Emmys 2012: Sizing Up the Best Comedy Actresses’ Race (ANALYSIS)

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Comedy doesn’t get much respect, not even from comic performers. That’s the impression one gets from the Outstanding Lead Actresses in a Comedy Series in this year’s Emmy race.

Allowed to submit just one episode to Emmy voters to show off her chop, each of this year’s nominees chose a sample that was dramatic or dark. That may impress voters with the actresses’ range and versatility, but will it actually help them decide who’s funniest?

It certainly doesn’t make it easier for Emmy handicappers, especially when there are not five or six but seven supremely talented (and, yes, funny) actresses in the running. Guess we’ll have to fall back on the usual method of sizing up the race: Emmy politics.

Here’s how we think the Best Comedy Actress category will shake out.

Amy Poehler: She’s never won, despite five previous nominations (as an actress, producer, and writer). She’s long overdue for Emmy recognition, as is Parks and Recreation. Her episode, “Win, Lose, or Draw,” sees her running the gamut of emotions from laughter to tears as she awaits the results of her nailbiter of a city council election. The show’s comedy may be too sublte for voters, but Poehler feels like a winner. Emmy chances: Strong.

Edie Falco: She’s the first woman to win Emmys for lead roles in both drama (three times for The Sopranos) and comedy (two years ago for Nurse Jackie). She could repeat as the pill-popping nurse, though her character took an especially dark turn this year as she suffered through rehab (largely in the episode Falco submitted, “Disneyland Sucks”). The withdrawal storyline would be surefire awards bait if Nurse Jackie were a drama, but comedy voters might find it overwhelming. Besides, after four wins, voters may think it’s someone else’s turn. Emmy chances: Dim.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The two-time winner could be Poehler’s strongest competition. Like Poehler, she swerves from laughter to tears in her submission (titled  “Tears”). Unfortunately for the actress, her new series Veep lacks the strong critical buzz of some of the other contenders’ shows (particularly Lena Dunham’s Girls, which also debuted this spring on HBO). And sharp political satire is always bound to offend and alienate somebody. Still, the Seinfeld alum’s pedigree might be enough to pull her through. Emmy chances: Good.

Lena Dunham: Love it or hate it, Girls may have been the year’s most talked-about comedy. Like some of the other shows represented here, Girls is so deadpan that it’s a wonder voters even recognized it as a comedy. The same is true of Dunham’s performance on the episode, “She Did,” in which the actress doesnt do much until her big scene at the end where her Hannah blurts out how scared she is all the time. Of course, Dunham’s achievement in creating, writing, and directing the series may take away from her chances as an actress, with voters figuring she’ll be recognized elsewhere. Still, she’s the kind of newcomer the Emmys love. Emmy chances: Decent.

Melissa McCarthy: Last year’s upset winner rode the wave of positive attention from Bridesmaids, as well her performance on what was then a fresh and new sitcom. Now, the Bridesmaids hype has subsided, and Mike & Molly, instead of being fresh, now looks like the most conventional (three cameras and a laugh track) sitcom of the bunch. McCarthy’s just as good as ever; her episode, “The Dress,” showed broad comic range as Molly struggled to lose weight to fit into her wedding dress. Nonetheless, it’s probably someone else’s turn to be America’s comedy sweetheart. Emmy chances: Just OK.

Tina Fey: Hard to believe, but 30 Rock has been around so long that it’s gone from fresh upstart to tired chestnut and back to fresh upstart again.  That means Fey, who won this prize in 2008, has a shot again. (Besides, with the show going off the air at the end of the upcoming season, there won’t be many more chances for the Emmys to honor Fey’s Liz Lemon.) On “The Tuxedo Begins,” Fey shows off her increased confidence as a performer by playing essentially two roles: normal Liz and grotesque homeless lady (a persona Liz assumes to get better seats on the subway and at the movies). This episode lacks the heart-tugging element that the voters are suckers for, but maybe the idea of a Fey comeback is heart-tugging enough. Emmy Chances: Not bad.

Zooey Deschanel: On the one hand, Deschanel has managed to translate her wide-eyed, sly quirky charm from movies to TV with effortless ease on New Girl. More than anyone this year except maybe Lena Dunham, she was TV comedy’s new “It Girl.” Like many of the other nominees, she submitted a performance that was fearless and weird, the “Bad in Bed” episode, where she tried to turn on boyfriend Justin Long with her awkward attempts at kinky sex play. On the other hand, that performance may have been too off-putting even among this crowd. And with New Girl a modest hit, she’ll have plenty more chances to win in the years to come. Emmy chances: Iffy.

Which star would you bet on for the win? Tell us in the comments section below.