In Contention: Comedy

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The comedy category could see some newcomers, since two of last year's contenders were out of action this season (HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" missed the eligibility cutoff date and low-rated "Arrested Development" was axed by Fox).

Expect last year's champ, "The Office," to return. It's still considered cool and it appeals to voters' notorious elitism. NBC's office may be set in the rather unglamorous Scranton, Pa., but its white-collar idiocy can be found in offices all across Hollywood.

It took several years for uppity voters to acknowledge slapstick superhit "Two and a Half Men," which some critics insist is better than its raunch-for-dudes reputation. Can it make it two in a row?

Overdue: the theories

"Scrubs" didn't get nominated for best comedy series until its fourth season, but since then it's been nominated twice, suggesting a steady voter base and a favorite to return to the top five, especially since it plans to wow judges with the cast's deft song-and-dance chops in the critically acclaimed "My Musical" episode.

"Scrubs" probably took so long to catch on because voters tend to be guys older than 50 who may not connect with its frat-boy sensibility. Perhaps that's why HBO's "Entourage" hasn't been nominated. Voters, remember, are TV industry pros who consider such celeb wolf packs the scourge of Hollywood. Still, last year they gave an Emmy to its nastiest carnivore, Jeremy Piven. TV academy members may be finally getting "Entourage," and its submission this year, "One Day in the Valley," is strong.

This Emmy voting pattern of delayed recognition gives hope to Showtime's "Weeds," which has the same kind of hip 'tude, plus sophisticated pretensions. If it breaks in, it'll be the first non-HBO cable show to do so, and its marketers are pressing hard to pull that off. Showtime was the first Emmy player to ship its DVD campaign box to voters.

The working-class snub

"My Name Is Earl" (NBC) won best writing and direction last year but was shut out of the series race. Good news: That's what happened to Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" before it was recognized in its second season. Bad news: "Earl's" real problem might be its blue-collar sensibility.

Emmy snobbery against the working class could be what's behind voters' refusal to recognize CBS' long-running "The King of Queens." Its TV ancestor "The Honeymooners" never won an Emmy, but there's still hope. Voters are watching the show: They actually nominated Kevin James for lead actor for the first time last year, causing jaws to drop all over TV land.

"King of Queens" has something else going for it too: length. Two-part episodes are permitted to compete against half-hours, and they often trounce them. "King" producers entered both parts of series finale "China Syndrome," which includes poignant scenes of the always-bickering lovebirds finally facing the option of soaring off in different directions. (USA's one-hour "Monk" has always had the double-time advantage, but it hasn't paid off with a series bid — only in the race for best actor, which Tony Shalhoub has won three times.)

Rookies

The comedy lineup usually contains one or two rookies. "Men in Trees" (ABC) has an outside shot, but the best bets are "Ugly Betty" (ABC) and "30 Rock" (NBC).

"Betty" is a rare combination: a critically cheered superhit Hollywood can't help but adore as it mocks media lunacy, skewers its dastardly villains and exults in its fabulousness. "Betty" already has won the DGA and Peabody and two Golden Globes. Producers are submitting the pilot, often a successful strategy.

But "30 Rock" is more about TV media, so it may hit home harder, and it features the most delicious of today's villains: Alec Baldwin. Nielsen viewership is low, but Emmy voters traditionally don't care about that. It should make the top 10 runoff, which is based on a popular vote of academy members. Then its fate for making the final list of five nominees will be up to judging panels viewing one episode. That'll be "Hard Ball," full of hilarity when Jenna (Jane Krakowski) causes an uproar by confusing Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden while appearing on Chris Mathews' "Hardball."

There's less certainty that "Everybody Hates Chris" will make the top 10, since it airs on nascent network the CW, but voters have probably heard TV critics' huzzahs. Its success will be up to the "Everybody Hates Malvo" episode, a winner about Chris losing his job in the store when he refuses to unmask a thief.

Returning faves

Some top Emmy watchers believe "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (CBS) will get in, following its big victory last year for lead actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She has survived "The 'Seinfeld' Curse."

ABC's "Desperate Housewives" fell off last year, reputedly due to a poor episode selection, but could rally with a strong entry, which has not been announced.

Other contenders: "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (FX), "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS), "Extras" (HBO), "The Sarah Silverman Program" (Comedy Central), "Till Death" (Fox), "Reno 911" (Comedy Central) and "Andy Barker, P.I." (NBC).

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