down three of the slots. Now it's down to just Huffman, though her win two years ago perhaps gives her a shot this time as well. But that's not the way to bet. Fey has a better-than-average shot at an upset here based on her popularity from NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and the acclaim of being a producer, writer and lead actress (and being nominated for all three), but first-time nominee Ferrera looks like the odds-on choice after having taken the Golden Globe in January.

"It is quite incredible to see all of the wonderful accolades this show has received in such a short amount of time," Ferrera says. The luckiest thing for me is to have a job that feels like recess on the playground."

Although Louis-Dreyfus has won two Emmys and carried this category in 2006, her show has fallen on the buzz scale while the category's competition has risen. So this doesn't figure to be her year. A bit less certain is the fate of Parker, who was snubbed a year ago, generating much grumbling. Her cinematic pedigree also works in her favor, as does her 2006 Golden Globe for the role, for which she knocked off four "Housewives" players.

Asked what she thinks it is about her "Weeds" character Nancy Botwin that's resonated with the awards community, Parker replies, "I don't know -- maybe there are a lot of people who secretly wish they could deal drugs while wearing cool jewelry."

Lead Actress/Drama Series

Patricia Arquette, "Medium" (NBC)
Minnie Driver, "The Riches" (FX)
Edie Falco, "The Sopranos" (HBO)
Sally Field, "Brothers & Sisters" (ABC)
Mariska Hargitay, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC)
Kyra Sedgwick, "The Closer" (TNT)

The past couple of years have seen arguable upsets in this category, and there is no major reason to believe it won't be three straight. That would mean really anyone winning aside from Falco or Sedgwick. Arquette's win in 2005 was particularly unexpected and, to a lesser extent, so was Hargitay's triumph last year. But in both cases, a repeat seems remote.

Field has won not only two Oscars but also a pair of Emmys, including one 30 years ago for the controversial NBC telepic "Sybil," and the industry has much affection for the actress. As for Driver, her film background won't hurt her with this voting group, but the fact that her series, "The Riches," airs on FX might. To her credit, the actress, who was nominated for a 1998 Oscar for "Good Will Hunting," is loathe to minimize the importance of her first Emmy nomination.

"It's a very big deal indeed," Driver says. "This is about affirmation from people in the industry whom you greatly respect. When people acknowledge your work, that isn't something you try to pass off as not such a major thing."

Yet this race is almost certainly fated to come down to Falco and Sedgwick. And as Falco has already earned three Emmys and Sedgwick none (this is her second Emmy nomination), James Duff, the executive producer and showrunner on "The Closer," surmises that his actress is in greater need of praise in print than is the "Sopranos" lead.

"The thing people need to know about Kyra," Duff says, "is that not only does she have the largest speaking role on television, she pulls it off every week with grace."

Supporting Actress/Comedy Series

Conchata Ferrell, "Two and a Half Men" (CBS)
Jenna Fischer, "The Office" (NBC)
Elizabeth Perkins, "Weeds" (Showtime)
Jaime Pressly, "My Name Is Earl" (NBC)
Holland Taylor, "Two and a Half Men" (CBS)
Vanessa Williams, "Ugly Betty" (ABC)

Any of four nominees (and possibly all six) have a strong shot at victory in a truly wide-open category featuring two first-time nominees in Fischer and Williams and a pair of two-timers in Perkins and Pressly (each nominated for the second consecutive year). Taylor has won once; nobody else here has been so honored.

The buzz factor stands to mildly favor Fischer here, who was widely viewed as having been robbed out of a nomination a year ago. And it sounds as if she would prove an emotional winner. "I'm not one of those people who takes being nominated lightly," she says. "As a little girl, I never dreamed of an Oscar but an Emmy, because playing a memorable character on TV is all I've ever wanted."

We'll have to see about the Emmy part. But Fischer is halfway there. Pressly also looks to be a strong contender with the praise surrounding her work on "My Name Is Earl," while Perkins could pull off the upset in the dark horse role. Not that she's necessarily thinking of it that way.

"It's hard to buy into the whole horse-race mentality that awards seem to generate in our business," Perkins says. "But I will say this: All of the people from 'Weeds' are completely stoned all of the time, particularly when we have to go out in public. That's why we were all hired in the first place!" She's kidding, of course. I think.

Supporting Actress/Drama Series

Lorraine Bracco, "The Sopranos" (HBO)
Rachel Griffiths, "Brothers & Sisters" (ABC)
Katherine Heigl, "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)
Sandra Oh, "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)
Aida Turturro, "The Sopranos" (HBO)
Chandra Wilson, "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)

Here we have a category where the nominees have a collective 15 nods between them but not a single win. That will change for one of them (or, if there's a tie, two of them).

The question, of course, is who? Might the trophy go to one of the "Sopranos" regulars as the show rides off into the sunset?

Bracco has now been nominated four times, Turturro twice.

This is the third nomination for Griffiths, her first two coming for "Six Feet Under" in 2002 and 2003. Then you have the "Grey's Anatomy" trio of Heigl (her first nomination), Wilson (her second) and Oh (her third, to go along with a Golden Globe win in 2006). Usually, when gauging awards races, you caution that actresses nominated from the same show stand likely to split the vote and open the door for somebody else. But what about when it's split three ways?

Prediction: Heigl swoops in to snare the prize on the strength of her having starred in the blockbuster hit "Knocked Up" this summer. But the Emmy could easily fall any of the other five ways, too. In the absence of any past wins, it's almost too close to call.

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