LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - There is one absolute certainty about this year's Emmy Awards for acting: In the miniseries/movie category, someone from HBO will win the prize on Sunday.
Of course, that's hardly a stretch: Only actors from HBO miniseries and movies were nominated in that category, which should make the post-awards party planning for the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards that much easier for the cable channel.
But little else is obvious. Yes, in the network vs. cable grudge match of the past decade, the comedy and drama acting categories have at last reached parity: Cable networks make up 10 of the nominated actors, broadcast 11. And as far as recent wins go, cable and network channels are evenly matched in lead actor categories, with eight wins apiece since 2000.
The lead actor drama category does have a theme -- Emmy vets against Emmy newbies. First-time nominees like Gabriel Byrne (HBO's "In Treatment") and Jon Hamm (AMC's "Mad Men") are squaring off against the previously nominated Michael C. Hall (Showtime's "Dexter") and Hugh Laurie (Fox's "House") -- and then there's James Spader (ABC's "Boston Legal") and Bryan Cranston (AMC's "Breaking Bad"). Spader has taken home the prize three times, one for each nomination as lawyer Alan Shore, so the safe money's on him. Cranston is new to the category but does have three supporting actor nominations.
But that's just so ... predictable. Laurie, who has been twice nominated as irascible Dr. Gregory House, is considered ripe for the prize (he has won the Golden Globe twice already). Over the past eight years, four out of five first-time winners in the category won after landing a previous nomination for the same role -- and only Laurie meets that description in this year's field.
Recent wins for lead actor have tended to go to antiheroes, a fascination that could bode well for Hall's serial killer, Dexter Morgan -- or perhaps a mild-mannered husband/father-turned-rogue-meth-dealer in Cranston's Walt White.
"Anytime you have an antithetical hero that is not used to being seen on TV, it stands out," Cranston explains. "You see a real person (in White), with flaws and fragility and uncertainty in his actions, and that makes sense. We want deep characters, not just one-dimensional bad guys."
One could argue that Hamm's conflicted advertising executive is unconventional -- in a completely conventional way. The Emmy newcomer is gracious enough to hope for a tie with his fellow AMC star. "I'd certainly be happy with a Cranston/Hamm ticket," he says. "I think Bryan's work on that show is phenomenal."
In comedy there lies consistency, and this year's nominees for lead actor in the comedy category nearly duplicate last year's, with Lee Pace (ABC's "Pushing Daisies") the only fresh face. As Spader is to drama, Tony Shalhoub (USA Network's "Monk") is to comedy: He's bagged three Emmys out of five past nominations as the OCD-ridden detective Adrian Monk, which makes him a clear front-runner.
But Shalhoub is not invincible, and this time around his competition -- Alec Baldwin (NBC's "30 Rock"), Steve Carell (NBC's "The Office") and Charlie Sheen (CBS' "Two and a Half Men") -- have all been nominated for their characters in the past, though none of them has taken home an award.
Baldwin has the edge here; he won a Golden Globe for the role last year, while "30 Rock" took home outstanding comedy series at the 2007 Emmys. The show set a new series record this year with 17 nominations (thanks in large part to seven guest actor nominations). All this recognition may mean that TV academy voters are paying closer attention to Baldwin, but he's not celebrating just yet.
"Carell makes films that come out in the summer and they sell a lot of tickets," Baldwin notes. "If it has to do with exposure and how people see you, I know that he's certainly doing quite well. Actually, I would be surprised if Carell didn't win."
True, Carell is no long shot (he has a Golden Globe for the role), and Pace appears to be the only dark horse in the category. First-time nominees in comedy acting have only come out on top twice in the past eight contests, though the last one was in 2007, when Ricky Gervais won his inaugural acting Emmy for "Extras."
As noted before, the miniseries/movie category is sewn up, at least when it comes to the network: Both the lead and supporting category nominees are all from HBO shows.
But given the staggering 23 nominations for "John Adams," Paul Giamatti would seem a pretty fair bet for his turn as the second U.S. president. Ricky Gervais (HBO's "Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale") is the least likely competitor, as no actor without at least an Academy Award nomination has won this category since 1999, and there's been a virtual shutout for comic performances throughout the award's history.
According to "Recount's" Kevin Spacey, HBO has had success thanks to broadcast dropping the ball in the category. "They decided to abandon television films for the most part," Spacey says. "Reality TV has in many ways replaced the one-off drama on the broadcast side, and it's now just series drama or it's reality TV. Smartly, HBO and other cable networks have filled that void."
There's a method to Emmy's supporting actor madness -- but it helps to read between the lines
Cable may have caught up to broadcast in the nominee field for outstanding lead actor, but broadcast networks still have an edge when it comes to outstanding supporting actor for both comedy and drama. (HBO -- and therefore cable -- rules the roost in the supporting category for miniseries and movies; just two films, "John Adams" and "Recount," make up the five noms.)
And as for wins, cable has taken home just four of the last 16 awards in drama and comedy, two going to "Sopranos" stars Michael Imperioli and Joe Pantoliano, and two to Jeremy Piven for HBO's "Entourage."
The comedy competition mirrors last year's list, and with Piven in the mix, there's a solid shot he'll make it three for three -- Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond") and David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier") each won three Emmys apiece in the last two decades.
Jon Cryer, earning his third nomination for the role of Alan Harper on CBS' "Two and a Half Men," begs to differ: "This is the year when I shall not lose to Jeremy Piven; I shall not be humiliated! Instead, I will lose to Neil Patrick Harris (of CBS' 'How I Met Your Mother')."
In the drama race, the TV academy tends to choose first-time nominees; half of the past eight contests have seen newcomers take home the award. William Shatner hopes the odds are in his favor to win a second Emmy as Denny Crane, but he's pinning some of those hopes on lead actor nominee and co-star James Spader. "I'm holding on to his leg, and he's dragging me forward," he says. "So as long as I cling to him, he can carry us both over the finish line."