Emmy Wrap: Series contenders


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Jim Parsons wasn't expecting to hear his name in the company of Emmy veterans Alec Baldwin and Steve Carell when this year's nominations were announced. And the breakout star of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" wasn't the only one. Back home in Houston, Parsons' mom was equally starstruck. "She said, 'Those are household names!' " Parsons recalls. "I thought that was both sweet and not at all comforting."

Parsons isn't alone in feeling like a freshman at the senior prom. This year's rejiggered rules have welcomed an unusual number of first-timers to the Emmy party. Major categories expanded to six nominees, which swelled to seven because of ties in the drama and comedy series categories. The television academy doesn't release voting results, but many believe that shows like HBO's comedy series nominee "Flight of the Conchords" and acting talent like Sarah Silverman (Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program") likely benefited from the change.

"I would guess it squeaked us in," says "Breaking Bad" (AMC) creator Vince Gilligan of the seven nomination slots in the drama series category. "But it doesn't diminish the honor one bit."

Given the wider playing field, though, what chance does a newbie like "Breaking" have against a reigning champ like AMC's other series, "Mad Men"? Can Emmy virgin Elisabeth Moss ride the "Mad Men" wave to win for lead actress in a drama against a pack of veterans, including last year's winner Glenn Close of FX's "Damages"?

Historically, first-timers are in good company, according to data from the TV academy. In 1979, "Taxi" won for comedy series for its first season. "Cheers" and lead actress Shelley Long took home trophies their first time nominated, as did "Frasier" and its resident shrink, Kelsey Grammer. Other first-time nominees who walked off with series statuettes include "The Cosby Show," "The Golden Girls," "L.A. Law," "Picket Fences," "The Wonder Years" and "thirtysomething."

More recently, hardly anyone expected Fox's "Arrested Development," a ratings cellar dweller, to win in 2004 for its critically acclaimed first season. The prize for comedy series, along with four other Emmys, helped keep it on the air for three seasons.

And who knew that Ricky Gervais, a first-time nominee for lead actor in a comedy in 2007 for the little-seen "Extras," would best Carell and Baldwin? Or that Michael Chiklis would win as lead actor for the edgy FX drama "The Shield" over "The West Wing" stalwart Martin Sheen? The same could be said for newcomer America Ferrera in 2007 when she triumphed over previous winners Felicity Huffman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the comedy actress category.

If there will be out-of-left-field winners, they're more likely to come in the acting races, says TV historian Tim Brooks.

"There's a crowd mentality, and voters tend to go for the same shows over and over," he says. "But they do like to reward rule-breaking shows by rewarding actors in them."

Case in point: Bryan Cranston took home the lead actor in a drama prize last year for "Breaking," the critically lauded yet little seen AMC series.

Among this year's acting first-timers are three members of the "30 Rock" ensemble, "Saturday Night Live" chameleon Kristen Wiig and Simon Baker from CBS' breakout paranormal crime hit "The Mentalist." Rose Byrne, playing a lawyer with a vendetta, and Hope Davis, playing a lawyer with baggage, landed their first noms for FX's "Damages" and HBO's "In Treatment," respectively.

A first-time nominee in the comedy series category, "Family Guy" (Fox) enjoys the added novelty of being the first animated show in the category since "The Flintstones" in 1961.

But creator Seth MacFarlane isn't polishing his statuette just yet.

"I don't think there's a chance in hell we'll win," he says. "But just getting nominated is the vindication we wanted this year. It's a huge step forward -- it says that animated shows shouldn't be treated any differently than other comedies -- and that's already a win."

The smart money may still be on NBC's "30 Rock," winner for two years running and record-breaker this year for its 22 total nominations. But James Bobin, co-creator of "Flight of the Conchords," sees an advantage to being a newcomer in a broader field.

"People always like the underdog," says Bobin, whose star, Jemain Clement, also is a first-time nominee in the lead actor comedy category. "And the extra nominations are a good idea because they get past the usual suspects."

For the creators of CBS' "How I Met Your Mother," the fresh Emmy attention comes as validation for broadening its appeal over time.

"There's something fun about being on the air three years and just now breaking through, as opposed to being hot out of the oven," co-creator Carter Bays says. "It shows that a nomination can happen later in a show's life."

History backs that up: A number of shows that went on to become Emmy favorites weren't nominated in their freshman seasons. Among those: "Friends," "Sex and the City," "Will & Grace," "Six Feet Under," "24," "Grey's Anatomy," "The Office" and "Boston Legal."

As luck would have it, first-timers like Parsons, "Breaking Bad" co-star Aaron Paul, and the "30 Rock" gang have seasoned Emmy veterans around them to tap for advice. They've taken full advantage, especially when it comes to the serious business of finalizing their Emmy submissions.

Jane Krakowski, a first-time nominee for supporting actress in a comedy, asked Emmy-hoarder Tina Fey for guidance. Fey suggested Krakowski submit the episode where Jenna falls for a paramedic and tries to snare him by sacrificing poor Kenneth the page. Krakowski didn't dare disagree. "You can't trust anyone more than Tina Fey."

Parsons, after celebrating his nom with a pint of organic ice cream, chatted with "Big Bang" showrunner Chuck Lorre before settling on the episode, dubbed "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis," where nerdy genius Sheldon picked a Christmas present for hottie neighbor Penny. "He told me there are a lot of people who have trophies and aren't working now," Parsons recalls. "It was an interesting and wonderful perspective that reminded me how lucky I am."