Emmy watchers will look for 'Empire' and 'Mad Men' nominations

When the cast of "Empire," Fox's music business melodrama that ended the year as America's most popular new TV series, gathered at the Grove in late May for a panel and mini-concert designed to woo several hundred invited Television Academy members, the show's creators were asked if they cared about the Emmys.

What? Us?

"We don't do it for the awards," "Empire" co-creator Lee Daniels said. "We do it to tell the truth."

Daniels' producing partner, Danny Strong, added, "If you want to nominate me, I will show up in a tuxedo, but ultimately it's about storytelling."

Full Coverage: Emmys 2015

The standard-issue answers came off as the equivalent of an athlete's "taking it one game at a time" postgame interview mantra. Fortunately, "Empire" lead actress Taraji P. Henson was on hand to remind everyone that maybe because "Empire" is all about showmanship and theatricality, it might not hurt to bring a little boo-boo kitty attitude to the evening.

"Clean that up, buddy!" she told Strong. "I'm trying to make history!" Translation: No black actress has ever won the Emmy for lead drama. Maybe it's time. "It would be incredible," said Henson, who plays leopard-printed, sizzurp-drinking matriarch Cookie Lyon. "I gotta win! I gotta win for history!"

With the past television season marked by numerous triumphs of diversity ("How to Get Away with Murder," "Fresh Off the Boat," "Jane the Virgin," "black-ish," along with "Empire"), we don't expect Thursday morning's Emmy nominations announcement to produce the kind of disparaging social media hashtags that greeted this year's all-white Oscar class. And if #EmmysSoWhite happens to be trending, I'll be monitoring Henson's Twitter account for a measured response.

Among the other things to look for Thursday morning:

The size of "Mad Men's" Emmy send-off. "Mad Men" won the Emmy for drama series for its first four seasons. Since then, Matthew Weiner's celebrated series hasn't taken an Emmy of any kind and, in the last two years, failed to land nominations in the writing or directing categories, a telltale sign that voters are over a show.

But its eighth go-around is its last, and all those AMC commercials with Paul Anka crooning "Do you remember the times of your life?" to those beautiful shots of the series over the years might have voters feeling sentimental. And there's still the ridiculous fact that "Mad Men" has received 32 Emmy nominations for acting without every winning. Jon Hamm finally, deservedly, making it to the podium would be the highlight of this year's show.

Timeline: Emmy winners through the years

Series categories expand. Will hurt feelings swell too? You may have heard: There's a lot of good TV these days. Too much, in fact. And if we can't find the time to watch it all, certainly the Television Academy can't manage to nominate every worthy program. As a compromise, it did increase the comedy and drama series categories this year, going from six to seven nominees. That's good news ... if you're among the chosen. "That will either make me very happy if we get nominated or even more depressed if we don't," "Homeland" show runner Alex Gansa told The Times.

Fragile egos being the rule in this town, I'm guessing there will be more tears than laughter Thursday if for no other reason, simple math. There's still a limited number of slots and an exceptional group of shows. And, keep in mind, Emmy voters have rarely found a series they won't nominate again and again, seasons past its prime. So even though most hard-core, tea-and-crumpet-loving "Downton Abbey" fans would admit that the show's last season left them cold, the Television Academy will still probably nominate it. In fact, if an entire season consisted solely of Maggie Smith staring disapprovingly into the camera, voters would likely put it in. Inertia and the Emmys go hand in hand.

The fallout from the academy moving "Orange Is the New Black" from comedy to drama. Jenji Kohan's prison saga won 12 Emmy nominations last year for its first season, the most of any comedy. This year, though, the Television Academy decided that it's not a comedy after all, but a drama, even though Netflix petitioned to keep it positioned with alongside the likes of "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory." (The new rule: Comedies are 30 minutes; dramas go an hour — unless you request otherwise. "Shameless" successfully applied to be considered as a comedy.)

"Orange" should still make the cut for drama series. I'd give it the Emmy outright for its stellar second season. But the shift to the more competitive drama side will probably reduce its bounty, as will another Emmy rule change that now defines a "guest actor" as a performer appearing in less than 50% of a program's episodes.

Video: Emmy contender live chats

So, with this rule change, who will be the guests of honor? Three of the four guest-actor winners last year ("Orange's" Uzo Aduba, Allison Janney from "Masters of Sex" and "Scandal's" Joe Morton) were series regulars in all but name only. Of the trio, only Janney remains eligible, as she turned up in just one episode of "Masters" last season.

The idea behind the rule change was to reward singular performances like Michael Rapaport's raw, riveting turn as a cop on "Louie" or Lois Smith's heartbreaking work opposite Keri Russell on "The Americans." But neither of these actors is an awards-season name brand, so voters would need to have watched their excellent episodes to check off their names. That should be the case, but as noted earlier, there's a lot of good TV these days.

Instead, we're likely to see a lot of names who have appeared on shows in past seasons — Michael J. Fox, Dylan Baker, Carrie Preston from "The Good Wife" (or any newcomer lucky enough to land a guest spot on the CBS legal drama, like David Hyde Pierce) — or who have hosted "Saturday Night Live" to some measure of success (Louis C.K., Bill Hader) or who have been Emmy nominees in the past.

The good news: If Hamm doesn't finally win an Emmy for creating a television icon, he'll maybe receive one for his guest turn as a crazy cult leader in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." It'd be like the Rolling Stones winning a Grammy for "Voodoo Lounge" instead of "Let It Bleed," but that's the way these things work.

And the trophy still looks good on the shelf.

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