Pair dressed to kill as Emmy comes calling

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If all holds to form -- an iffy proposition, to be sure -- things figure to get ugly during Thursday's predawn announcement of nominations for the 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences headquarters in North Hollywood.

That's ugly as in the freshman ABC hit comedy (and 2007 Golden Globe winner) "Ugly Betty" and the mob goombahs of HBO's swan-songing "The Sopranos," both of which stand to attract honors in the healthy double digits when the list is released before the awakening of most roosters at 5:35 a.m. PDT.

"Ugly Betty" is a virtual shoo-in as an outstanding comedy series nominee, as is America Ferrera (another Globe winner) for lead comedy actress. The stiffest category competition is likely to come from the formidable NBC Thursday night duo of "The Office" and the rookie "30 Rock," whose critical buzz, if not its ratings, built as the season rolled along. Others given solid shots to crack the comedy list include HBO's "Entourage" and "Extras," NBC's "Scrubs," Showtime's "Weeds" and CBS's "Two and a Half Men."

Indeed, this year's comedy lineup looks to be more competitive than the drama series group, which, barring a small miracle, will almost certainly be dominated by "The Sopranos." The smart money says it will emerge as the most-nominated series this year as well as quite possibly the most-cited single program period, generating Emmy attention across the board, including lead and supporting acting, writing and direction as well as top drama.

It is in fact difficult to imagine any other hourlong series slowing what is poised to be a "Sopranos" victory parade, given the immense hype that greeted the iconic series' two-pronged final season and of course the unprecedented guessing game surrounding its confounding finale in June. That the biggest explosion of buzz and chatter unfolded just as ballots were being marked probably won't hurt its chances of taking home numerous prizes in September. It should preside as the heaviest of favorites, producing a momentum that could spell victory for leads Edie Falco and James Gandolfini as well.

Of course, if we learned anything last year, it's that sure things are the stuff of fantasy when it comes to the Emmys. Three-time victors Falco and Gandolfini weren't even nominated last year, nor was "House" star Hugh Laurie (a Globe winner for the role in January) or ABC's acclaimed "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives."

Among the shows challenging "Sopranos" for drama series supremacy are likely to be ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost," the Fox medical drama "House" (nominated for an Emmy a year ago despite the snub of its star), 2006 winner "24" (widely perceived to have suffered its worst season creatively this past year), NBC's first-year hit "Heroes" and critical darling "Friday Night Lights" as well as possibly ABC's "Boston Legal" from Emmy powerhouse David E. Kelley.

Giving chase to Falco in the lead drama acting category are expected to be Sally Field (a winner of two Oscars and a pair of Emmys) for ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," Kyra Sedgwick for TNT's "The Closer," Mariska Hargitay (who won a year ago) for NBC's "Law & Order: SVU," Minnie Driver for FX's "The Riches," Connie Britton for "Friday Night Lights," Patricia Arquette -- the surprise victor in 2005 -- for NBC's "Medium" and "Brothers & Sisters" co-star Calista Flockhart. Strong contenders among the actors include Laurie, Denis Leary for the acclaimed FX firefighter drama "Rescue Me," Michael C. Hall for "Dexter," 2006 champ Kiefer Sutherland for "24," Kyle Chandler for "Friday Night Lights" and "Boston Legal's" James Spader (who took home the gold in the category in 2004 and '05).

Meanwhile, for lead comedy actor, it's tough to bet against Tony Shalhoub, who has won three of the past four years for his role as the obsessive-compulsive investigator on USA Network's "Monk." His win a year ago was considered something of an upset in claiming the trophy over Steve Carell for "The Office." This time, the category is poised to be a three-way race among Shalhoub, Carell and "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin, who might be punished for his notorious hostile cell phone message to his daughter that made national news. Baldwin earned the Golden Globe this year and could well claim the Emmy as his brush with scandal fades from memory. Also in the running: 2006 nominees Charlie Sheen for "Two and a Half Men," Kevin James for the final season of CBS' "The King of Queens" and Zach Braff for "Scrubs."

Heading the roster of potential nominees for comedy actress are Ferrera, who might even be labeled a favorite to go home a winner on Emmy night. Those giving chase figure to include 2006 victor Julia-Louis Dreyfus for CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine," Mary-Louise Parker for "Weeds," Tina Fey for "30 Rock," Felicity Huffman for "Desperate Housewives" and -- as a long shot -- Sarah Silverman for Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program."

The trump card looming over the proceedings is the latest in what's become an annual series of tweaks to the nomination process designed to distribute the Emmy wealth farther and wider in terms of networks, shows and individuals. But none of the alterations is expected to open the party to such long-passed-over shows as Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica," the CW's network's "Gilmore Girls" (this year switching from comedy series consideration to drama, where it also probably won't make any difference) and HBO's "The Wire," long hailed by critics as a work of art and ignored by ATAS voters as irrelevant. Also, the superb FX dramas "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" are still seeking their first noms for outstanding drama.

Speaking of not catching a break, TV's biggest hit, Fox's "American Idol," is poised to become the most significant flop in Emmy annals this year. Not only has the show lost out to CBS' "The Amazing Race" in the reality-competition series grouping for four consecutive years, it has zero statuettes to show for its 22 nominations all told. If it remains winless for three more nominations, "Idol" will tie "The Bob Newhart Show" for greatest Emmy futility. Four more and it stands alone. Stay tuned.

The outstanding made-for-TV movie and miniseries races should again be dominated by longform powerhouse HBO. Its telepic entries this year are paced by the formidable quartet of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," "Longford," "Life Support" and "Angel Rodriguez," with challenges coming from the Lifetime duo "A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story" and "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy." In miniseries, HBO's "Tsunami: The Aftermath" should find itself competing against PBS' "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," starring Helen Mirren; the acclaimed AMC Western "Broken Trail"; BBC America's riveting "The State Within"; and USA Network's "The Starter Wife."

Emmy statuettes covering a majority of the prominent categories will be handed out Sept. 16 in a ceremony held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and telecast on Fox. The Creative Arts Emmys for various craft, technical and other categories will be dispensed Sept. 8 at the Shrine and telecast on E!
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