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In a Crowded Field, HBO Could Prevail

With the Television Academy brightening the lines that separate dramas, comedies and limited series, this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards figure to be marked less by controversy over categories and more by the intensity of competition.

“The Academy is trying to figure out how to deal with the unprecedented proliferation of excellence in television” in choosing Emmy nominees, says one top TV executive. “At no time have there been as many shows worthy of consideration.”

That’s particularly true in the drama category, where nearly 150 shows are up for consideration. For the first time this year, at least seven will be nominated, up from six over the past few years. There is also a possibility that nine could be nominated should voting be close. The Academy’s new rules mean that there’s no controversy this year over whether a show that should rightly be considered a limited series is competing as a drama, or whether an hour-long dramedy is moving into the comedy category in search of better odds.

The changes “are a good thing because it gives our programs even better chances of being nominated,” says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece, which this year is looking for noms for dramas Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge and limited series Wolf Hall. “I don’t think expanding the category will water it down. I think it’s expanding because there’s so much good television.”

Odds Are on Drama Vets

Drama also has lots of opportunity to see some new entrants, although the top contenders are two veterans.

Showtime’s romance/mystery hybrid, The Affair, was awarded the Golden Globe by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as best drama; no one expects the show to fare as well at the Emmys, although its leads, Brits Dominic West and Ruth Wilson playing Americans, are definite contenders in the lead acting categories. Wilson won the Golden Globe for outstanding lead actress, although critics are betting on How to Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis to win the Emmy.

Fox’s smash hit, Empire, has to be considered a contender if just on the sheer power of its ratings and buzz. Both of that show’s lead actors—Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson—are no strangers to awards, and both should expect nominations in the lead categories. It’s worth noting that if Davis, Henson and Scandal’s Kerry Washington are all nominated—a real possibility—nearly half the field will be composed of African-American women, a nod to progress on diversity over the past season.

AMC’s Better Call Saul, which seemed to pleasantly surprise critics even though it came from the same critical auspices as two-time best drama winner Breaking Bad, has a chance of bringing Vince Gilligan & Co. back to the podium, with star Bob Oden-kirk contending in the lead actor category.

Many critics feel strongly that FX’s Peabody-winner The Americans not only deserves its first series nomination but also deserves to win. The show features strong performances across the entire cast, starting with stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys and moving through the supporting cast, including Annet Mahendru, Noah Emmerich and Frank Langella.

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black will compete in the drama category this year, under the Academy’s new rules. The show has competed as a comedy in the past. Netflix’s House of Cards, which also is in its third season, is the first pick of many critics to win this year, although there is wide consensus that season three is the show’s weakest. Still, Vegas odds are almost evenly split on two shows: AMC’s Mad Men and HBO’s Game of Thrones, with Game of Thrones perhaps having an edge.

Mad Men aired its two-part final season in 2014 and 2015, and more than 3 million people waved farewell to the critical fave in its May 17 finale. That said, it’s rare for drama series to return to the podium after they have stopped winning, and Mad Men won the last of its record-tying four straight best-drama trophies in 2011. What’s more, it’s rare for the Academy to hand Emmys to shows just because they aired their final seasons. Both HBO’s The Sopranos and Breaking Bad won in their final seasons, however, so that rule is not hard and fast.

Regardless, many Mad Men aficionados would like to see series lead Jon Hamm finally take the podium after seven seasons of nominations and no wins.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has been nominated outstanding series four times, representing all four of its seasons, but it has never won. In season five, the show is at the height of its buzz. And with HBO’s True Detective not eligible this year (and officially a limited series when it returns to contention next year) and Breaking Bad concluded, this might finally be the lavish drama’s year.

Olive Heads New Category Hopefuls

In the newly defined and robustly populated limited series category, most bets are on HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, starring Frances McDormand. A win would put the premium network in a good position to dominate the awards this year. The limited series’ director, Lisa Cholodenko, won the Directors Guild Award for directorial achievement last year.

FX’s American Horror Story is always a top contender in this category, last year earning 17 nominations although finally losing out to FX’s Fargo, which scored 18 nominations. Fargo, set to return to FX, is not in Emmys contention this year.

There very well may be a late insurgence, however, from PBS’ beautifully produced Wolf Hall, helmed by Masterpiece in concert with the BBC and starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII respectively.

Says Eaton: “If there ever was a masterpiece on Masterpiece, this was it.”

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.