This Sunday night on CBS, the 65th-annual Emmy Awards will celebrate the year in television excellence. Like most meth-addled Americans, I won't be watching — at least not live. Instead, I'll be tuning in to AMC to watch some truly excellent television in real time, a.k.a. the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.
Still, many, many people will watch an Emmy ceremony that is likely to be among the most unpredictable in recent memory. (And by "many, many people" I primarily mean those of you with ready access to multiple screens, those with a lack of interest in the endgame of certain New Mexican science teachers, and/or those with an unquenchable fondness for Neil Patrick Harris production numbers). And so please consider the following as a guide to the moments to watch for — six potential upsets, shockers, and game-changers, a.k.a. the times you definitely don't want to be getting up for more guacamole. Save that for Best Actress in a Drama — unless you've forgotten the names of Claire Danes's publicist, manager, and husband over the past year. And save some guacamole for me.
The last time The Daily Show With Jon Stewart didn't win the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Comic, or Music Series, back in 2002, a Bush was in the White House and we all had Hope, Cash, and Jobs). This year, the venerable snark engine is gunning for its record 11th (!) straight trophy. It's a ridiculous streak, one even Stewart went to great pains to mock from the podium this time last year. Will 2013 be the year Colbert gets his due or the viral videographers of Fallon are rewarded for their wigs, sweat, and tears? Or will Jimmy Kimmel's slow, workmanlike ascent from the Rodney Dangerfield of late night into the only sure thing at 11:30 be rewarded with a trophy?
The short answer? No.
On paper, Stewart's ditching the anchor chair for an entire summer might have been just the impetus Emmy voters needed to sample other options at that hour. But the fact that interim host John Oliver kept the standards so amazingly high might actually make them more inclined to keep The Daily Show flush. (It'll certainly help with the Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Comic, or Music Series contest too.)
I don't hold out much hope for regime change in other stale categories either. The Amazing Race has won the trophy for Outstanding Reality Competition every year since the category was invented — save for 2010, when the deserving Top Chef stabbed it in the back. Since the Seattle season of Top Chef did the franchise no favors — and the Emmy voters have shown no inclination to reward singing or dancing shows — I have to think The Amazing Race will win again.
Oh, and Modern Family is going to win Outstanding Comedy Series for the fourth straight year. It doesn't matter that 30 Rock’s entire final season was thunder; or that Girls and Louie have radically and artistically challenged just what television comedy can be. (For one thing: It doesn’t have to be funny.) As the only remaining blockbuster, big-tent family comedy on the air, Modern Family’s significance to the Emmys goes far beyond content. Rewarding it yet again is the Emmys’ way of nudging the needle toward the sort of gently comedic mainstream fare its votership prefers, even as it slowly disappears from the airwaves.
2. Miniseries, Big Competition
Last year FX gamed the system in a big way with its divisive American Horror Story. Though the show is an ongoing anthology series — each season is different, with Jessica Lange as the glue — it was submitted as a miniseries, giving it a chance to score big in a way it wouldn't have had it been forced to compete against the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of the world. (AHS had 17 nominations in 2012. It eventually won two.) This year, American Horror Story: Asylum is an early favorite in the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category. But perhaps it shouldn't be. HBO's Behind the Candelabra is just the sort of downstreamed Hollywood entertainment that the Emmys — always acting like the redheaded stepchild to movies, even if the country no longer believes it to be the case — love to shower with attention and statuettes. However, I'm still holding out a small shred of hope for Sundance Channel's Top of the Lake. Jane Campion's intensely dreamy, deeply unsettling series remains my very favorite thing I've seen on TV all year. Recognition from Emmy voters would be a wonderful and much-needed vote of confidence for networks to continue investing in the idiosyncratic visions that helped launch the recent Golden Age of TV in the first place — visions that were blessedly free of dragons, zombies, or Jeff Daniels. (I remain slightly more optimistic that Elisabeth Moss at least has a decent chance to win for her very un-Peggy like turn as Lake’s lead detective.)
Still, the real question isn't whether Candelabra will win — it probably will — but whether voters in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie category will split the ticket between its stars, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, leaving the field open for a surprise upset — possibly Benedict Cumberbatch for Parade's End; more likely the eternally rewarded Al Pacino for Phil Spector. The lack of nomination for Rob Lowe's face in Candelabra remains the year's biggest disgrace.
3. The Supporting Actor Cluster-F
In most Emmy years, the biggest drama involves the lead actors. 2013 is no exception for that (see below), but don't ignore the tumult on the undercard. The nominees for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama this year are all aces: Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey’s stalwart Jim Carter, Boardwalk Empire’s cartoonishly memorable Bobby Cannavale and the hearts and souls of Game of Thrones and Homeland, Peter Dinklage and Mandy Patinkin, respectively. I don't think Carter has a shot here — despite what all of our mothers may want — and the lack of love for Boardwalk overall may sink Cannavale's chances. It was Season 2 of Game of Thrones that gave Dinklage his best showcase, not Season 3. Unless Thrones makes a surprise sweep of the major categories, like a horde of White Walkers over the wall, I don't think he takes home another trophy. Paul remains the favorite even if Banks might steal some of his votes. (Emmy voters love a swan song.) But I have a feeling this is Patinkin's to lose. Members of the Academy may recognize that Homeland’s second season was lacking, but none of it was Patinkin's fault: His subtle performance grounds the show even in its flightier moments. In other words, if you want to win big in your Emmy pool, you'd better call Saul.
