The 64th annual Primetime Emmys air Sunday night, and at a time where there’s some kind of awards show just about every weekend, it’s one of the few we actually care about. More than the Grammys or the Oscars, the Emmys actually seem to recognize quality. Just take this year’s Outstanding Drama Series nominees: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, and Mad Men — great shows, all. Since we’ve got several horses in this race, we’ve hazarded some guesses about which series and actors will take home an Emmy in the awards’ highest-profile categories, along with our own picks for who should win. Take our predictions to task in the comments, but don’t get too upset — with so much stellar programming to celebrate this year, everybody wins.
Outstanding Drama Series:
Boardwalk Empire Breaking Bad Downton Abbey Game of Thrones Homeland Mad Men
Pick: Breaking Bad. This show has never won an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, but its fourth season topped everything that came before it. Studded with stellar episodes, bursting with excellent performances, propelled by Walter White’s mad lust for power and vicious self-preservation instinct, and punctuated by one of the most memorable TV deaths of all time, its only competition quality-wise is the nearly perfect debut season of Homeland.
Prediction: Mad Men had a more uneven season than we’re used to, but the highs (Roger’s life-redefining acid trip, Joan’s decision to sleep with a client in exchange for a share of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) were transcendent. So, since it’s taken home the Emmy in this category every year since it first became eligible, the inconsistency probably won’t be enough to dissuade Academy members who apparently love the show. The only possible spoiler is Downton Abbey, which basically swept the Miniseries or TV Movie category last year. Despite critics’ disappointment with the second season, Emmy voters clearly have a soft spot for World War I-era British aristocrats, too.
Outstanding Comedy Series:
The Big Bang Theory Curb Your Enthusiasm Girls Modern Family 30 Rock Veep
Pick: Girls. Honestly, it was not our favorite comedy series of the year. That honor probably goes to Louie or Parks and Recreation or Community, none of which made this slightly puzzling list. But Veep took too long getting started (we predict it’ll be great next season), 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm are both past their prime, Modern Family is fun but not consistently inspired, and The Big Bang Theory has frankly never been that good.
Prediction: Modern Family. Because it’s won twice in a row already and everyone loves a relatively smart, encouragingly popular network comedy that also makes viewers feel good about embracing its mildly progressive values.
Lead Actress in a Drama Series:
Glenn Close, Damages Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife Kathy Bates, Harry’s Law Claire Danes, Homeland Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Pick: Claire Danes. The competition on this list gets stiffer each year, but no one could touch Danes’ complex, emotional portrayal of a CIA agent who’s both brilliant and bipolar.
Prediction: Claire Danes. Although we’d love to see Elisabeth Moss win in this category just once before Mad Men wraps, nothing can stop the buzz Danes has going.
Lead Actor in a Drama Series:
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire Jon Hamm, Mad Men Michael C. Hall, Dexter Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey Damian Lewis, Homeland Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Pick: Jon Hamm, for the simple reason that he — and, in fact, no one in Mad Men‘s cast — has never won an acting award for his work on the show. This year, we saw Don Draper struggling to become the loving husband he hoped his marriage to Megan would make him, fighting his base impulses with every fiber of his being. His ultimate realization that his new wife needed the freedom to make her dreams come true, rather than pursuing an unsatisfying career in a field where she could share an office with Don, left us with a nagging uncertainty about whether this character can ever really change.
Prediction: Bryan Cranston, who is crowding Jon Hamm out of the Lead Actor in a Drama Series the same way Mad Men has prevented Breaking Bad from winning Outstanding Drama Series. He’s taken home an Emmy every year he’s been eligible (last year he wasn’t because of the timing of Breaking Bad Season 3; Kyle Chandler won a well-deserved statue for the final season of the criminally under-recognized Friday Night Lights). While we can’t say he doesn’t deserve it, Cranston isn’t the only actor who does a consistently excellent job embodying a complex male character on a critically beloved AMC drama.
