Emmys 2011: Last Chance for Gold

Danny Feld/TNT

Sympathy votes? Hardly. Awarding these performers statuettes for their characters' final bows is just common sense.

As any TV obsessive will admit, it's hard to say goodbye. And this year, we've bid unwanted adieus to a slew of memorable shows and characters. Certainly no exit garnered more hoopla than Steve Carell's departure from The Office, though the pain was muffled by the comfort-food news that James Spader will help fill the void this fall. Sadly, there is no replacement for DirecTV/NBC's departed drama Friday Night Lights, nor its twice-nominated leads Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton (but fans might feel assured by the announcement that producer Peter Berg will resurrect the series for a feature film). And the brisk cancellation of a Men of a Certain Age? That's a wound whose healing could be accelerated by an Emmy for co-star Andre Braugher. As for Big Love's sideshow artist Bruce Dern, his guest actor nom -- his first dose of Emmy attention -- is a chance to give another snubbed, and now departed, series a morsel of recognition.

Andre Braugher
Men of a Certain Age (TNT)

The collective gasp heard around town when TNT canceled this critically acclaimed drama is winding down to an agitated whisper for most. Not for me. But there is hope for redemption in a win for Braugher: His bedraggled family man, Owen Thoreau Jr., hit new heights in the show's second and final season as heir apparent to his father's Chevy dealership. As Owen slowly came out of his shell, the audience shifted its attitude from empathy (his overgrown daddy's-boy routine was kind of sad) to a proud "Go get 'em, tiger!" rally cry. To achieve this level of relatability, without ever devolving into a cliché, requires a level of mastery that Braugher has infused into a canon of memorable TV characters. This one deserves its golden moment.

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Connie Britton
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)

It's rare for a drama lead to be given her best material in a show's final season. It's even rarer for the material to allow for a character's wholesale metamorphosis just shy of a series finale. Britton enjoyed both milestones in her final campaign playing Texas football wife Tami Taylor. But that's just it: She never was just a football wife. She was a mother, a teacher and a confidante for the lost souls who swirled around her. This is why it was so thrilling to see her Mother Earth energy transform into a tempest of frustration directed at her husband, Eric. Her "I've been a coach's wife long enough" diatribe resonated with anyone who has ever sacrificed for love or had to hear about what went wrong at football practice for 20 years. Britton will likely never come across such a richly woven character again. Neither will we.

Steve Carell
The Office (NBC)

Carell -- Emmy's biggest comedy snub ever -- will hardly suffer if he doesn't walk away with a golden lady in September. But that doesn't mean voters should forgo feting the movie star for his seven seasons on The Office. Unlike his predecessor on the original British series, played by Ricky Gervais, Carell's spin on the hapless office manager was never mean, never cruel and never so despicable that his foibles leaned toward too-uncomfortable-for-funny. Carell's incredible grasp of improv and restrained buffoonery made his Michael Scott one of the genre's most beloved -- and underappreciated -- TV characters.

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Kyle Chandler
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)

It's nearly impossible to get Chandler to exert even a moment of self-congratulation about his game-changing run as Coach Taylor on FNL. (Believe me, I've tried.) Such an inbred grasp of humility no doubt helped the actor transform one of the great -- and often one-dimensional -- archetypal characters into a quiet study of self-conscious masculinity. As with Britton, the final season allowed for unexpected turns in Chandler's onscreen persona; we saw him, for the first time, challenged by the person who loved him most. We also saw him act like a big, fat jerk in the process. To tackle such off-character moments with believability is Chandler's gift. Whatever happens with the FNL movie, Chandler made his mark. To see him triumph over flashier competition like Jon Hamm would be a true "full hearts, can't lose" moment.

Bruce Dern
Big Love (HBO)

Dern popped in and out of the erstwhile polygamy drama during its five-season run, which made every moment he was onscreen an unnerving event. As the degenerate Frank Harlow, father of Bill Paxton's well-meaning alter ego Bill Henrickson, Dern was the perfect manipulative puppetmaster. His scenes with estranged wife Lois, played by the incomparable and egregiously snubbed Grace Zabriskie, had an eerie playfulness that felt dirty and sweet. Dern naturally oozes questionable character, so to see him dive greasy-hair-first into a final stint on Big Love was a blast. As freaky fun goes, there's no one better than Dern.