Emmys 2012: Nominations Contain Plenty of Surprises, Good and Bad (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg offers his take on today's announcement.

The 64th annual Primetime Emmy nominations were announced this morning, and several of the TV Academy's inclusions and exclusions caught pundits by surprise.

Sure, everyone knew that there would be big showings from returning favorites like Mad Men (AMC), Breaking Bad (AMC), and Modern Family (ABC). But it was anything but certain that Downton Abbey (PBS), Girls (HBO), and Veep (HBO) would have huge days. Or that The Good Wife (CBS), Parks & Rec (NBC), and Boss (Starz) would be dealt major snubs.

Let's dissect what happened, category-by-category.

There were six slots for seven worthy contenders: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland (Showtime), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), Game of Thrones (HBO), and The Good Wife (CBS). Disappointment for one of them was inevitable. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland, the year's breakthrough drama, always seemed safe. Downton was trying to make the jump from the best movie/mini-series category (which it won last year over HBO's Mildred Pierce) to this one, and I wasn't sure that a PBS show -- particularly the second season of this one, which has not been compared favorably to its first -- could still compete in this category, which is now dominated by cable networks that tend to make edgier programming because they can say and show whatever they'd like. Indeed, one hasn't since 1988, and had only done so seven times since the category was created in 1951.

But, in the end, Downton's massive popularity -- it received at least one acting nom in every category, and a total of six acting noms, a number bettered only by Hill Street Blues in 1981, as far as I can tell -- helped it to displace not one of the two HBO shows, but rather The Good Wife, which was nominated in this category in each of the two previous years in which it was eligible. Had neither The Good Wife nor Downton made the cut, it would have been the first time in history that a broadcast network drama was not among the category's nominees. Also of note: Dexter (Showtime) was knocked out of this category for the first time in five years.

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Modern Family and 30 Rock (NBC) were always going to be included, as they have been since they were first eligible in 2007 and 2010, respectively. (Indeed, no other show has won the category during that time period.) After them, though, the surest bets seemed to be the four-camera The Big Bang Theory (CBS) and single-camera Parks & Rec (NBC), which have both been embraced by critics and the public and are both coming off one of their best seasons.

Big Bang was nominated, but, to the shock and dismay of many, Parks was not, bounced by HBO's holy trinity: Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has been nominated in this category six times since 2002, and Veep and Girls, the cabler's freshman contenders. Nobody is happier than I am to see Girls -- which, with only 10 episodes, became a part of the cultural discussion -- make the cut, but I can't say that I was sure that it would, as it focuses on the problems of twentysomething women, something that I wasn't at all sure would resonate with the older TV Academy. As it turned out, they preferred the frankness of Girls to the cuteness of another popular rookie show, New Girl (Fox), which many thought had a real shot, as well as this category's Critics' Choice Award winner Community (NBC) and probable runner-up Louie (FX).

The shoo-ins were Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), both of whom have been nominated in this category every year in which they have been eligible for their respective shows. (Cranston has won three times, more than anyone except Dennis Franz; Hamm has yet to bag the top prize.)

It seemed quite likely that Damian Lewis (Homeland), as the male lead of a hit new show, would be nominated, along with Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), and both were. But I also thought that I could count on a nomination for Kelsey Grammer for his work on Boss (after all, he's been nominated 10 times and won three times over the years, and won this category's Golden Globe earlier this year) and perhaps Hugh Laurie for his work on the last season of FOX's House (after all, he's been nominated in this category six out of the last seven years). But, in the end, voters opted to instead recognize Dexter's serial killer Michael C. Hall (for the fifth consecutive year) and Downton's patriarch Hugh Bonneville.

There were no major surprises in this category today. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), who account for this category's last four wins, were in from the start. Louie C.K. (Louie) was nominated last year and only got better this year, so there was no reason to believe that he wouldn't be back. Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), who has been nominated for the past six years in the supporting category, made the jump to lead this year, and always seemed like a fairly safe bet.

Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) returned to the air this year after a brief hiatus, which makes his fifth nomination in 10 years anything but surprising. And Don Cheadle (Showtime's House of Lies), one of America's most popular and respected actors, managed to hold off Parsons' Big Bang co-star Johnny Galecki, who was nominated last year, although that wasn't unexpected.

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You can't say that Emmy voters aren't loyal: aside from nominating sure-things Claire Danes (Homeland), Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife), and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), they rewarded veterans Glenn Close (with her fourth nom in five years for Damages, even though her show has been moved from FX to DirecTV) and Kathy Bates (with her second consecutive nom for Harry's Law, even though NBC recently canceled the show).

The sixth slot in the category went not to Mireille Enos (The Killing) or Emmy Rossum (Shameless), even though both were at the center of their show's widely-discussed second seasons, or to Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), who had been nominated in each of the last eight years, but rather to Downton's leading lady Michelle Dockery, who was not nominated last year when her show was eligible in the movie/mini-series categories.