Lead Actress in a Comedy Series:
Lena Dunham, Girls Melissa McCarthy, Mike and Molly Zooey Deschanel, New Girl Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation Tina Fey, 30 Rock Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Pick: Amy Poehler. It’s utterly baffling that Parks and Recreation isn’t even nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series, even though it’s a show that’s smart enough for critics and sweet enough for America to love (despite the fact that, apparently due to some kind of NBC Thursday-night comedy curse, most of America isn’t watching it). The Academy can partially atone for this omission by rewarding Poehler for a stellar season that found Leslie Knope juggling her city council campaign with the most adorable conflict-of-interest love affair on TV.
Prediction: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s a tough call, but here’s our reasoning: Melissa McCarthy won last year amid the Bridesmaids mania, and while she’s still excellent on Mike and Molly, that’s not a show that’s going to hold Emmy voters’ attention for two years running. Edie Falco already got her Nurse Jackie Emmy, and now that the shine’s off that series, she’s not getting another. Tina Fey will win a second time next year, after 3o Rock wraps. Lena Dunham will probably pick up an award in the writing or directing categories, but (perhaps to her credit) her acting on Girls is so minimal and natural we’re guessing most people assume she’s just playing herself. That leaves Poehler or Zooey Deschanel to upset, but the Academy has rewarded Louis-Dreyfus for Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and they’re likely to recognize another strong performance in Veep.
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series:
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm Don Cheadle, House of Lies Louis CK, Louie Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
Pick: Louis CK. If the Emmy Awards were ours to hand out, the comedian would take home about half of the comedy prizes for what is basically a one-man show about single fatherhood, sex, and death. Yes, he’s playing himself, but the believability he brings to situations so awkward we involuntarily cringe at least twice an episode is at the heart of Louie‘s unsettling appeal.
Prediction: Don Cheadle. It’s always a great trick when an actor known for his heart-wrenching dramatic performances reminds us that he’s also pretty funny. Despite the fact that Jim Parsons has taken home this award for the past two years running, we’re going to bet on Cheadle’s star power and excellent performance as the darkly humorous Don Draper of management consulting. Since CK probably can’t win it, this would be the next best choice.
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:
Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory Kathryn Joosten, Desperate Housewives Julie Bowen, Modern Family Sofia Vergara, Modern Family Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
Pick: Sofia Vergara or Kristen Wiig, who both deserve the award for different reasons. Vergara manages to bring a lot of warmth, depth, and even some subtlety to a character who’s written with broad strokes. For that reason, her role seems more difficult than her co-star, last year’s winner Julie Bowen. Wiig, meanwhile, deserves recognition for several seasons spent running around like a crazy person to play just about every female character on SNL.
Prediction: Sofia Vergara. As Modern Family cast members go, it’s her turn, and none of the other roles on the list are relevant enough to take it from her. Kristen Wiig could squeak by, despite an apparently prejudice against the SNL troupe in the acting categories, because she’s a big star post-Bridesmaids and this was her last year on the show, but we wouldn’t bet on it. There’s also an outside chance Kathryn Joosten’s recent death stirred Academy members to vote for her as a tribute.
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series:
Ed O’Neill, Modern Family Cameron Tucker, Modern Family Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family Ty Burrell, Modern Family Max Greenfield, New Girl Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live
Pick: Max Greenfield. We are not as wild about New Girl as everyone else seemed to be, but when we did watch, it was Schmidt who made it worthwhile. This doubles as a protest vote against Modern Family monopolizing a ridiculous two-thirds of this category. In a world where we’ve got Ron Swanson and Abed Nadir, such a narrow focus is embarrassing.
Prediction: Jesse Tyler Ferguson. We’re not naïve enough to believe Modern Family won’t take this one for the third straight year. Cameron Tucker and Ty Burrell have already gotten their Emmys, and Mitchell’s a more popular character Ed O’Neill’s Jay, so we’re going to predict it’s his turn.
