This story first appeared in the August 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Emmy season is most exhilarating when there's a juicy balance of stalwart competitors and debut nominees. It makes predicting winners a glorious and beguiling guessing game; it also gets antsy viewers to sit through the entire primetime telecast (this year's host, Jimmy Kimmel, hopefully offers equal bait). The 2012 Emmys epitomize such a scenario as dozens of new names converge on the most exciting ballot in years, with many destined to shake up TV's biggest night.
Newbies: Veep (HBO); Girls (HBO)
Veterans: The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Modern Family (ABC); Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO); 30 Rock (NBC)
In 2011, HBO had zero presence in this category (to be fair, no cable network did). Now, 2012's most-nominated network has three entries in the comedy race, two of which -- Veep and Girls -- bowed in the spring to buzzy acclaim. For the first time since its Emmy debut, two-time winner Modern Family has seriously funny competition.
LEAD ACTRESS COMEDY
Newbies: Zooey Deschanel, New Girl (Fox); Lena Dunham, Girls (HBO); Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (HBO)
Veterans: Tina Fey, 30 Rock (NBC); Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly (CBS); Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie (Showtime); Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Emmy loves a new girl (hello, McCarthy's shocker win last year), so this year's race bodes well for hip gals Dunham and Deschanel. It's also good news for a reincarnated first-timer, Veep's Louis-Dreyfus -- now tied with Lucille Ball for most noms (13) for a comedy actress. She's Emmy's gold standard -- until a new girl crashes her party.
LEAD ACTOR COMEDY
Newbies: Don Cheadle, House of Lies (Showtime); Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men (CBS)
Veterans: Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Louis C.K., Louie (FX); Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock (NBC); Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
Cryer earned six supporting actor noms, including a win in 2009. But he is new to the lead race, which has seen back-to-back wins for Parsons. Between Cryer's history and Cheadle's nom (he's the first black actor nominated here since Bernie Mac in 2003), a fresh spoiler seems likely.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS COMEDY
Newbies: Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie (Showtime); Kathryn Joosten, Desperate Housewives (ABC)
Veterans: Julie Bowen and Sofia Vergara, Modern Family (ABC); Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
It's odd a nominee would be the comic relief in her comedy series, but Wever is just that in Showtime's dramedy. Joosten's bittersweet posthumous entrance to this race coincided with her death this year, which could tug at the heartstrings of Academy colleagues. But Bialik might be most formidable as the Blossom veteran proves there's life -- and Emmy love -- for a kid-turned-adult actor.
SUPPORTING ACTOR COMEDY
Newbies: Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live (NBC); Max Greenfield, New Girl (Fox)
Veterans: Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, Ed O'Neill and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family (ABC)
It's fun that Hader earned a first nom for his quirky SNL alter egos (Stefon!) the same year as Wiig's final nom. But it's New Girl's comedy centerpiece, Greenfield, who has the Modern Family dudes quivering in their gilded boots.
Newbies: Homeland (Showtime); Downton Abbey (PBS)
Veterans: Mad Men (AMC); Breaking Bad (AMC); Game of Thrones (HBO); Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Pity Breaking Bad, which returns to the race after a year's hiatus to the roughest competition in a decade. Homeland won the Golden Globe and earned nine overall noms. But it's no Downton Abbey, which won last year's miniseries/movie category and scored 16 total noms, giving Walter White serious cause to sweat in his haz-mat suit.
LEAD ACTRESS DRAMA
Newbies: Claire Danes, Homeland (Showtime); Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey (PBS)
Veterans: Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife (CBS); Glenn Close, Damages (DirecTV); Kathy Bates, Harry's Law (NBC); Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men (AMC)
Danes won her first Emmy in 2010 for HBO's Temple Grandin, the perfect primer for her gritty psychological work on Homeland. Too bad this coincides with Dockery's first appearance in the drama category as Downton's leading lady.
LEAD ACTOR DRAMA
Newbies: Damian Lewis, Homeland (Showtime); Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey (PBS)
Veterans: Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire (HBO); Jon Hamm, Mad Men (AMC); Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad (AMC); Michael C. Hall, Dexter (Showtime)
Cranston's absence from the 2011 race allowed for Kyle Chandler's surprise victory, and a fourth win for Cranston will be tough this year. Like Danes and Dockery, Lewis and Bonneville are formidable stars leading the most competitive new dramas.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS DRAMA
Newbies: Maggie Smith and Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey (PBS); Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad (AMC)
Veterans: Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife (CBS); Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (AMC)
Smith won here in 2011 -- but in the miniseries/ movie race. Will this translate into a win for drama now that supporting winner Margo Martindale is missing? Two Downton actresses could split the vote and allow Gunn a long-awaited shot at gold for her sublime work on Bad.
SUPPORTING ACTOR DRAMA
Newbies: Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad (AMC); Jared Harris, Mad Men (AMC); Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle, Downton Abbey (PBS)
Veterans: Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones (HBO); Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad (AMC)
With four new faces here, predicting a win is tricky at best. Never underestimate Downton's duo, but Esposito and Harris met colorful, scenery-chewing demises in their respective arcs on Bad and Men. If Martindale's 2011 win for Justified taught us anything, it's that Emmy likes a dramatic exit as much as a new face.