In what must have been the result of a tie, Emmy voters nominated seven -- not the usual six -- ladies in this category. Everyone expected to see Tina Fey (30 Rock) among the nominees for the sixth consecutive year, and she is. So, too, is last year's winner, Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly), the previous year's, Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), and Amy Poehler (Parks & Rec), who was a nominee both times. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who won this category six years ago for CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine and, between that show and Seinfeld, already had 12 nominations under her belt going into today, scored a nom for the first season of Veep, extending her lead as the most nominated actress in Emmy history.

Rounding out the category were two fresh-faced rookies: from the broadcast network side Zooey Deschanel (New Girl) and from the cable side Lena Dunham (Girls). Expect the usual gripes that someone like Falco, while terrific on her dark-comedy, shouldn't be taking a spot from someone whose show actually makes people laugh-out-loud, like Christina Applegate (NBC's Up All Night), Martha Plimpton (Fox's Raising Hope), and Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory).

Last year's Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) always seemed like a lock, and indeed he was nominated. But so, too, did America's favorite wisecracker John Slattery (Mad Men), who had been nominated in this category -- without ever winning -- each of the last four years. Instead, Slattery was replaced by his co-star Jared Harris, who portrayed Lane Pryce, a character who certainly experienced plenty of turmoil over the past season. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad, following a one-year hiatus, was rewarded for a great return with two slots in this category, one for two-time nominee Aaron Paul (who won two years ago) and another for Giancarlo Esposito (who has never before been nominated but topped Paul in this category at the Critics' Choice Awards last month).

One of today's biggest surprises, if you ask me, is that Downton also managed to score two noms in this category -- one for Jim Carter (Mr. Carson) and the other for Brendan Coyle (John Bates) -- not because they are unworthy, but because so many others were, as well. The fact that they knocked out Andre Braugher (a popular actor who had been nominated in this category each of the last two years for TNT's Men of a Certain Age), Josh Charles (who was even better on The Good Wife this season than he was last season, when he was nominated), Michael Pitt (who went out with a bang in his final season on Boardwalk Empire), and Mandy Patinkin (Homeland's rumply middle-manager, who has been nominated on three prior occasions and won best actor in a drama series 17 years ago for Chicago Hope) is a real testament to the popularity of the show.

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Not unexpectedly, Modern Family's actors accounted for a huge chunk of this category again -- of the six slots, they claimed three in 2010 and four in 2011, and were back at four again this year, with noms for Ty Burrell (last year's winner), Eric Stonestreet (who won the category two years ago), Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ed O'Neil. Joining them -- and hoping for a split -- are New Girl's shirtless roommate Max Greenfield and Saturday Night Live's resident chameleon Bill Hader (whose nomination, along with those for outgoing co-star Kristen Wiig and guest stars Jimmy Fallon, Melissa McCarthy, and Maya Rudolph, marks a nice resurgence for the decades-old show).

I'm somewhat surprised by the absence of Neil Patrick Harris (CBS's How I Met Your Mother), who has been a nominee in this category four of the last five years, and Nick Offerman (Parks & Rec), who seemed poised to finally score a nod this year, but it's hard to argue with the people who were nominated.

In what looks to be one of this year's most wide-open categories, Downtown's Dame Maggie Smith (last year's winner of best supporting actress in a movie/mini-series), who plays the inimitable Dowager Countess, is joined, somewhat surprisingly, by her co-star Joanne Froggatt, who plays the head housemaid. The Good Wife is also represented by two women in this category, Christine Baranski and Archi Panjabi, both of whom have now notched noms for each of the show's seasons (Panjabi won in 2010).

Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), who won this category's Critics' Choice Award last month, for the second straight year, hopes that her third nomination will result in her first win. And Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), who plays an increasingly conflicted wife, becomes the first female from her show to score an Emmy nom. Among those who came up short this year: The Killing's Michelle Forbes and Boardwalk Empire's Kelly MacDonald, who were both nominated last year; Damage's Rose Byrne, who was nominated two of the last three years; and Homeland's wide-eyed housewife Morena Baccarin.

Few people doubted that Modern Family would be well-represented here, thanks to the consistently funny work of Julie Bowen (who won this category's Critics' Choice Award last month) and Sofia Vergara, or that voters would offer a tip of the cap to Saturday Night Live's outgoing comedienne Kristen Wiig for her eclectic repertoire of characters, as proved to be the case. But, beyond the two of them, nothing was certain. It seemed fairly likely that Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) and Jane Lynch (Glee) would be nominated for a fourth and third consecutive year, respectively, and that everyone's favorite nonagenarian Betty White (Hot in Cleveland), who was nominated last year and has a total of 12 noms under her belt, would be back for a second, but none of the three were.

Instead, voters awarded noms to veteran Kathryn Joosten (ABC's Desperate Housewives), who passed away last month (she was previously nominated for this character in the guest actress category three times, winning in 2008), and first-timers Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory), who became the girlfriend -- or "girl who is a friend" -- of Jim Parsons's character after they were set up through an online dating service, and Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie), who plays a bubbly student nurse.