The 1960s-set “Mad Men” is hot off three consecutive wins for Best Drama Series, and with a field-leading 19 nominations this year, their most to date, they show no signs of slowing down. Nominees for Best Comedy and Best Drama at the Emmys enter six episodes in three pairs, which are then delivered randomly to voters, and “Mad Men’s” submissions from season four are mostly strong. The first pairing includes “Public Relations,” the season opener, which unveils the new offices of advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” in which Don Draper (Jon Hamm) plays dirty when an account for Honda Motorcycles is up for grabs.
Their second pairing combines one of the weakest episodes of the season, “Waldorf Stories,” with one of the strongest of the entire series, “The Suitcase.” The first episode, though not one of the drama’s best efforts, sets up the action to come; in it, Don wins a Clio Award for an ad his protege Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) feels she should be credited for. Her resentment then comes to the surface in the marvelous “The Suitcase,” an emotionally charged episode that centers almost entirely around Don and Peggy’s relationship. On the strength of “The Suitcase,” this may be an unbeatable pairing, but it would have been even better paired with its follow-up episode, “The Summer Man,” where Don tries to refocus his life and Peggy fires one of her subordinates.
Their final pairing is also superlative. “The Beautiful Girls” is uncomfortably funny, as Don copes with a surprise visit from his young daughter and the unexpected death of his secretary at her desk. And in “Blowing Smoke,” Don does damage control when top client Lucky Strike pulls their business; in a risky gambit, he buys a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring that his firm no longer represents tobacco companies on moral grounds. With these submissions, “Mad Men” maintains a comfortable lead against its competitors, and if it wins, it will be the first cable series to earn a record-tying four Emmys for Best Drama, joining the ranks of “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” and “The West Wing.”
In 1999, HBO revolutionized television with their gangster drama “The Sopranos.” One of that show’s executive producers, Terence Winter, created “Boardwalk Empire,” a freshman series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Harsher critics have derisively referred to the series as “Boredwalk Empire” because of its plodding pace; even the pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese, moves a bit too slowly for some tastes. But the cable network has clearly spared no expense, and the show has been showered with nominations for its cinematography, sets, costumes, and other crafts. The show looks and feels alluring in episodes like “Anastasia,” in which city treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has a lavish birthday party. “Nights in Ballygran” and “Family Limitation” are even more enticing.
The pairing of the last two episodes of the season, “Paris Green” and “A Return to Normalcy,” is first-rate. The highlight of “Paris Green” comes when Federal Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) drowns his partner during a baptism. And the finale features a beautiful monologue by Buscemi about his wife and son who died in childbirth. A blend of glossy period detail and low-key drama was what initially drew Emmy voters to “Mad Men,” and “Boardwalk Empire” may be rewarded for the same winning combination.
“Friday Night Lights” entered the last six episodes of its fifth and final season. The last four — “Don’t Go,” “The March,” “Texas Whatever,” and the pitch-perfect finale “Always” — are stellar. There are wonderful moments in the preceding episodes, “Fracture” and “Gut Check,” but both prominently feature the weakest of the season’s subplots, involving Epyck (Emily Rios), a troubled student unsuccessfully aided by guidance counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). A shrewder move would have been to submit earlier episodes “Kingdom” and “Swerve.” In “Kingdom,” Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) warns his football team against playing vengefully when they face opponents they forfeited to the previous year. And in “Swerve,” his daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) intentionally crashes her car to avoid facing a personal crisis at college. Both episodes are distinguished the kinds of emotional highs and lows that won the show intense loyalty from its viewers.
The low-rated critics’ darling, which was nearly cancelled by NBC before a joint deal with DirecTV resurrected it, has already beaten the odds many times, so it should be considered a potential threat. “Friday Night Lights” might pull off an upset just as the Dillon Lions, the show’s underdog football team, do in the series finale.
Nominated for the fourth time in five years, “Dexter” also submitted the entire back half of its season. These episodes bring to a head a revenge plot hatched by Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles) to track down and execute the men who gang-raped her. Dexter gets closer to both Lumen and the group’s ring leader, motivational speaker Jordan Chase (Jonny Lee Miller), and along the way Dexter must cope with being a widower and single father following his wife’s murder last season.
Even though its last six episodes are a thrill ride, the show wasted a major opportunity by not submitting the season premiere, “My Bad,” a gripping and affecting hour in which Dexter struggles with grief in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death. (The episode might also have won Hall his elusive Emmy if only he’d entered it.) The episode would have paired nicely with “First Blood,” where Dexter fears his murderous tendencies have been passed on to his infant son.
CBS’s legal drama “The Good Wife” submitted peculiar episodes that hardly showcase their best work. They paired a tense murder mystery, “Double Jeopardy,” with “VIP Treatment,” the underwhelming second-half of a two-parter. In “VIP Treatment,” a masseuse alleges that a Nobel Peace Prize winner sexually assaulted her, but the superior first part, “Cleaning House,” wasn’t submitted at all. One half of another middling pairing is “Nine Hours,” in which the firm frantically tries to stop the execution of a death row inmate. The other is “Real Deal,” in which lawyer Louis Canning (guest star Michael J. Fox) tries to steal clients in a class action suit from Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). Neither episode is particularly compelling. However, the final pairing, “Great Firewall” and “In Sickness,” is strong. (Margulies also submitted “In Sickness” for consideration in the Best Drama Actress race.)
“The Good Wife” faltered by not submitting the final two episodes of the season, “Getting Off” and “Closing Arguments.” In these, Alicia confronts co-worker Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) about her affair with her husband (Chris Noth) and starts planning a life without him. And the series-long romance in the making between Alicia and her boss Will Gardner (Josh Charles) heats up in the engaging finale.
The dense, medieval epic “Game of Thrones” is one of the few fantasy series ever to receive major nominations from the Emmys. It’s based on George R. R. Martin‘s complex series of novels, and Emmy judges who have never seen the show before will likely be baffled by it. The pilot, “Winter Is Coming,” and second episode, “The Kingsroad,” are an accessible pairing for new viewers. And its submissions from later in the season — “A Golden Crown,” “You Win or You Die,” “Baelor” and “Fire and Blood” — are packed with shocking moments that range from death by molten gold to the hatching of dragon eggs. But with dozens of characters, locations, and sprawling plots, the show can be confusing even for committed fans. Though serialized dramas “Lost” and “24” have won this category previously, “Game of Thrones” is so complicated it makes those series look prosaic.
Gold Derby experts, editors, and users have little doubt “Mad Men” will win for a fourth time. “Boardwalk Empire” is given a slight chance to upset, but “Dexter,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Good Wife” should be content with their nominations.