In Contention: Drama

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Four of last year's drama nominees return (only "The West Wing" left the air) and all look difficult to dislodge: 2004 winner "The Sopranos" (HBO), "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC), "House" (Fox) and last year's champ "24" (Fox).

But competition is fierce in this boom time for TV dramas, making this Emmy race a true drama to watch.

ABC's "Lost" hopes to avenge its failure to be nominated last year after winning the award for its first season in 2005. Some Emmy watchers blamed the snub on the episode its producers submitted — it had dangling plot lines that baffled any judges not regular viewers of this serialized drama. This year's entry is a self-contained story cheered by TV critics: "The Man From Tallahassee."

Rookies
Critics are even more enthusiastic about "Friday Night Lights," a front-runner to be named best new program by the TV Critics Assn. in July. But such acclaim has not translated into ratings success for NBC, so it might not make the top 10 runoff. Even if it does, will elite Hollywooders respond to a series about high school football in Texas?

The new series with the highest ratings and hip factor, NBC's "Heroes," should make the runoff easily, but then must face voter bias against fantasy programs that has probably kept "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci-Fi) from being nominated despite rave reviews. "Lost's" early Emmy success proves that fantasy thrillers can occasionally break through.

"The Tudors" is more akin to traditional academy tastes. A year ago a drama about Henry VIII's daughter, "Elizabeth I," swept the TV movie/ miniseries categories. This new Showtime series has the same highbrow appeal plus a studly young Henry plotting intrigue and warming up women in cold British castles.

ABC newcomer "Brothers & Sisters" is so loaded with past Emmy favorites — winners Sally Field and Patricia Wettig and nominees Calista Flockhart, Rob Lowe and Rachel Griffiths — that it should do well with acting nominations. It could score a series nom too, since it's similar to "Family," a three-time nominee in the 1970s about another Pasadena clan that won acting Emmys for Sada Thompson, Kristy McNichol and Gary Frank.

Chances for cable
Michael C. Hall was nominated as a mortician on "Six Feet Under," but now is doing the killing on Showtime's "Dexter." Voters can be a bit squeamish about serial murderers, but he only does it to wreak justice, so it's OK. "Dexter's" best Emmy hope may be in the lead actor race, but it could slash its way into the series lineup too.

But: No non-HBO cable program has managed to break into this category.

The TV academy acknowledges that one would've made the cut if new changes planned for this year's voting (judges' scores of finalists' episodes will be mixed on a 50-50 basis with results of the first- round popular vote) had been applied to last year's balloting. Best bets: FX's long-running "The Shield" or "Rescue Me" now could break through.

FX's newest drama, "The Riches," may get noticed, thanks to the marquee draw of stars Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard.

TNT's crime-chasing "The Closer" scored a lead actress bid last year for Kyra Sedgwick and is in hot pursuit of a shot at best series. And the crack marksmen of "The Unit," a CBS show created by hipster David Mamet, also have Emmy in their sightlines.

Overlooked, but not forgotten

"ER" (NBC), "Deadwood" (HBO) and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS) have been nominated in the past.

Shows that have done well in the acting races are overdue for a series nod: "Law & Order: SVU" (NBC), "Medium" (NBC) and "Boston Legal" (ABC).

After failing to crack the comedy category for six years, acclaimed "Gilmore Girls" (CW) moves into the crowded drama field for its final try at Emmy glory.

Also in competition: "Shark" (CBS), "Nip/Tuck" (FX), "Brotherhood" (Showtime), "Prison Break" (Fox), "Rome" (HBO), "Bones" (Fox), "Sleeper Cell" (Showtime), "The Wire" (HBO), "Dirt" (FX).

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