Emmys 2012: Handicapping the Outstanding Drama Series Race — Plus: Our Pick to Win!

For the first time in ages, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the drama series Emmy will be given to Mad Men on Sunday. Though in any other year AMC’s crown jewel could probably eke out a victory, even in the wake of its uneven (and duly criticized) fifth season, this year it faces especially formidable competition. Not only are there new shows winning accolades (such as Showtime’s Homeland), but a certain old rival (fellow AMC series Breaking Bad) had its strongest season yet.

Which contender will actually strike gold? While you formulate your opinions, here’s our assessment of all the nominees’ chances followed by our final, fearless prediction:

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Boardwalk Empire
Obviously, HBO’s Prohibition-era drama is a solid show–this is, after all, its second nomination in this category. But in spite of the series’ quality, the buzz it generates is decidedly quiet. Last season’s murder of Michael Pitt’s baby-faced mobster, Jimmy Darmody, woke viewers up, but only briefly. So, by the time Emmy voters started filling out their ballots, it was already out of sight, out of mind, and, by extension, out of luck. The longest of the long shots.

Breaking Bad
The smart money says that this is the show that will finally beat Mad Men. Since its debut, the meth-fueled drama has been gaining momentum every season, both creatively and critically, and its last season was hands-down its most, pardon the pun, addictive. In addition, Emmy voters have already expressed their admiration for series stars Bryan Cranston (a three-time winner for his work as chemistry teacher/drug czar Walter White) and Aaron Paul (a 2010 supporting actor victor for his portrayal of Walt’s sidekick, Jesse). (This year, they also gave a nod – perhaps as a parting gift? – to Giancarlo Esposito.) So, sitting on a total of 13 nominations, Breaking Bad is–to put it mildly–looking good.

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Downton Abbey
Ironic, isn’t it? PBS elected to pull its mega-popular period piece from the miniseries/made-for-TV movie category (which it won in 2011) and submit it in the more competitive drama series race. Yet the lords and ladies can’t be counted out. Though Downton’s second season was deemed subpar, viewers still ate it up like it was tea and scones. Even Emmy voters didn’t seem fazed by its diminished quality, giving it 16 nominations (only one fewer than Mad Men). In the end, its real stumbling block could be an unspoken reluctance on the part of Hollywood to give the year’s top prize to a show that isn’t even made in America, much less Hollywood.

Game of Thrones
The trouble with HBO’s violent fantasy is that, even if it was an absolutely perfect hour of television, unless a viewer watches it religiously (and attentively), it’s dauntingly difficult to follow. Its plots are so labyrinthine, its cast so huge that it’s a challenge to keep it all straight. (“Who belongs to what house now?”) Certainly, Emmy voters seem a little confused: Only one member of the sprawling ensemble – last year’s supporting actor winner, Peter Dinklage – was recognized this year. As Melisandre might say, not a good omen.

In its first season, Showtime’s counterterrorism drama was so good that it had critics cracking their thesauruses in search of new synonyms for “sublime.” Emmy voters took notice, too: Both Claire Danes (who just won the Golden Globe) and Damian Lewis were nominated. The only factor working against the show is its new-kid-on-the-block status. If voters decide not to award the statuette to Mad Men for a fifth time in a row, they might give it to returning favorite Breaking Bad before they will to a freshman entry.

Mad Men
Pretty much everyone had a gripe about the goings-on at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce this season. There was too much Megan, some said. There wasn’t a “Suitcase” episode, groused others. It just wasn’t that… great. But you would have to be higher than Roger Sterling got on his LSD trip to write off the show’s chances of bagging another drama series Emmy. Coming off back-to-back-to-back-to-back wins, Men still nabbed more nominations than any other series (17), and the late-season shocker that made supporting actress nominee Christina Hendricks’ Joan first a prostitute, then a partner at the agency, sparked the kind of debates for which any show would kill. So is Men vulnerable to an upset? Yes. But a loss is also not a fait accompli.

Who Will Win: Downton Abbey

The 64th annual Primetime Emmy ceremony airs this Sunday at 8/7c on ABC.