Emmys 2012: Sizing Up the Best Drama Series Race (INSIDE STORY)

Emmys 2012: Drama Actors
Emmys 2012: Lead Drama Actors
Celebuzz sizes up the competition. Read More »
EMMYS 2012: Drama Actress
Who'll win Lead Actress in a Drama Series? Read More »

What is drama? If you're an Emmy voter this year, drama is what happens when men jockey for power -- and when women try to prove they can compete on the same testosterone-spattered battleground.

It's worth noting that the list of nominees for Best Drama Series is almost the same as the list of Best Actors in a Drama Series; only Game of Thrones is represented on the former list but not the latter (where Dexter star Michael C. Hall has taken advantage of the power vacuum in Westeros.) Thrones aside, the Drama Series category is driven by actors who did such a good job playing intense and crafty warriors that they were nominated for statuettes themselves.

Here's how we see this macho struggle shaking out at the podium on Sunday night, Sept. 23.

Mad Men: The Emmys have been a four-martini banquet for the admen (and women) of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The 1960s-set drama has won this prize all four years it's been eligible. A fifth prize would set a record. It's possible that the Emmy voters will decide it's finally time for fresh blood, but coming into the race, Mad Men owns this category. Emmy chances: Very good.

Homeland: If anyone can knock Mad Men off its pedestal, it's this upstart, whose first season drew huge raves and pleased fans of both 24-style action and cerebral drama. Even President Obama has given it a thumbs-up. You'd think if he had time to watch it, Emmy voters would too, but the Showtime show has the same disadvantage that marks any drama on a premium cable channel that's not named HBO. It's a lot easier to catch up with the ubiquitous, basic-cable Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Emmy Chances: Good.

Breaking Bad: It doesn't hurt that Bryan Cranston is the frontrunner in the Lead Actor race. Still, the meth-dealing drama has been nominated for Best Series twice without winning, suggesting that voters don't appreciate the show in its entirety as much as just Cranston's performance in it. The series is certainly tough medicine, but it's also the favorite of TV critics and had a particularly strong season this past year. Emmy Chances: Decent.

Boardwalk Empire: Among Mad Men's rivals for this prize, only Boardwalk and Thrones are repeat nominees from last year. That gives them both a little momentum. Still, Boardwalk may suffer from the impression among critics that, while it's a beautifully mounted period piece that offers fascinating characters and arresting dramatic moments of shocking gangland violence, it doesn't have much to say about any of the things that happen. It's as if the show's dark charisma is supposed to be its own reward. Which it will be on Emmy night. Emmy Chances: Weak.

Game of Thrones: Like so many of this year's nominees, Thrones is truly beloved by its cult of fans while being ignored by the public at large. (Notice that not one show on this list airs on a major ad-supported broadcast network.) Things that make Thrones particularly culty are its complicated plotting, its numerous characters and rival families that viewers must keep track of, and its extreme sex and violence. TV Academy members who haven't watched the whole series are likely to have trouble following along if they try to vote based on just one or two episodes. Merely getting nominated will have to be prize enough. Emmy Chances: Poor.

Downton Abbey: The PBS period piece won in the Mini-Series category last year. Guess if they keep making new episodes, it's not a mini-series anymore, just a series, so now it has to compete with the broad-shouldered brawlers in this category. Downton did come into its own this year as a pop culture phenomenon in America, and Emmy voters' Anglophilia (if it's classy and British, it's got to be good) may help some. But otherwise, this show is as overmatched as a croquet player going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line. Emmy Chances: Doubtful.

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