The actors leading the way

EMMY'S lead acting races for series are judged based upon a single sample episode selected by nominees as an example of their best work. Typically, about 75 fellow actors serve as judges per category, evaluating DVD screeners at home. Ballots must be returned by Aug. 29, along with a signed affidavit attesting that voters viewed everything required. Winners will be announced on Sept. 21. Here are the episodes submitted this year and our take on them:


Gabriel Byrne, "In Treatment"

Episode: "Paul and Gina: Week 4." Psychoanalyst Paul (Byrne) seeks the counsel of his own therapist to cope with his romantic feelings for a patient.

Plus: Byrne has a vaunted reputation as an actor, being a darling of the indie film scene. Voters may be impressed that he's bravely tackling TV, baring a haunted soul.

Minus: Therapy sessions can seem whiny, tedious and self-absorbed . . . well, except maybe in Hollywood.

Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad"

Episode: "Pilot." A once-upright chemistry teacher goes crazy and becomes a crystal-meth peddler when he learns he has cancer.

Plus: Cranston's nomination may get special attention because it's a welcome surprise -- a critically hailed performance on a new, low-rated series airing on a basic-cable channel (AMC). This plot premise lets him give a big, wigged-out performance.

Minus: Who's going to vote for a guy cooking up meth to hook kids?

Michael C. Hall, "Dexter"

Episode: "There's Something About Harry." Dexter (Hall) discovers that his dad didn't die of heart failure years ago. He committed suicide when he realized his son was a serial killer.

Plus: This episode is a superb showcase of Hall's subtle acting, full of quiet ache and rawness up until he screams a realization: "I killed my father!"

Minus: It bears repeating: Dexter is a serial killer.

Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"

Episode: "The Wheel." As his marriage crumbles, slick ad agency exec Don Draper (Hamm) throws himself into a pitch to Kodak.

Plus: Hamm is the lead of TV's hottest new drama and he gets a nice teary scene. Showing slides of his once-happy family, he urges Kodak to name its new projector a "carousel" because it moves "the way a child travels, around and around and back home again -- to a place where we know we are loved."

Minus: Emmy voters may find it hard to warm up to a suit who's usually cool and detached.

Hugh Laurie, "House"

Episode: "House's Head." Suffering from a cracked skull, House (Laurie) can't recall whose life he was fighting to save just before a bus crash.

Plus: After two previous losses, Laurie gives his most dynamic performance yet in the two-hour season finale (that's twice as long as other nominees' episodes).

Minus: Emmys are like hugs from your TV pals and who wants to hug a grouch?

James Spader, "Boston Legal"

Episode: "The Court Supreme." Alan (Spader) argues before the Supreme Court for the life of a mentally disabled man condemned to death for raping an 8-year-old girl.

Plus: Three-time champ Spader has never lost, probably because he gets to give grandstanding courtroom speeches. This is his most grandiose yet as he rages at the Supremes, "You've transformed this court from being a governmental branch devoted to civil rights and liberties into protector of discrimination, guardian of government, a slave to moneyed interests and big business!"

Minus: Enough already. Even Spader admits he's baffled by his undefeated streak.

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