Tom O’Neil’s fearless, peerless, 100% perfect Emmy predictions

See full breakdown of my Emmy Award predictions here. Below: Explanations for picks in the top series races.

Yes, we’re all on the same, crowded bandwagon for “Breaking Bad,” but beware: it could crash. Over the past 50 years, only one TV show won this category after it left the airwaves: “The Sopranos” (2007). In cruel Hollywood, out of sight usually equals out of mind and in “Breaking Bad’s” case that’s especially worrisome since it’s been off air for nearly a year. But it’s not been out of mind. Hollywood is still buzzing about it because, just like “The Sopranos,” it was a masterpiece.

Matthew McConaughey seems like the smart bet here. He’s not only got that Oscar bump from “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” but his kudos momentum recently continued through the Critics’ Choice TV Awards and TV Critics’ Assn. Awards where he won trophies for “True Detective.” At the upcoming Emmys, he’s got two additional advantages. Because it’s a juried award bestowed by judges who examine one sample episode from each nominee, voters saw two episodes of “True Detective” thanks to his costar Woody Harrelson being nominated. When multiple actors from one TV series are nommed in one category, one of them usually wins an Emmy for that reason. Forget Harrelson pulling that off now. His character doesn’t grandstand as much as McConaughey’s. However, both “True Detective” costars share another advantage: they portray two versions of themselves, younger (hipper) and older (scruffy). That’s like playing twins and let’s not forget that actors who portray twins usually win.

So … all of that makes McConaughey invincible, right? Maybe so, especially considering he’s got so many other plusses, too: his character spouts speech after speech after speech (voters are suckers for that) and his episode submission (season finale) ends with a big crying scene. Bingo!

But, wait … I’m still going to bet on Bryan Cranston instead. He’s a proven winner (2008-2010) who gives the best, knock-out performance of his career in the greatest single episode (“Ozymandias”) of one of TV’s greatest series ever. No contest. McConaughey’s performance looks like mere hillbilly jawboning by comparison. If judges truly base their votes on the episode submissions – and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t – then Cranston should prevail.

Last year judges proved that they did, indeed, base their votes on the episodes when they shocked Emmywatchers by giving the gold to Jeff Daniels. Foolishly, Gold Derby had ranked Daniels in second-to-last place. We made such a stupid blunder because we’d forgotten what priority judges often put on nominees who give big, passionate, purple speeches like Daniels did in the pilot episode of “The Newsroom.” This year we’re confident that Daniels is no threat since he doesn’t have a speech in his episode.

Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”) gives lots of little speeches delivered directly into the camera, but they’re all rather monotone. Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) gives a few poignant monologues, but they’re quiet, too. This year the award for Best Dazzling Speech(es) goes to Cranston, whose pontifications are all Shakesperean

A toss-up. Five out of these six women can win. (Sorry, Robin Wright: you have a nice crying scene on a staircase in the “House of Cards” finale, but otherwise you have very little face time.)

I’m betting on Claire Danes (“Homeland”), who’s won here for the past two years. This year her episode entry isn’t as talky as previous submissions, but it’s packed with more drama. She reveals to her lover (Damian Lewis) that she’s pregnant, then must watch him be executed. That should do it.

But I’m leery of Julianna Margulies, who spends a poignant hour of “The Good Wife” mooning over the murder of her lover (Josh Charles). There are a lot of grieving widows in this category. In Michelle Dockery‘s episode of “Downton Abbey,” she’s boo-hoo-hoo-ing over the death of Matthew, which is impressive considering her character, Mary, rarely cracks any emotion.

As pundits go, if I was more of a daredevil, I’d bet on Kerry Washington – yes, she can actually win and thus become the first African-American ever to claim this category. Last year she gave judges a very teary episode of “Scandal” and lost. This year she’s trying a new strategy: she’s kicking butt and barking defiant speeches. Love it! Very impressive. Packed with dramatic intensity.

The curious wild card here is Lizzie Caplan. She only has one big, flashy scene in the pilot episode of “Masters of Sex” when we see her exchange slaps with her boy toy. That’s not going to win her an Emmy, but she might triumph anyway because her character (or Caplan herself, come to think of it) is just so winning, warm, magnetic, charming. Remember, sometimes stars win just based on likability. That’s how Merritt Wever (“Nurse Jackie”) pulled off an upset in the race for supporting comedy actress last year.  Neither her performance nor her episode entry were that impressive, truth be told, but she’s just so darned likable that she probably ended up in second or third place on nearly everybody’s ballot. That’s all she needed to succeed because, remember, after voters rank nominees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, the actor with the lowest point score wins.

Three shows can take this. “Orange Is the New Black” has the hottest buzz and biggest Cool Factor. “Veep” has increased its tally of nominations for a third year in a row, finally nabbing that key bid for Best Comedy Writing, which is usually crucial to winning Best Series. But I’m sticking with “Modern Family” because I’m a wimp. It’s gone four for four – it’s never lost. Usually, in the past, it’s faced just one strong challenger per year, but now, having two, it needs fewer votes to win. Yes, it may seem absurd for a show to win Best Comedy Series for five years in a row, but, hey, we’re talking about the same voters who picked “The Daily Show” as Best Variety Series for 10 consecutive years.

Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) has won three out of the past four years, but I believe there will be another exception this year, this time thanks to Ricky Gervais, who pulled off an upset in this category in 2007 for “Extras.” This time he’s back with “Derek” and he gives the one, true, fully etched performance among these six nominees. He portrays an emotionally stunted caregiver in a nursing home who helps his estranged dad to die. Dynamite. Leaves every viewer in a puddle of tears.

Melissa McCarthy staged an upset in this race in 2011 and now could do it again thanks to an episode of “Mike and Molly” in which she recalls her own father’s death. Very tender and bittersweet. But I’m betting on Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”) instead. Fresh off victories in 2012 and 2013, she will probably repeat thanks to her wide-ranging performance in “Crate.” We see her crestfallen when she believes her political career is over, then suddenly joyous when she learns she’s about to become President of the United States thanks to a fluke of luck. She ends up locked in a bathroom, laughing hysterically with her political assistant (Tony Hale), as they try to plug his bloody nose. The episode is a real winner and a wild ride that deftly shows off her scope as an actress.

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