4. The Insider's Game
Behind-the-scenes categories rarely get as much attention as they should, but do take a moment to consider the poor slobs who actually do the grunt work to cook up the television we binge upon so eagerly. Mad Men was surprisingly shut out of the writing for a dramatic series category this year, leaving the window open at least a crack for the deserving Henry Bromell, the longtime TV scribe who died in March. His taut, visceral "Q&A" was the highlight of Homeland’s bumpy sophomore campaign. And the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series trophy might be Louie’s best chance for gold — and 30 Rock’s last chance. On the directing side of things, here's hoping Michelle MacLaren, Breaking Bad’s longtime underappreciated genius, gets her rightful due for her work on the fifth midseason finale, "Gliding Over All." (You think just anyone could have filmed Dean Norris on the toilet? Think again.)
Oh, and all TV hipsters will want to be glued to their couches the moment Amy Poehler loses her umpteenth deserved trophy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, probably, or to Tina Fey, maybe) and Louis C.K. does the same thing on the Actor side (to Cheadle or maybe Baldwin). Remember: Outraged tweets, like muffins, are best when fresh.
5. The Annual Bryan Cranston Award for Outstanding Lead Actor Goes To ...
Bryan Cranston? Probably?
But then again, maybe not. I can see an upset here (hell, we saw one last year), especially since Cranston is a mortal lock for next time — his last hurrah as Walter White — though those with Hamm stock shouldn't get too excited. I think the winner of this category will foreshadow the Outstanding Drama Series win one way or another. If Cranston does do it, it could portend big things for Breaking Bad, a series that's never not been great but has always fallen short of the big prize. But keep an eye on Spacey. Emmy voters love nothing more than to reward movie types who have deigned to dip their toes into the humble waters of TV, and Spacey's fourth-wall-shattering, scenery-chewing turn as Frank Underwood is just the sort of type-A performance needed to elbow his way onto the podium. Cranston is the favorite. But Spacey's is the potential upset I find most intriguing — and possible. Especially if the below scenario comes true.
6. Who Wins the Future?
TV is changing — and changing so fast that even the Emmys, never the most nimble of organizations, noticed. House of Cards is the first series ever to be nominated for Outstanding Drama that wasn't even broadcast on TV. Handing it the biggest prize of the night would be an enormous bet on the future of the medium having little if nothing to do with its past. Except that Cards is exactly the sort of trumped-up prestige-bait Emmy voters adore. Nothing against the David Fincher–produced series. It was OK. But it felt momentous, mostly due to the involvement of A-list movie talent and a self-important chilliness that would made a yeti seem warm and fuzzy in comparison.
House of Cards also seems like a front-runner because of the perceived deficiencies of its competition. If you have a Twitter account, then Breaking Bad’s win must feel like a fait accompli. But the Emmys have so far been able to resist the allure of championing a series in which drugs are cooked and bodies are melted in buckets of acid. Call them old-fashioned that way. I'd argue that the first half of its fifth season is the best thing nominated, but it's very possible that the Academy will resist for one more year, before holding its nose and giving in to the joys of the blue next year.
Homeland, last year's winner, stumbled badly its second time around the track. Rewarding it would be a clear sign that the Emmys vote on previous glory as much as present acclaim. Game of Thrones certainly feels like the biggest show on TV — and has a price tag to match — but I'm not sure the Emmys want to acknowledge the creeping blockbusterization of the TV business. Thrones is the real deal, but handing it this trophy would be like the Oscars naming a Batman movie Best Picture. (Now, a Batman movie starring Ben Affleck ...) Be sure to pour out a little liquor for Mad Men, long the light of Emmys' life. The affection is clearly flickering — the show's lack of writing nominations was equivalent to a death knell, at least for this year. (Weiner will be back in 2015 when the final half of Mad Men’s final season airs — with neither Walter White nor Frank Underwood to stand in his way.) Downton Abbey? Best to keep the upper lips stiff, chaps.
And so we circle back to Cards. Was it the best drama of the past year? No. But it could well deserve to win for what it represents more than what it is. Netflix, once seen as an existential threat, is now kissing up to the entrenched industry it once needled. Ending the ceremony with Netflix execs swarming the stage might be the canniest way for the Academy to sell an optimistic message that the more screens there are, the merrier, and that by bringing its enemies in close, there's a chance everyone could end up friends. After all, Netflix is no longer a punchy razor company, profiting on others' content. Now it's in the actor-hiring, pilot-ordering razor business like everyone else — a business that keeps everyone in the auditorium happy and rich (though rarely in that order). And that, above all else, is truly the business the Emmys like to celebrate best.