Emmys 2011: The Magnificent Seven of the Drama Actor Races

Jon Hamm in "Mad Men" (AMC)

With some big names absent this season, newer contenders are gunning for awards and challenging Emmy traditions.

When Lost went off the air and Breaking Bad went on hiatus, top contenders Matthew Fox (Lost) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) vanished from the lead actor race, and Lost's Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn and Cranston's co-star Aaron Paul vanished from supporting.

Thanks, guys. Now both categories are more interesting and unpredictable, and fresh faces have a better chance. Here's a look at the major contenders and what their wins might mean.

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Steve Buscemi, lead, Boardwalk Empire.
Buscemi's victory would prove that HBO's big investment in sets, cast and flashy parties pays off -- but also that an actor doesn't have to want it bad to win. Buscemi is an akido campaigner: He leans back, and voters tumble for him. "I don't follow this stuff that closely," he tells THR. He's like his character Nucky Thompson, who, says Buscemi, "sort of keeps himself above the fray a little bit."

Jon Hamm, lead, Mad Men.
Emmy voters are supposed to focus on the submitted episode, and his "The Suitcase" is a humdinger. It's his best-ever season, and three previous failed noms make him look good and ready for victory.

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Timothy Olyphant, lead, Justified.
Olyphant would upend the Emmy tradition that newcomers tend to lose out to those with a longer résumé of awards. Except for sharing Deadwood's SAG ensemble nom with 21 others and a Television Critics Association Award nom (not a big Emmy influence), he's short on trophies. His victory would show that current critical kudos can make up for the lack of a track record.

Kyle Chandler, lead, Friday Night Lights.
An Emmy touchdown would prove that it's not just the story onscreen that wins, it's the inspiring backstory of the odds the actor overcame. Unlike Men of a Certain Age's cancellation by TNT -- which smacks of defeat and hurts supporting nominee Andre Braugher's chances -- FNL's chronic hair's-breadth survival seems winnerish. If he wins, I'm buying the drinks. And if FNL wins, networks will buy more theaterlike, improv-rich niche dramas.

John Slattery, supporting, Mad Men.
Slattery's fourth nom proves the Emmy appeal of a character who opens up emotionally like a tropical orchid. Once the chilliest, most cynical and remote of the ad men, Slattery this season got to lose the firm's top client and deal with his secretary's pregnancy. His win also would be the one most helped by a previous winner's absence: He has lost in the past to now-ineligible Emerson, Paul and Zeljko Ivanek of Damages. Like an ad campaign, an Emmy campaign is all about timing.

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Walton Goggins, supporting, Justified.
A Goggins victory would prove that FX is at last fully on the Emmy map. Few actors are more identified with a network than Goggins is with FX -- and few got an Emmy snub more outrageous than he did on FX's The Shield.

Alan Cumming, supporting, The Good Wife.
Cumming is an Olivier- and Tony-winning stage and movie character actor who has referred to his TV role as "a lark." His abrupt graduation from 2010 guest nom to 2011 supporting winner would prove that theater chops impress Emmy. He's also part of a mini-invasion of Brits into Emmyland: He hosts Masterpiece, which spawned 2011 Emmy noms Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs' Jean Marsh. And Cumming is another example of the importance of timing. He lost last year to John Lithgow, who left Dexter this season. Like so many other 2011 contenders, he's lucky to be out of the shadow of past Emmy giants and in the spotlight. Grab it, Cumming. Spotlights do move.