Critic's Notebook: Emmy nominations' twists and turns

How do you argue with any master list that includes Jane Lynch, Kathy Bates, Margo Martindale, Melissa McCarthy, Martha Plimpton, Kelly MacDonald, Betty White, Kristen Wiig and Joan Cusack?

There were a number of surprises, both heartening and irritating, among this year's Emmy nominations, including a lovely little leitmotif of payback among the various actress categories, with nominations going to hardworking performers whose work over the years has shone no matter how small the role. Call it the Jane Lynch Effect.

Two years ago, Lynch's debut as Sue Sylvester on "Glee" was as big a draw as the musical numbers — critics and audiences fell all over themselves in gratitude that the much-admired performer had landed a high-profile role. This year, Lynch is up against Betty White, another hard-working, sentimental favorite, for supporting actress in a comedy, and the other categories are littered with similar "oh, don't you just love her" nominations.

Plimpton and McCarthy, competing for lead actress in a comedy, were among the morning's biggest and most pleasant surprises; as fine as their performances are in "Raising Hope" and "Mike & Molly," respectively, it may have been the thrill of seeing two long-beloved actors (Plimpton starred in the original "Parenthood," McCarthy made her name on "Gilmore Girls") on TV in lead roles that gave them the extra boost. (McCarthy's huge success in "Bridesmaids" probably didn't hurt either.)

Bates is sublime in whatever she does, and to have her on network TV in "Harry's Law" is a blessing. Martindale, one of the most talented character actors around, redefined gangster in "Justified," and "Boardwalk Empire's" MacDonald is so good she landed a role in the final "Harry Potter" film. "Saturday Night Live" star Wiig is finally hitting her stride on the large screen and small, and who isn't happy to see Cusack, even if all-too-briefly, as a guest star on "Shameless"?

With Amy Poehler once again being nominated and her show, "Parks and Recreation," making the comedy series list this year, the only glaring omission from the Women We Love list was Patricia Heaton from "The Middle," but maybe next year.

Overall, the television academy seemed more determined than usual to correct for past omissions and shake things up, if only a bit. Amid a herd of predictable nominations — oh, look, "Mad Men," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Modern Family" — there were more than a few welcome developments and anomalies. "Game of Thrones" broke through the fantasy/sci-fi barrier to get a leading drama series nomination (alas, "The Walking Dead" did not), though next year maybe the recognition can extend to the fine cast — only Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister, was nominated. Virtually ignored in its first fabulous season, "Justified" still didn't get a lead drama category, but it racked up acting nominations (and if Martindale does not win for Mags Bennett, the academy should be disbanded).

Even in the writing categories, the stranglehold of "Mad Men" and "30 Rock" was broken — although each show was nominated (and "Mad Men" twice), there was plenty of room for new shows, including "The Killing" and "Episodes."

Yes, lead actor in comedy included suspects so usual they are practically statuary — Alec Baldwin, Steve Carell (who has never won), and last year's winner, Jim Parsons — but this year the academy included Parsons' costar Johnny Galecki, while Matt LeBlanc managed to elbow his way in for "Episodes," as did critics' pick/long-shot Louis C.K. for "Louie." The supporting actor comedy category was almost absurdly dominated by the men of "Modern Family," with only Chris Colfer ("Glee") and "Two and a Half Men's" long-suffering Jon Cryer making the argument that any other comedy exists on American TV. What about Rob Lowe and Adam Scott in "Parks and Recreation"? What about Neil Flynn of "The Middle" or Garret Dillahunt of "Raising Hope"?

The lead actor in a drama category had so many nonwinning returnees — only "Justified's" Timothy Olyphant and "Boardwalk Empire's" Steve Buscemi are new — that the race may be decided as much by longevity as merit, especially since three-time winner Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") is not eligible this year. This is the fourth nomination for both "Dexter's" Michael C. Hall and "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, but "House's" Hugh Laurie has walked away empty-handed for the past five years, bless his heart, and last year may have been "Friday Night Light's" Kyle Chandler's first nomination, but it was long overdue.

Not everyone benefited from this lifetime-achievement mentality. Critics' darlings Jeremy Irons ("The Borgias") and William H. Macy ("Shameless") were not nominated, and Ray Romano's fine work in "Men of A Certain Age" went unremarked (although costar Andre Braugher's did not). Katey Sagal ("Sons of Anarchy") and Jennifer Carpenter of "Dexter" remain un-nominated, while repeat nominees and past winners Kyra Sedgwick ("The Closer") and Toni Collette ("United States of Tara") were also MIA.

On the other hand, Mariska Hargitay ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), who won lead actress in a drama in 2006, scooped up her eighth nomination. Because change is fine, but let's not get crazy about it.