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Emmys 2011: The 10 Contests That Matter

Some unexpected contenders are shaking up the odds, making this year's Emmys a refreshing break from business as usual.

"Modern Family" (ABC)
ABC/Karen Neal

As The Hollywood Reporter's designated Emmy predictor, I was 76 percent correct in forecasting the nominations. (With 77 percent, I would have tied for Best Forecaster in the Gold Derby national Emmy pundits poll. Just saying.) But what's fun about the race, since nominations were announced, is what was unexpected: HBO's trouncing of AMC, Kyra Sedgwick's and Lea Michele's snubs and the emergence of dark-horse contenders like Johnny Galecki and Melissa McCarthy -- who was so shocked to hear her own name while announcing the nominations that she almost collapsed. "My left knee completely buckled," she tells THR. "I thought: 'You're in a skirt. Don't pass out!' " To help you avoid such unsettling surprises, here is our guide to the 10 most exciting races, who's going to win and what it all might mean.

PHOTOS: Emmy Nomination Snubs, Shockers and Surprises

BEST DRAMA

The Field For the first time since 2005, HBO has two contenders in the category -- Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones -- and a near lock on this award. Even if AMC's Mad Men prevails, predictions (like mine) that AMC might eclipse HBO's Emmy dominance were wrong.

The biggest news in the most important Emmy race is HBO's surprise hit, Thrones. Pundits thought it was too weird, too confusingly complicated and too late an entry even to get a nom. And it's in the Emmy-despised fantasy genre. Critic Troy Patterson dissed it as "quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap." (Seen Harry Potter's grosses lately? Audiences crave a dragon ride.) It's likely that fewer voters actually saw Thrones than, say, Boardwalk -- but they sure heard somebody tell them they simply had to. TV Academy chair John Shaffner tells THR it's the most buzzed-about new show, hailed in places you wouldn't expect. "There has been an undercurrent that's reached all the way into the membership," he says. Academy senior vp awards John Leverence says Thrones is this year's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose perpetual Emmy snub caused an uprising. True Blood broke the Emmy curse on the genre with a nom last year but didn't get a bite this time around. Thrones shows that fantasy can rule. If Thrones earns an incredible win in September, look for a dragon invasion on TV. As for fan favorite Friday Night Lights, nominated for the first time for its final season, sadly, it's still an Emmy long shot at best.

The Winner Most likely the prestige-reeking Boardwalk, whose Emmy-contending "Pilot" episode cost nearly $20 million -- likely more than half a season of Mad Men. But Men, in its best season yet, actually got more Emmy noms (19, to Boardwalk's 18) and could edge out the HBO series with a historic fourth consecutive win, equaling NBC's The West Wing and Hill Street Blues.

Emmy Trivia: Friday Night Lights isn't the first drama to get its one and only series nomination for its final season. Star Trek: The Next Generation also earned thedistinction, in 1994.

PHOTOS: 2011 Emmy Nominations

BEST COMEDY

The Field The academy is finally getting the message that comedy nominees need to be funny: Nurse Jackie and The Big C weren't nominated, and yuk-a-minute Modern Family rules, actually benefiting from castmember Ed O'Neill's shocking snub last year. The biggest shock of all: All of this year's six nominated comedies are network shows.

The Winner Stop me if you've heard this: Modern Family will win. Again. Chomping at its giant heels are The Big Bang Theory, a 2011 Globe nominee, and Parks and Recreation, which has that Friday Night Lights/underdog thing going. The Office, 30 Rock and Glee might actually be better shows, but as Emmy hopefuls, they're toast.

Emmy Trivia: The last time all of the comedy series nominees were network shows was in 2005, when Everybody Loves Raymond took home the top prize.

ANALYSIS: The Emmys Revert to (Bad) Form

MINISERIES/MOVIES

The Field Although many suspect that the merging of the movie and miniseries categories was basically done to keep HBO from dominating yet again, no dice. Unlike Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones, no HBO exec need fear certain beheading.

The Winner Mildred Pierce. Downton Abbey may be better, but PBS' campaign budget (jestingly estimated at $29) won't catch enough voters' attention. Starz's The Pillars of the Earth also has small-profile problems. The Kennedys got more respect than anyone expected, but voters are more apt to watch it than admit it in the morning. Too Big to Fail is an all-star ensemble, but Kate Winslet is the one who's too big to fail.

Emmy Trivia: The most Emmys won by a miniseries has been 13, by HBO's John Adams in 2008.

