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Things To Watch For At Sunday Night's Emmy Awards

Jon Hamm is up for another Emmy on Sunday night, and with Bryan Cranston of <em>Breaking Bad</em> out of the picture, is this his year?
Matt Sayles
Jon Hamm is up for another Emmy on Sunday night, and with Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad out of the picture, is this his year?

On today's Weekend Edition Sunday, I'll be talking to Audie Cornish, who recently started her new gig as permanent host, about the Emmy Awards. (I trust her implicitly, because one of her models is Jimmy Fallon.) Tonight, frequent Monkey See contributor Marc Hirsh and I will be liveblogging the ceremony beginning at 7:45 p.m. Eastern, so make sure you come back for that, too.)

The Emmys are a perplexing event. As I recently explained it to a friend, if the Oscars represent the high end of televised awards credibility and the Grammys represent the low end, the Emmys are somewhere in the middle. They've gotten more respectable and prestigious, I think, as television has gotten more serious and inventive, and TV critics certainly don't ridicule the Emmys with the vigor with which music critics regularly lash the mainstream Grammy categories. But there's still tremendous (cultural, not political) conservatism in the way the same shows and performances — and particularly the same types of shows and performances — tend to be rewarded again and again. And the Emmys certainly don't embrace small, against-the-grain productions the way the Oscars sometimes do.

Every year, though, a few genuinely interesting questions arise. This year is no exception.

Can Mad Men and Modern Family repeat?

The big winners last year in the Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Comedy Series categories were Mad Men and Modern Family, respectively. The early betting among the majority of critics was that both would repeat, making two straight for Modern Family and an impressive four straight for Mad Men.

But I put my early bet on Boardwalk Empire, HBO's period drama about Atlantic City during Prohibition. And since Boardwalk cleaned up at last weekend's Creative Arts awards – sometimes a sign of things to come, and sometimes not – there are those who believe momentum may be swinging that way. Boardwalk certainly would seem to have the inside track over HBO's other nominee, Game Of Thrones, which was also lushly produced and well reviewed.

Friday Night Lights, which aired on DirecTV and NBC, making it the rare nominee that represents both cable and broadcast, is a sentimental favorite as it completes its beloved five-season run, but this is the first time it's ever been nominated, and it would be a big – though deeply satisfying – upset. Showtime's Dexter would seem to have already passed its best opportunities to win.

The most interesting winner would be The Good Wife, the one straight-up traditional network drama in the group. It's unlikely, but if it happened, it would represent a big victory for the big broadcast networks, which haven't captured Outstanding Drama Series since 24 won in 2006 and which only really have this one show to represent them. Not only is it a broadcast show, but it's a very old-school lawyer show, generally combining a case of the week with background personal dramas, just like L.A. Law and The Practice and other past winners.

Who takes over for Bryan Cranston?

Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad has won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for the last three straight years. That means he's beaten Michael C. Hall of Dexter three straight times, and he's beaten Hugh Laurie of House three straight times – but he's gotten the most attention for beating Jon Hamm of Mad Men three straight times.

This year, because of the oddities of how the Breaking Bad schedule played out, the show isn't eligible for an Emmy, so neither is Cranston. That means that for the first time since James Spader won in 2007 for Boston Legal, someone else is going to win. The favorite should really be Hamm, who did exceptional work this season as Don Draper went from a basket case with a barely maintained façade of calm to a basket case with almost no façade of calm at all.

But Steve Buscemi is also nominated for Boardwalk Empire, and the Emmys do sometimes have a soft spot for relocated movie actors, though they've most often shown up in miniseries or movies. Among those who have won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie since 2000, you'll find Jack Lemmon, Robert Duvall, Kenneth Branagh, William H. Macy, Al Pacino (twice), Paul Giamatti, and Geoffrey Rush. For women, this has already spilled over into Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series, where recent winners include Glenn Close (twice) and Sally Field. If it holds for drama series actors as well, Buscemi could very easily swipe this award from under Hamm's nose. The other nominees include Hall, Laurie, Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights, and Timothy Olyphant of Justified. Olyphant would also make a deeply deserving winner, but his show wasn't nominated for Outstanding Drama Series, and if I had to guess, I'd say the Emmys will acknowledge it not here, but with a win for Margo Martindale for her supporting performance.

How is Two And A Half Men treated?

After the nightmarish situation that the entire Two And A Half Men cast and crew experienced when Charlie Sheen melted down in the spring, is it possible that Jon Cryer, who won for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2009, could win again, partly out of sympathy? To pull it off, he has to beat not only Chris Colfer of Glee but also four – count them, four – men from the Modern Family cast: last year's winner, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O'Neill, and Ty Burrell. The bloom is a bit off the Glee rose, and if the Modern cast splits votes ... it's not impossible.

But reports have also surfaced that Sheen, who's currently in the middle of his redemption tour leading up to his Comedy Central roast on Monday night, will present at the ceremony. By embracing Sheen's current "Gee, I don't know what happened, that was crazy, so anyway, back to being the lovable party animal!" narrative, Emmy might be perceived as poking the current cast, including Sheen's replacement Ashton Kutcher, as well as super-producer Chuck Lorre in the eye.

Perhaps not – perhaps Men has concluded that peace with Sheen is better for the ongoing health of the Kutcher iteration of the show than the alternatives. Perhaps there's even a gesture in the works, like Sheen presenting with Kutcher or something truly nutty like that, that's explicitly designed to let everyone claim that they're fine with everything and all is forgiven. But it's a risky move to so energetically embrace Sheen at this particular moment while he still has litigation pending against one of the biggest producers in television.

Other questions

The ceremony itself. Will host Jane Lynch, who isn't a comedian or a talk show host, be a success? Will there be enjoyable production numbers, including the reported category introductions from "The Emmingtons," the singing group that includes Zachary Levi of Chuck and Joel McHale of Community?

For Outstanding Miniseries or Movie (a newly combined category), can PBS's imported Downton Abbey beat out HBO's prestigious, awards-baiting Mildred Pierce?

The Daily Show has won Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Series every year since 2003. Can it grab a ninth consecutive prize, or might The Colbert Report sneak in, or even the marvelous Late Night With Jimmy Fallon?

Top Chef finally took the Outstanding Reality-Competition Series Emmy away from The Amazing Race last year after seven straight wins. Will it be Top Chef again? Back to Race? Has Project Runway lost its shot at this award forever? Will they ever give it to one of the two ratings behemoths, Dancing With The Stars or American Idol?

Can a pure comedic performance win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series? The last two Emmys in this category have gone to Edie Falco and Toni Collette for their mixed comedy-drama performances in Nurse Jackieand United States Of Tara. This year, Falco is up again, as is Laura Linney for the similarly toned The Big C. Does that mean the fantastic Amy Poehler, past winner Tina Fey, inspired wackadoodle veteran Martha Plimpton, and the white-hot Melissa McCarthy won't win for their actually comedic performances?

And finally: This year is Steve Carell's last chance for The Office. Can they send him off with his first award for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy?

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.