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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:

ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

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Glenn Close, “Damages”

Episode: “Pilot.” Cutthroat attorney Patty (Close) has a secret agenda when she woos an innocent young woman to join her law firm.

Plus: Front-runner Close will be hard to beat. She’s at the top of her talents as TV’s most fabulous dragon, burning everyone drawn near by her diabolical charm.

Minus: None.

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Sally Field, “Brothers & Sisters”

Episode: “History Repeating.” Nora (Field) begs her son, a disabled Iraq war veteran, to take his prescribed painkillers even though he’s a recovering addict.

Plus: Field freights every line, look and tear with operatic intensity. Voters may want to send the Queen of Outrageous Acceptance Speeches to the podium again -- just to see if she gets bleeped once more.

Minus: This momma’s quest may seem offensive in rehab-happy Hollywood.

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Mariska Hargitay, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”

Episode: “Undercover.” Olivia (Hargitay) forfeits her gorgeousness, her clothes and sometimes her sanity to go undercover as a prisoner in a seedy women’s jail to find a rapist.

Plus: Hargitay pulled off an upset in 2006. Here, she gives one of her most gripping turns yet, full of terror, tears and heart-pounding suspense.

Minus: Hargitay regularly dispatches TV’s worst fiends but she may finally have met her match in this category opposite Glenn Close’s devilish Patty Hewes.

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Holly Hunter, “Saving Grace”

Episode: “Tacos, Tulips, Duck and Spices.” Hunter’s chain-smoking, butt-kicking cop catches up to the priest who molested her as a girl.

Plus: Hunter is an Oscar winner (“The Piano”) and she gets a big showy scene, roaring at God: “Why the hell should I believe in you?”

Minus: Voters are notorious snobs who pooh-pooh police procedurals (only four female cop roles have won in 20 years) and only tolerate white trash if they clean their pools or fix their Jags.

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Kyra Sedgwick, “The Closer”

Episode: “Manhunt.” While hot on the trail of a kinky serial killer, Brenda (Sedgwick) learns she is going through menopause.

Plus: Sedgwick gives a truly flashy performance when she comes down with hot flashes. And a sweetly romantic one too, when her boyfriend proposes.

Minus: Nominated in 2006 and 2007, Sedgwick’s been left at the Emmy altar twice.

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ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”

Episode: “Rosemary’s Baby.” While trying to help Tracy tame his rebellious nature, Jack (Baldwin) hires a therapist and agrees to role-play Tracy’s family members.

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Plus: Baldwin breaks into a dazzling riff of wacky jive while portraying Tracy’s relatives as Redd Foxx/Fred Sanford (“Hey, dummy! I’m mad at you too!”) and Jimmie Walker/J.J. (“Dyn-o-mite!”).

Minus: No emotional range as Baldwin fails to show us Jack’s tender side. Oh, that’s right. Jack doesn’t have one.

Steve Carell, “The Office”

Episode: “Goodbye, Toby.” Michael (Carell) falls in love with the woman who replaces Toby, the human resources director he loathed.

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Plus: The many sides of Michael are all wondrously displayed: idiocy, pettiness, cruelty and a cluelessness that won’t quit. We even see his singing and dancing chops when he butchers a retooled version of “Goodbye, Stranger” at Toby’s farewell party.

Minus: Who can bring themselves to vote for the boss from hell?

Lee Pace, “Pushing Daisies”

Episode: “Pie-lette.” Ned (Pace) revives his murdered lover with a magic touch, but can never touch her again or she’ll die for good.

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Plus: Bursting with romantic yearning and boyish insecurity, Pace wowed TV critics with the year’s breakout performance among new TV comedy actors.

Minus: Emmy voters may not take seriously the whimsical acting in this absurdist fairy tale.

Tony Shalhoub, “Monk”

Episode: “Mr. Monk and the Naked Man.” Monk (Shalhoub) is so freaked out at the sight of skin that he can’t solve the murder of a girl on a nude beach.

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Plus: Shalhoub won three times (and lost twice) because he gets a full hour to act out his kooky phobias, obsessions and neuroses.

Minus: Now his fear is truly absurd. He believes nudists belong to a secret cabal that “won’t stop till we’re like them -- everything hanging out!”

Charlie Sheen,

“Two and a Half Men”

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Episode: “Is There a Mrs. Waffles?” That beer-guzzling, skirt-chasing rascal Charlie (Sheen) becomes (uh-oh!) a popular singer of children’s tunes.

Plus: This is Sheen’s best acting work ever as he quits his usual haughtiness to surrender to the silliness of leading kids in singalongs of “Grandma Smells Funny” and “Who Farted in the Fish Bowl?”

Minus: Even if voters take him seriously here, they may not appreciate Sheen’s starring role in the celeb tabloids these days.

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ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Christina Applegate,

“Samantha Who?”

Episode: “The Restraining Order.” Amnesia victim Sam (Applegate) stalks a man who has a restraining order against her, trying to prove she’s no longer the bad girl who stalked him before she came out of a coma.

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Plus: Sam spins through a whirlwind of emotions while trying to rediscover her old self, mysteriously crying whenever she hears the song “We’ve Got the Beat.”

Minus: Voters may recall her silly role on one of TV’s longest-running series never to win an Emmy: “Married . . . With Children.”

America Ferrera, “Ugly Betty”

Episode: “Odor in the Court.” Betty (Ferrera) goes bonkers when she sprays herself with a poisoned perfume that once drove her boss’ mom, Claire, to commit murder.

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Plus: Betty gets pretty riled up, talking hyper-fast, pouncing on her boyfriend in a crowded elevator and hurling a garbage can through the window of her pal’s sandwich shop.

Minus: Last year’s champ emits great fireworks but is annoying until she sniffs out the perfume problem and saves Claire from jail.

Tina Fey, “30 Rock”

Episode: “Sandwich Day.” When an old flame comes to visit, Liz (Fey) freaks out, trying not to seem too eager to get back together.

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Plus: Producer-writer Fey overcomes suspicion that she’s not a real actress by revealing an impressive range of emotions, including endearing vulnerability: “For once, I’m not going to be Jan Brady. I’m gonna be Marcia, damn it!”

Minus: She may not endear herself to voters when Liz returns to form and roars at her ex-lover, “I hope your car blows up!”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “The New Adventures of Old Christine”

Episode: “One and a Half Men.” Christine (Louis-Dreyfus) worries that she may be starting menopause when she develops flu-like symptoms.

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Plus: Voters love defiant scenes like Christine, pumped up on testosterone, threatening to kick the “sorry, tanned, bleach-blond, Botoxed” butts of rival school moms.

Minus: Voters seldom endorse purely comedic performances but Louis-Dreyfus beat the odds two years ago.

Mary-Louise Parker, “Weeds”

Episode: “Bill Sussman.” While hanging out with her marijuana suppliers, Nancy (Parker) gets swept up in gangland shootings.

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Plus: Parker’s big scene is a well-played nervous breakdown while she frantically tries to scrub blood from the back seat of her new hybrid car.

Minus: She needs more than one big scene.


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