Your 2012 Emmy Crash Course

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With only three days left until the Emmys, we have some serious cramming to do. In order to prepare, we’ve mapped out the most important episodes to watch, based on nomination submissions, buzz, numbers, and a personal favorite or two. We realize ten episodes is a lot, but if you dedicate yourself to pajamas and Seamless (that wasn’t a plug), we believe you can get through these by Sunday (when the ceremony airs on ABC, 8pm ET). Have a favorite episode that you think should have been submitted or included on this list? Any predictions you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!

Mad Men: “The Other Woman”

The AMC drama tied with American Horror Story for the most nominations, at 17, and is on the verge of making history. If Mad Men wins Outstanding Drama for the fifth year in a row, it will be the most a series has ever won in the category (surpassing Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and The West Wing).

“The Other Woman” is often ranked alongside “The Suitcase,” and was certainly the most controversial episode of the year, spawning debates and discussion like wildfire over the question: Should Joan have done it? (Women, would you have?) At the same time, the episode marked the unforgettable departure of Peggy (see above clip). “The Other Women” earned the series Outstanding Writing and Directing nominations, as well as nods to Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, and Christina Hendricks. Remarkably, no actor or actress in the history of Mad Men has won an Emmy individually, but Hamm (who has been nominated every season the show has aired) and Hendricks’ odds are looking good. Up against Claire Danes of Homeland, Moss may be the long shot of the bunch.

Breaking Bad: “Crawl Space”

Fresh off ineligibility and in a dead heat for Outstanding Drama, Breaking Bad is the only thing that might keep Mad Men from making history Sunday. Unlike its closest competitor, Breaking Bad didn’t submit in solidarity, so it’s a bit more difficult to select just one episode. But if we had to choose, it would be “Crawl Space,” which earned Cranston his nomination for Lead Actor in a Drama. This was, in case you need a refresher, the hand-wringing 11th episode of Season 4, which devolved into one of the most indelible shots of the series: Walt, in a crawl space, completely losing it after he realizes his money (and chance at salvation from the scariest man to ever hold a box cutter) is gone.

If you have some time, and are interested in a little intra-series showdown, we recommend watching “End Times” and “Hermanos,” Aaron Paul and Giancarlo Esposito’s respective submissions in the Supporting Actor category, as well. Or, check out “Cornered,” which earned Anna Gunn her first Emmy nomination (although most seem to agree her odds will be higher next year, especially after Season 5).

Homeland: “Pilot” or “The Vest”

Claire Danes has all but been declared the winner in the Lead Actress in a Drama category for her role as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, and it’s not surprising “The Vest” clinched it. After ten episodes, Danes’ Mathison seeps into a psychotic episode for the first time on the series, and it’s unforgettable. The actress’ co-star, Damian Lewis, actually earned his Best Lead nomination for the series finale “Marine One,” but “The Vest” contains, in our opinion, an equally great performance by this first-time nominee — and relative unknown up until last year. (For those who watched Season 1, this was the Gettysburg family vacation episode.)

That said, if you haven’t watched the series, we strongly recommend you start with the pilot. Homeland is so good, and so addictive, that we have full confidence you can catch up before the Season 2 premiere on September 30th.

Girls: “Pilot” or “She Did”

Although it’s largely fallen into the critics’ “should win but probably won’t category,” we aren’t completely discounting Girls from a long-shot win in the Outstanding Comedy category. And it’s certainly not implausible that its writer/director/star will take home at least one individual award. Whether or not Girls wins this year, it’s represented in all the big categories and worth having an opinion about if you don’t already — we hear people like to talk about it.

So if you haven’t watched, we say check out the pilot this week. Like Homeland, this series is still very much in its nascent stages (we hope!), and it’s totally doable to watch all the episodes (many times) before Season 2 premieres this January. Also, totally worth it. For those who know the series, the finale “She Did” is the episode for which Dunham earned her Outstanding Lead Actress and Directing nominations.

Modern Family: “Baby on Board”

Even if Modern Family is one of those shows you know more about through osmosis than actual watching, it’s worth checking out at least one episode in preparation for this Sunday, when it’s likely to take home Outstanding Comedy Series. And with the most acting nominations out of any series (seven!), odds are looking good for an individual win, too (although Greg Kinnear for Outstanding Guest Star is officially out). It may not be the edgiest show on the list, but it’s pretty darn good for a family sitcom, and although this past season was uneven, the finale, “Baby on Board,” proved it still has its creative chops intact, venturing into genre-bending telenovela territory, while producing what many consider to be the most emotionally honest Cam and Mitchell episode of the series.

Louie: “Duckling”

In olden TV days, this hour-long, otherworldly episode might have been called “A Very Special Louie.” Which is to say you need no prior knowledge of Louis CK to jump into “Duckling,” the tale of a comedian who goes on a USO tour and finds his daughter packed a real, live duckling in his suitcase. The premise was CK’s own daughter’s idea (according to an interview with AV Club last November), which leads us to ask whether or not “aww” points will tip the voter scales. Either way, the critics agree CK has a great shot of winning Outstanding Directing for a Comedy (despite going up against Modern Family), as well as Lead Actor for this episode.

Downton Abbey: “Christmas Special” (or Google “Shit the Dowager Countess says”)

Competition is a bit stiffer for Downton this year, now that it’s officially moved from Miniseries or Movie to Drama. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to underestimate the Academy’s love of this show. The soap-tastic UK import comes in second for most nominations this year (at 16), has already picked up two wins (for music and hairstyling), and critics have declared the Supporting Actress in a Drama category a Maggie Smith/Christina Hendricks showdown. To the newbies we recommend the premiere episode of Season 2, but all others should revisit the “Christmas Special.” The latter was undoubtedly last season’s best, earning the show Outstanding Writing and Directing nominations, and a slew of nods to its cast.

American Horror Story: “Smoldering Children”

Ah, Downton’s old stomping grounds. American Horror Story has spawned its share of backlash and confusion for submitting to the Miniseries or Movie category, but the tactic worked, and now the series sits in the lead with Mad Men at 17 nominations. If you’ve never watched this mind-warping, heavy-on-the-reveals show, we would recommend starting with the first episode. Or, bear some confusion and watch Outstanding Supporting Actress shoo-in Jessica Lange in “Smoldering Children,” the episode widely considered to be her best, also known as “the one with the meat grinder.”

Parks and Recreation: “Win, Lose, or Draw”

Historically snubbed, Parks and Rec is actually looking pretty good in both the Lead Actress and Outstanding Writing categories for “Win, Lose, or Draw,” one of the most wonderful season finales we’ve ever seen. But in an effort to not get too excited, we’re considering this re-watch excellent review for the new season, which starts… tomorrow night!!!

For another classically snubbed show finally getting some more due, check out Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which received a well-deserved (and first ever) Outstanding Writing nod. Goooo Human Beings!

New Girl: “Control”

In perhaps the biggest Emmy controversy of the season, the episode submissions for New Girl’s Max Greenfield and Zooey Deschanel (“Control” and “Bad in Bed” respectively) got switched. Voters were given the opportunity to re-cast their votes based on the correct submission, and although it’s unlikely the mix-up made much of a difference since these two are up against some pretty steep competition (the Modern Family guys for Greenfield and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler for Deschanel), wins aren’t out of the realm of possibility (Greenfield being one of our top dark horses). The pilot picked up an Outstanding Directing nomination, but if you’re going to watch anything, we definitely recommend “Control,” which is a hilarious yet surprisingly heartfelt take on one of the most universal human experiences: simply, losin’ it.