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:
Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey Christine Baranski, The Good Wife Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
Pick: Christina Hendricks. Listen, no one loves the Dowager Countess more than us, but the wonderful Maggie Smith is basically playing a cartoon character who’s more notable for her one-liners than any essential participation in the story. It may be her most enjoyable role, but it isn’t her most challenging. By contrast, Hendricks was at the center of Mad Men‘s most perfect episode of the season, “The Other Woman,” faced with a decision that changed everything for her character. Her Joan Harris gains more emotional depth every year, despite generally keeping her feelings to herself in the office. Of all the excellent performances in Mad Men Season 5, Hendricks’ is the one that has stuck with us the most.
Prediction: Christina Hendricks. The Good Wife nominations will cancel each other out, poor Joanne Froggatt doesn’t have a chance against Smith, and Gunn’s nomination is for Season 4 of Breaking Bad, meaning that her excellent performance in this summer’s new episodes won’t be due for a reward until next year. The real competition is between Hendricks and Smith. It’s probably a dead heat, so we’re going with our preference.
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series:
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad Brendan Coyle, Downton Abbey Jim Carter, Downton Abbey Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones Jared Harris, Mad Men
Pick: Giancarlo Esposito. The idea that his portrayal of one of the most original, fearsome, and mysterious characters in TV history could go unrewarded is just depressing. Esposito’s ability to shift from calm to vicious — without ever working up a sweat — never ceased to freak us out. We love everyone on this list, but it’s Gus Fring’s last shot, and we’ll never see his like again (except maybe in totally watered-down form on Revolution, although not even).
Prediction: Giancarlo Esposito. He and Aaron Paul put in equally masterful performances this year, but we’re thinking since this is Esposito’s last chance to win for Breaking Bad, the Academy will get to Paul in 2013. Jared Harris isn’t totally out of the running (personally, we liked Lane calling Pete a “grimy little pimp” better than his melodramatic swan song), but we’d put him at a close third. Meanwhile at Downton, Carson and Mr. Bates were both excellent, but neither had to do as much heavy lifting as the AMC crew and will almost certainly cancel each other out. It was a bit of a surprise when Dinklage won his well-deserved award in 2011, and while he had another great season, we doubt he’ll get two in a row.
Outstanding Miniseries or TV Movie:
American Horror Story Game Change Hatfields & McCoys Hemingway & Gelhorn Luther Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia
Pick: American Horror Story. We confess to not having jumped aboard the Sherlock bandwagon yet, so perhaps our ignorance is showing, but despite its unevenness, it was Ryan Murphy’s haunted house psycho-thriller that held our attention this year.
Prediction: American Horror Story. Emmy voters love a British import, but did you see how many nominations this show picked up?!
Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series:
The Colbert Report The Daily Show Jimmy Kimmel Live Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Real Time with Bill Maher Saturday Night Live
Pick: The Colbert Report, because Stephen Colbert’s Fox News satire is an essential complement to Jon Stewart’s “WTF, everybody?” commentary. Sadly, Colbert has been nominated every year since 2006 but has never won.
Prediction: The Daily Show. And here is the reason The Colbert Report has never won — its big brother hasn’t lost an Emmy in this category since 2002. Especially in an election year, there’s no way that award’s changing hands this time.
Outstanding Reality-Competition Program:
The Amazing Race Dancing with the Stars Project Runway Top Chef So You Think You Can Dance The Voice
Pick: Top Chef. We would much rather see creative people making things, rather than racing around the globe or singing other people’s songs or dancing with celebrities. That’s not a judgment; it’s just personal preference. And while we might have picked Project Runway in the past, its hour-and-a-half Lifetime format can be boringly excessive.
Prediction: The Amazing Race. This show has won every year since the category debuted in 2003, with the exception of 2010, when Top Chef took the prize. In fact, we would not be surprised if the Academy created Outstanding Reality-Competition Program for the sheer purpose of honoring The Amazing Race.