Emmy's actor race is a (mostly) level playing field

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This year's actor pool reflects an even mix of stalwarts and newcomers.

Every year during the post-Emmy nomination churn, certain arguments get a lot of play: Broadcast can't beat cable! Newcomers are shut out!

For the first time in a while, those discussions are a bit more muted.

In the ongoing war between cable and broadcast, there was at least one major surprise this year: DirecTV managed to field a lead acting candidate for the first time in Kyle Chandler after his four seasons on "Friday Night Lights." And broadcast made a meaningful resurgence in both lead and supporting categories, thanks to breakout hits "Glee" and "Modern Family."

Those two series alone landed five of the 24 primary acting categories; nonbroadcast acting nominations take up just nine of the acting slots up for grabs in 2010 compared with last year's 10.

Perhaps a detente has been achieved between distribution models, leaving more room to search for the best of the best among new and familiar faces.

Lead actor in a comedy has only one newbie -- Matthew Morrison ("Glee") -- with the rest repeat nominees from last year: Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory"), Tony Shalhoub ("Monk"), Steve Carell ("The Office") and Alec Baldwin ("30 Rock").

Shalhoub and Carell have an edge in that their final seasons ("Monk" is canceled; Carell has confirmed his 2011 departure from "The Office") could call for a sentimental vote. Carell has never won for his role as the hapless Michael Scott, though Shalhoub has three wins as the OCD-addled private investigator. Their main stumbling block is Baldwin, who has won for the past two years and is still going strong, but no one has managed a three-peat in this category in more than 10 years.

As for Morrison's chances, the acting on "Glee" isn't its main appeal, which leaves Parsons more room to score what some consider an overdue win.

For Chuck Lorre, pitting actors from such shows as "Glee" and "The Office" against his "Big Bang" and "Two and a Half Men" somewhat muddies the actor race waters.

"It's not a level playing field," he says. "The actors on 'Men' and 'Big Bang' are putting on a live performance in front of a studio audience, while other comedies are (essentially) making a movie every week."

That debate aside, voters consistently look for at least one key element in every performance, says the academy's senior vp awards John Leverence: Range.

"With 'Breaking Bad,' you have a lead character who is a mousy high school chemistry teacher and also a ruthless drug dealer," he says. "That kind of range and writing is very appealing to performer/voters."

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This is one reason that "Bad's" Bryan Cranston is a heavy favorite for a drama actor three-peat. But he's up against other big-range personalities, including strong contender Michael C. Hall ("Dexter"); the critically beloved Chandler; five-time nominee Hugh Laurie ("House"); first-time nominee Matthew Fox ("Lost"); and Jon Hamm ("Mad Men") who has been nominated every year since the show began (he's also up for a comedy guest actor slot for "30 Rock").

Over in the supporting actor categories, newcomers are more plentiful.

The cast of "Modern Family" made good on their gamble to submit only in the supporting categories, but now they have three actors fighting over one trophy: Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, who play a gay couple on the show, and Ty Burrell. While co-stars routinely end up together in these categories, there hasn't been a setup like this in more than a decade, if ever.

Despite the threat of a split vote, Burrell supports his show's submission strategy.

"For our first year, symbolically, it was a very cool thing and we all felt right about it," he says. "My preference is that (Ferguson and Stonestreet) win in a tie and we can have the first civil union of Emmy winners."

The "Family" block is bracketed by newcomer Chris Colfer ("Glee"); Neil Patrick Harris ("How I Met Your Mother"), who also has a nomination for guest actor in a comedy; and last year's winner Jon Cryer ("Two and a Half Men"). Cryer's win came as a surprise last year, underscoring a live-comedy-is-still-alive theme, but the "Family" affair could turn the trend in another direction if the three candidates don't cancel each other out.

That would leave room for the resurgent favorite, Harris, to take the repeat away from Cryer. And perhaps it's time. The pair have competed against one another in the category every year since 2007.

The race for supporting actor in a drama has its own miniblock, with "Lost" actors (and previous winners) Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson challenging the show's voter-fans to choose between their favorite enigmas.

With "Lost" over and both actors already honored (2007 for Quinn, 2009 for Emerson), they have only a remote chance of being noticed. There have been no repeat winners in this category since the new millennium, and voters tend toward more versatile and solid character actors, evidenced in 2008 by Zeljko Ivanek's win for "Damages."

That trend doesn't bode well for the excellent Martin Short ("Damages"), John Slattery ("Mad Men") or Andre Braugher ("Men of a Certain Age") but it does telegraph that "Breaking Bad" may soon have a second Emmy winner in the much-buzzed-about Aaron Paul.

"He certainly deserves it," says the show's creator Vince Gilligan, who admits he'd be "disingenuous" to say he wouldn't like more Emmy recognition for the AMC drama.
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