STORY: Emmy Nominations 2011: Full List

DRAMA ACTRESS

The Winner It's the year's most unpredictable race, with two big surprise noms: Harry's Law's Kathy Bates and The Killing's Mireille Enos, who survived a firestorm of criticism following the series' red-herring season finale. There's also perennial nominee Mariska Hargitay, Mad Men's skyrocketing Elisabeth Moss, Friday Night Lights' Connie Britton and Julianna Margulies of The Good Wife. "Network talent did really well this year," says Shaffner. "The bar continues to be raised by cable, and the networks are trying harder than ever before." Leverence notes that the nets are challenging cable's Emmy-nom lead: "I did some studying, and I got non-cable 47 percent and cable 53 percent. When you put in a factor of error, it's virtually a dead heat."

The Winner Margulies. After an unbelievable loss last year to five-time nominee Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), the good wife is a good bet (and Sedgwick got the Emmy-nom snub this time). As surprises go, Moss could pull an upset thanks to her killer Mad Men episode "The Suitcase."

Emmy Trivia: Kathy Bates is the sole Oscar winner among this year's series acting nominees.

STORY: Emmy Nominations: 'Mildred Pierce,' 'Mad Men' Lead

COMEDY ACTRESS

The Field Nobody was more stunned by their noms than Mike & Molly's Melissa McCarthy and Raising Hope's Martha Plimpton. Riding high from Bridesmaids and Mike & Molly, McCarthy is now the one everybody's talking about -- not Glee's Lea Michele, who was snubbed this year.

The Winner Laura Linney (The Big C). Yes, Emmy legend Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) was last year's champ, but Linney won the best Emmy predictor prize, the Golden Globe (her second), in January. She also co-starred in the Emmy hauler John Adams and has three Oscar noms plus Tony mentions

DRAMA ACTOR

The Field For Mad Men's front-runner Jon Hamm, it's the best of times and the worst. Chronic winner Bryan Cranston is out because of Breaking Bad's hiatus, giving Hamm a shot. But rival Steve Buscemi of Boardwalk Empire won the Globe and SAG awards and outranks him in movie and Emmy-winning prestige. If Hamm wins, it's because his tight-lipped character finally opened his emotional kimono. For all its hoopla, Mad Men has never won acting Emmys, perhaps because until now it has been too restrained.

The Winner Buscemi or Hamm in a dead heat. It would be infinitely more satisfying if Kyle Chandler completed a Hail Mary pass and seized the Emmy in the last sudden-death-overtime moment of Friday Night Lights, but count on HBO or AMC to propel one of their men to victory.

VIDEO: Emmy Roundtable: Drama Actors

COMEDY ACTOR

The Field Amazingly, both Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki and last year's winner, Jim Parsons, are competing. "There'll be a cage match," Galecki tells THR. "I'm doing my crunches now." Ironically, Galecki was originally sought for Parsons' role.

The Winner Steve Carell (The Office). The academy is rife with grief about his exit from the show -- and likely a little embarrassed for having snubbed the actor five times.

MINISERIES/MOVIES ACTRESS

The Field It's a two-dame race between Diane Lane (Cinema Verite) and Oscar winner Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce, which got more Emmy noms, 21, than any other show). But there were surprises, too. Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (The Tiffany Rubin Story) adds needed racial diversity to the contest. Other unexpected noms: Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) and Jean Marsh (Upstairs Downstairs). But the real news was Lane's recognition for Verite. Who knew her star power could rival that of the massively promoted Winslet?

The Winner Winslet. Like Claire Danes riding last year's Temple Grandin tsunami, Winslet's epic will sweep away the small fry.

PHOTOS: David Strick 2011 Emmy Nominees

SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY

The Field Chris Colfer is still Glee's biggest breakout star, but he's not "funny." (Maybe if he were as huge a star as Linney or Falco, we'd forgive this.) Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men) got his Emmy in 2009, and while nobody blames him for Charlie Sheen's implosion, few are itching to fete the show. Modern Family's quadruple supporting noms (Jesse T. Ferguson, Ed O'Neill, Eric Stonestreet, Ty Burrell) show that ensembles have the upper hand over single-star-based comedies. Many say there should be an Emmy for ensemble, like SAG's. Family's series win will in effect be that award -- again.

The Winner Somebody from Modern Family. Many are rooting for Burrell, but last year's winner, Stonestreet, is still a huge fan favorite. (Sorry, Ed.)

Emmy Trivia: Cheers is the only other series to have all of its eligible supporting actors -- like those on Modern Family -- nominated in a single year (1990).

REALITY COMPETITION

The Field The seven-year struggle to give anyone besides The Amazing Race the Emmy ended in 2010, when Top Chef cooked up a surprise win. American Idol has historically screwed itself by submitting performance episodes instead of those emphasizing competition. "It is a reality competition," says Shaffner. "But for a lot of people, it's just a talent show."

The Winner Idol. If not now, when? The Fox ratings champ bounced back from a bad 2010 season with a golden one. And let's face it: It has to make Emmy hay before The Voice has time to outshine it.