"Breaking Bad" finally won the Emmy for drama series last year. At the time, everyone assumed Bryan Cranston & Co. would be taking a well-deserved victory lap this year for the last half of its satisfying final season, which concluded shortly after the Emmys were handed out in September.
But in the ensuing months, "True Detective" punctured the pop culture psychosphere, and "Game of Thrones" ratcheted up the terror and the body count, as did "The Good Wife" in its own way. Throw in competition from such up-and-comers as "The Americans," "House of Cards" and "Masters of Sex" and perennial favorites like "Mad Men" and "Downton Abbey" and you have a category, like our DVR queues, cluttered with too much good television.
It's no surprise then that the TV academy decided this year to expand both the drama and comedy series categories to up to seven nominees, provided the sixth and seventh vote-getters are within 2% of each other's vote count. And even with seven nominees, look for plenty of anguished "snubbed" cries when Emmy nominations are announced Thursday at 5:40 a.m. Pacific time.
What else should we expect? A look at a few of the most intriguing races:
Drama series: For those late to the party: Yes, HBO submitted "True Detective" for drama, not miniseries, even though its next season won't have anything in common with its first, outside of creator Nic Pizzolatto's involvement. That placement adds to a logjam that, given voters' predilection to stay the course, could shut out worthy series looking for their first nominations. We're well past the point where rubber-stamping past favorites should ever be considered, much less tolerated. If the diminished "Downton Abbey" returns over the rejuvenated "Good Wife," "Masters of Sex" or "The Americans," we're going to show Lady Mary what moping is all about.
Lead actor, drama: At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves: Is there room left on Matthew McConaughey's mantel after winning the Oscar and a host of other awards for "Dallas Buyers Club"? In "True Detective," the contrast between the 1995 and 2012 versions of McConaughey's haunted, philosophical lawman, Rust Cohle, provided the show much of its dramatic tension and took the actor's career hot streak to new heights. Oh ... and McConaughey's "True Detective" partner, Woody Harrelson, was pretty great too. At least a couple of members of last year's class — likely Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey"), Damian Lewis ("Homeland") or Jeff Daniels ("The Newsroom") — will have to step aside for these good ol' boys, perhaps all three of them if voters order a double portion of ham ("The Blacklist's" James Spader and "House of Cards'" Kevin Spacey) with their Emmy nominations meal.
Lead actress, drama: Torches and pitchforks will be brandished Thursday if critics' fave Tatiana Maslany isn't nominated for all those delightful doppelgangers she brings to life on "Orphan Black." But did enough voters find the second-year sci-fi series on BBC America to put Maslany in a group that will likely include repeat winner Claire Danes ("Homeland") and past nominees Robin Wright ("House of Cards"), Kerry Washington ("Scandal"), Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife") and Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men")? Possibly not, especially when you consider that the contenders also include Lizzy Caplan ("Masters of Sex"), Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") and Keri Russell ("The Americans"). This is the deepest of all the Emmy acting categories. More than one woman will have the right to feel disappointed.
Miniseries: After three years in which TV movies and miniseries were lumped together in one ungainly group, the television academy believes there's enough programming to again warrant a separation. That's great news for FX, which, between the fantastic "Fargo" and a rejuvenated, layered "American Horror Story" should finally win for its programming after losing the last two years to HBO movies "Game Change" and "Behind the Candelabra." (And, yes, HBO will win the now separate movie category again with "The Normal Heart.")
Comedy series: "Modern Family" has dominated this category during its four-year Emmys run. This year, it will face a new, formidable challenger for comedy series in "Orange Is the New Black." Netflix's women's prison saga boasts a sprawling, racially diverse ensemble of fabulously talented women (and a handful of men) and, unlike HBO's more niche offerings ("Girls," "Veep"), it has scored well with both critics and (from all appearances) audiences. (Netflix doesn't release viewership data.) Its biggest obstacle may be convincing voters that it's a deserving choice in the comedy category when much of its power comes from the moving way it presents its characters' back stories in flashbacks. Still, any series sporting Natasha Lyonne and an episode about the hunt for a mysterious, elusive chicken (line of the year, courtesy of Kate Mulgrew's Red: "All I wanted was to eat the chicken that is smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power") shouldn't need much help in proving its comic credentials.
Supporting actor, comedy: If there are cracks in the foundation of "Modern Family" as an Emmy-winning institution, they'll show up here first. Anything less than three nominations for the men (and with the depth here — consider "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Veep" — there should be) and we might finally see another comedy crowned in August.
Lead actress, comedy: Because they're not going to make Mindy Kaling wake up at the crack of dawn to announce the nominations and then not give her one, are they?
We don't think so.
Thursday morning's Emmy nominations will generate its share of competitive races, but none more so than in the category for lead actress in a drama series. Here are some of the favorites, and — get out your hankies — they all aren't going to make it. Here's why they are contenders:
Robin Wright, "House of Cards" (Netflix): Cold as ice, unwilling to sacrifice
Claire Danes, "Homeland" (Showtime): Emmy threepeat died with Brody?
Kerry Washington, "Scandal" (ABC): Retail line, baby, another Emmy nod
Julianna Margulies, "The Good Wife" (CBS): Resurgent show returns her to circle
Elisabeth Moss, "Mad Men" (AMC): Burger Chef pitch alone puts her in
Lizzy Caplan, "Masters of Sex" (Showtime): Master of all trades
Michelle Dockery, "Downton Abbey" (PBS): Dating > mourning