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A version of this story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the first year of seven nominees in the series categories, two long-ago winners, three perennial bridesmaids (one the most nominated show of the year) and two newcomers to this race (one formerly considered a comedy) are doing battle for the top prize on the drama side. Here, The Hollywood Reporter‘s awards analyst Scott Feinberg looks at what each has going for and against it as we approach the 67th Emmys on Sept. 20.
Better Call Saul
THE UPSIDE: The comedy-tinged AMC drama has formidable roots — its network creators (Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan) and star (Bob Odenkirk) were integral parts of the team behind Breaking Bad, which won best drama each of the past two years and of which Saul is a prequel. As a result, Saul faced great expectations — its series premiere had the highest ratings of any in basic cable history — and, for many, met them. It actually has landed more noms than Bad did in its first season (seven versus two); both series registered in the series and lead actor races, while Saul also bagged a writing nom.
THE DOWNSIDE: Fairly or not, many evaluate Better Call Saul in comparison to Bad — and few would argue it’s as powerful. Moreover, there are some who oppose its candidacy on the grounds that it’s sacrilegious to gamble with the legacy of one of TV’s most beloved shows, which they would prefer to let rest in peace. Also some may see the Breaking Bad creators as having earned enough accolades over the past couple of years to last them awhile, while nominated series like HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s Mad Men have more compelling reasons to win.
THE UPSIDE: Nominated for the fifth year in a row (its first nom came in the miniseries and TV movie category before it was expanded into a regular series — it won), Oscar winner Julian Fellowes‘ upstairs-downstairs period drama continues to captivate audiences thanks largely to its terrific ensemble (which won this year’s SAG Award over fellow nominees Game of Thrones, Homeland and House of Cards). As it heads into its final season, it is the last noncable/streaming show standing in this category.
THE DOWNSIDE: It hasn’t won in this category yet (it would be highly unusual for it to start winning this far into its run) and, for the first time, goes into the Emmys without a directing or writing nomination. There was some grousing on nomination morning that Downton’s slot was better deserved by CBS’ The Good Wife or FX’s The Americans, each of which have garnered more critical praise in the last year than Downton.
Game of Thrones
THE UPSIDE: The critical darling and ratings phenomenon, which has lost in this category the past four years, stands as good a shot as ever thanks to the TV Academy’s expansion of final-round voting, which should benefit fan favorites. No show landed as many overall noms and no series as many major noms, plus it’s the category’s only nominee that also snagged directing and writing noms. The show also nabbed attention for three supporting contenders: 2011 winner Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke.
THE DOWNSIDE: There remains a traditional segment of voters who never will watch or vote for a series that falls into the dreaded “genre” category. (See HBO’s former competitor True Blood, never viewed as a viable drama contender.) Plus, on the previous occasion, AMC’s two-time winner Breaking Bad wasn’t in the running, Thrones still lost — to AMC’s Mad Men, which might benefit from lingering series-finale buzz.
THE UPSIDE: It’s one of the great comeback stories in recent memory: This category’s 2012 winner and 2013 nominee fell off a cliff in the eyes of legions of critics and viewers in season three, but rebounded strongly in season four, during which the bipolar CIA agent played by Claire Danes (a winner for the first two seasons, a nominee even for the third and now for the fourth) returned to the Middle East. Moreover, among the drama series nominees, only Homeland and Game of Thrones also registered in the directing category.
THE DOWNSIDE: Not everyone stuck around after the third season. No drama series ever has won for one season, been snubbed for another and then won again. And Showtime has its hands full this year, promoting other major nominations for Episodes, House of Lies, Nurse Jackie, Ray Donovan and Shameless.
House of Cards
THE UPSIDE: This year, Frank Underwood won the White House (in season three) and a Golden Globe for Kevin Spacey (for season two), but the best might be yet to come. Streamed shows landed more noms for this year’s Emmys than ever before, and Netflix’s first hit, which bagged the most acting noms of any series (five, including guests), could become the first Internet-only show to win the top prize.
THE DOWNSIDE: Many feel the show jumped the shark this season, with the narrative too mired in government minutiae compared with previous seasons. Its nomination tally is 11, down two from 2014, and directing and writing accolades aren’t among them. To date, Cards’ only major Emmy win has been for executive producer David Fincher’s direction of the pilot.
THE UPSIDE: Following and acclaimed seventh season — including a widely praised series finale — and a strong showing in noms across the board this year (three acting, two writing, etc.), Matthew Weiner’s four-time winner seems poised to break out of a tie with Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and The West Wing to become the most celebrated show in this category’s history. Final seasons often get that sort of an Emmys sendoff (The Sopranos in 2007 and Breaking Bad last year).
THE DOWNSIDE: It’s bizarre that Mad Men has failed to win a single prize over the past three years (going 0-for-17, 0-for-12 and 0-for-8, respectively) and that none of its actors ever has been awarded an Emmy. Moreover, although Breaking Bad is gone (a circumstance under which Mad Men won before, when Breaking Bad was ineligible in 2011), AMC’s attention again is divided; Better Call Saul also is nominated.
Orange Is the New Black
THE UPSIDE: Jenji Kohan’s edgy dramedy — which voters liked enough to nominate as a comedy last year and a drama this year (because of a rule change) — has one of the biggest and most diverse casts in TV history (something that helped propel it to a SAG ensemble win this year); is tonally different from the competition (most of which isn’t very funny); and benefits from having had its third season released just as season two is being considered by voters, who sometimes have short-term memories.
THE DOWNSIDE: Competition is stiffer in the drama races — OITNB garnered only one other major nomination (2014 guest star winner Uzo Aduba for supporting actress) and failed to secure directing and writing noms this year, unlike last. Also unlike last year, it’s now going head-to-head with Netflix’s other hallmark show, House of Cards.
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