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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tony Soprano is no longer around to hug but Emmy voters this year managed to embrace plenty of anti-heroes and twisted, flawed characters -- from a serial-killing sleuth to a methamphetamine-making teacher.
It would be hard to imagine a darker, more motley collection of misfits than the characters played with convincing aplomb by the six Emmy nominees for best lead actor in a drama series, four of them on cable television.
Perhaps the most glaring is Michael C. Hall, nominated for his role as a charming forensics investigator by day with a penchant for murdering his suspects after hours on the Showtime series "Dexter."
Hall earned a nod in 2002 for portraying the gay son who runs his family's funeral business on HBO's now-departed "Six Feet Under." But many critics moaned when he was passed over last year for his chillingly nuanced role as Dexter Morgan.
This year, Emmy voters wasted no time in recognizing the work of Bryan Cranston in AMC's "Breaking Bad" as a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth for quick cash.
Cranston was formerly best known as the goofy dad on the long-running Fox family comedy "Malcolm in the Middle."
AMC scored a second best actor nomination on Thursday for Jon Hamm, who stars in "Mad Men" as a chain-smoking advertising executive whose leading-man persona conceals a dark past.
"These were nice surprises," said TV Guide critic Matt Roush. "Here you have these anti-heroes with just so much more complexity to their characters than the usual leading man. So they had great material, and it's just refreshing that the Emmys acknowledge that."
The list goes on with Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, nominated for playing a brooding shrink as troubled as many of his patients on HBO's "In Treatment," and English actor Hugh Laurie as the pill-popping, curmudgeonly doctor on the Fox medical hit "House."
Rounding out the nominees for best actor in a drama is three-time winner James Spader, who stars on ABC's "Boston Legal" as the ethically challenged attorney Alan Shore.
This is hardly the first year that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has shown some love for actors who play morally corrupt or emotionally damaged characters.
Dennis Franz won three Emmys as the tormented police detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue" during the 1990s and Michael Chiklis was named best actor in a drama in 2002 for playing a rogue cop on FX's "The Shield."
But James Gandolfini broke new ground with three Emmy wins, and three more nominations, as a New Jersey mob boss during the six-season run of HBO's "The Sopranos."
Women are no slouches in the dark department this year.
Glenn Close was nominated as best actress in a drama for playing a ruthless trial lawyer in the new FX series "Damages" and Holly Hunter got the nod for playing a detective with a self-destructive streak on TNT's "Saving Grace."
Mary-Louise Parker was nominated as the pot-dealing mom on Showtime's "Weeds." And that is considered a comedy.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and John O'Callaghan