Emmys 2011: It's (Almost) Anyone's Race in This Year's Drama Actress Field

11:55 PM PST 08/08/2011 by Tim Appelo
From left: Bill Records/NBC; Jeffrey Neira/CBS; Lewis Jacobs/NBC; AMC (2); Will Hart/NBC

Julianna Margulies, who lost in an upset last year, looks like the front-runner. But tell that to the five other nominees -- all of whom have a legitimate shot at glory.

If you want to wipe the smile off an Emmy pundit's face, ask her or him to put money on one of the drama actress races. It's a great way to lose cash fast.

Last year, everybody would have bet the ranch on The Good Wife's lead Julianna Margulies, who had won a Golden Globe and a SAG award. But Margulies made the smart money look stupid by losing to Kyra Sedgwick.

Now, Margulies -- owner of a staggering 28 Globe, SAG and Emmy noms or wins -- is back and poised to earn her deferred Emmy. After all, she triumphed at SAG again in 2011, a record-breaking seventh win. Yet it remains entirely possible that she could lose to two-time lead actress contender Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men. Or 2006 winner Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order SVU. Or The Killing's upstart Mireille Enos. Or Friday Night Lights' fan favorite Connie Britton. Or surprise contender Kathy Bates of Harry's Law.

You get the point.

So what's a pundit to do? Maybe it's better to give up on predicting these races and instead size up the forces that are driving each candidate. What would the wins signify in each case? Let's focus on the probable winners (bearing in mind that we're in an unusually unknowable zone):

Margulies Her Emmy would demonstrate not only her own perdurable allure to voters, but the salvation of that once almost extinct species: the network drama.

"When The Good Wife came, I was scared to do it because it wasn't cable," Margulies tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Because I had done network before, and I was worried about getting watered down and all that stuff. But I love the script so much, and I felt like it had good movie producers behind it that would keep it on track." They did. If nets hire cable-quality talent and resist the impulse to water things down, they can bounce back the same way Detroit did in the face of Japanese car competition: by improving the product.

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Moss It's hard to imagine that Mad Men has been wholesale-snubbed for acting Emmys-- probably because the performance styles are those that Emmy historically dislikes: emotionally restrained, ensemble-oriented and with a stately pace (Emmy likes splashy, with tears in the mix). With her submitted episode, the splashy, emotionally raw "The Suitcase" -- tightly focused on her long-simmering relationship with Jon Hamm's Don Draper -- Moss would represent a new triumph of the show's recently more accessible emotional quality.

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Hargitay Her win would prove that old ways are the best ways in Emmy's eyes. Formulas and familiar faces rule.

Enos Her Emmy would signal radical change, a shift in taste from demonstrativeness toward somber inwardness. Enos would have the most nearly immobile face in Emmy-winning history.

Britton Another radical change, in the direction of improv and indie-cinema spirit. The ghost of John Cassavetes would smile.

Bates Proof that a towering talent with an Oscar and eight Emmy noms can transcend an aggressively eccentric show much less respected than she.

The supporting drama actress race is even more bewildering this year.

At first, Kelly Macdonald, who shared the SAG ensemble drama prize this year, seemed a lock at the peak of Boardwalk Empire fever last winter. It would go to show that it pays to be the most-raved performer in the year's biggest HBO series. And supporting in what amounts to an epic movie trumps triumph in a mere TV show.

But last year's second-most shocking winner (after Sedgwick) was Archie Panjabi, Margulies' exotic supporting co-star, who is nominated again. Emmy voters often prove creatures of habit -- ask Hargitay, nominated annually since 2004 -- and Panjabi's profile on the show didn't get any lower after her win. Christine Baranski seems relatively unlikely to beat Macdonald and heist her Good Wife colleague Panjabi's Emmy spotlight, but it's not as unlikely as Panjabi having won.

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And of course The Killing's Michelle Forbes, Justified's Margo Martindale and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks could all be the Panjabi of 2011. Each has way more heat this year than Panjabi did last year, with Martindale in particular generating a downright toasty glow. After all, who cares how young and skinny you are (or aren't)? All you need are brilliant dialogue, a juicy death scene and an onscreen presence more powerful than a poisoned kick of apple-pie moonshine.

For viewers who love as many twists and turns in their Emmys as they do in the dramas that showcase these performers, the race has never been sweeter.           

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