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'Abbey' May Give 'Mad Men' a Run for Its Drama Money

Repetition is the norm at the primetime Emmys—with favorites usually coming back as repeat nominees— but the list of great dramas and comedies to choose from runs even deeper than usual this year. John Leverence, senior VP of awards at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS), says more than 80 dramas and over 60 comedies will be entered in this year’s “Best” series Emmy races. Those will be whittled down to six in each category, and from those—with the makers of each series submitting six episodes for Academy member evaluation—a winner will be chosen.

Even with all that depth, it’s very possible both the drama and comedy series winners will be repeat victors.

There is, however, a bit of drama amongst the dramas. AMC’s Mad Men is coming off a very strong fifth season, vying for its fifth outstanding drama series Emmy. If Mad Men pulls it off, it will set an Academy record: no drama has ever won the trophy five times, with only NBC’s Frasier holding that distinction among comedies (1994-98). Only L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues and The West Wing have been named best drama four separate times along with Mad Men.

Mad Men is the veteran of all veterans,” says Leverence. “This is a big year for Mad Men, and it’s definitely a show that Emmy voters have shown a lot of interest in over the years.”

Given all that, Mad Men will be hard to beat, but it has some exceptional competition. PBS’ Downton Abbey, which came on strong in its second season, is moving over to the drama series category this year from movies and miniseries, which it won last year in a surprise upset over the year’s most-nominated program, HBO’s Mildred Pierce. “We started in minis because we were ordered by ITV to do this seven-hour miniseries,” says Gareth Neame, managing director of Carnival Film and Television (a wholly owned subsidiary of NBCUniversal) and an executive producer on Downton Abbey.

“It did so well as soon as it aired in the U.K. that it was completely clear we would make more episodes,” says Neame. “Even when we were in the miniseries category last year, we were already on to producing our second season. There is some precedent for shows once they start in a certain category to remain in that category, but we felt that wasn’t correct for Downton.”

While Downton faces stiff competition this year, Neame likes the gorgeous period piece’s chances to earn a nod.

“The show has so entered the mainstream that it doesn’t really feel like a British import,” he says. “It’s a show that’s very much a part of the American pop culture. We’re ambitious, optimistic and confident.”

Another likely newcomer to the drama category is Showtime’s Homeland, starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin. “Homeland certainly came through in a big way this year,” says Leverence.

The series already has some momentum: it won the 2012 Golden Globe for best drama, and lead actress and Emmy-winner Danes was named best actress, making Homeland a real contender in this category.

There also are expected to be several repeat contenders among the dramas, including AMC’s returning favorite, Breaking Bad, for which both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have previously been named best actor and best supporting actor, respectively—Cranston in all three years in which he’s been nominated. Breaking Bad was not eligible for Emmys in 2011 because the show was not on the air that season, and its return could shake Emmy up in a big way.

Once again, cable dominates among the dramas, with CBS’ The Good Wife expected to be broadcast’s only serious contender for the best drama statue. The Good Wife has been nominated for the past two years.

Fox’s House recently wrapped its run after eight seasons, and series finales often compel Emmy voters to give a show another look, much as they did last year with DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights.

“Sometimes, the Academy will pay attention because it’s the show’s last year,” says Leverence. “That’s a situation that comes to everybody’s attention—maybe there’s a body of work there that hasn’t been sufficiently recognized.”

Friday Night Lights didn’t manage to grab the win, but its star, Kyle Chandler, did. Many House fans hope the same reward comes to star Hugh Laurie, nominated several times but never a winner.

“The character of House has gotten so much attention, and I’m incredibly grateful for that,” says House executive producer David Shore. “Hugh’s done such a fantastic job that everything else has faded into the background a bit, but his character could only be as strong as the characters around him who challenge him. House [as a series] would not work if we didn’t have great supporting characters.”

Other dramas that were nominated last year are HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, both of which are headed into their third seasons, and Showtime’s Dexter, which has completed its sixth.

Even with all those veterans back in the race, the Emmy drama bench is deep, with shows such as Showtime’s The Borgias, TNT’s Southland, NBC’s Parenthood and Smash, ABC’s Once Upon a Time and FX’s Justified and Sons of Anarchy all able to make good cases for themselves.

“In every single aspect of Smash, people were at the top of their game in creating something unique for television,” says Neil Meron, an executive producer of the series, which just concluded its first season. “A show like Smash should be recognized for its originality, craftsmanship and depth of talent on every level.”

“You have all of these other programs— Bones, Castle, White Collar, Suits, Smash—it’s just a situation where you have such an extraordinary amount of high-quality programming from which to choose,” says Leverence.

“You can’t think too much about it,” says Jason Katims, executive producer of NBC’s Parenthood and former EP of Friday Night Lights. “The most important thing I can be doing is making the show the best it can be and focusing on the creative side of it. That has to be my focus.”

The comedy scenario is similar, with most predicting that ABC’s broad, ensemble series Modern Family will walk away with its third trophy in three years.

“Last year, the Academy was very much looking at things with a sitcom bent,” says Leverence, “with Modern Family, Glee, Big Bang Theory, The Office, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock all earning nominations.”

A stark difference between drama and comedy at the Emmys last year came from the sources: only one drama nominee aired on broadcast television, while for the comedies, none of last year’s nominees came from cable.

That’s likely to change this year, with HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm back in contention. And HBO has two other interesting entries this year: the quirky Girls, executive produced by comedy Svengali Judd Apatow, and Veep, starring Emmy favorite Julia Louis- Dreyfus, who has 12 nominations and two wins under her belt. And FX would love to see its edgy comedies—Louie, The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—sneak in and steal a few nominations. Last year, Louie earned four nods, although the show didn’t end up in best-comedy contention.

Still, broadcast offers several formidable contenders. Fox’s New Girl and CBS’ 2 Broke Girls both broke out this year and could easily push one of the veterans off the list. CBS’ Mike & Molly, boasting last year’s Emmy winner Melissa McCarthy as its star, can also make a good case for inclusion.

Three-time Emmy winner 30 Rock is headed into its final season, which could focus Emmy voters’ attention its way.

“Ending is bittersweet,” says Robert Carlock, 30 Rock executive producer. “The thing that was always most important to me and to [creator, executive producer and star] Tina [Fey] was to end the show on our terms creatively, and not just be told one day that the show was ending. It doesn’t get to happen like this for a lot of shows.”

NBC’s Parks and Recreation is another show that is much loved by critics but draws small audiences. Still, NBC gave it a vote of confidence this season, renewing the recent Peabody winner with a full-season order.

CBS’ The Big Bang Theory—which along with Modern Family is primetime’s highest-rated comedy, often beating Fox’s American Idol this past season in its Thursday 8 p.m. time slot— also is likely to earn another nomination.

Repeat noms may not create the most drama, but they are the rule, not the exception.

“There is sometimes chronic criticism of the same-old same-old nominating patterns,” says Leverence. “You’ll see maybe 60% of the shows repeated in any given year. Of the six shows that are nominated, maybe four of them will come back the next year. If the pattern remains as it has, you are probably looking at a majority of the programs that were nominated last year returning to be nominated in 2012. It’s a statistical pattern that’s been pretty well-established.”

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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.