LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If there are any sure bets at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, they are "Modern Family" again being crowned TV's best comedy series and Kate Winslet winning for her role in "Mildred Pierce".
Most everything else is up for grabs at the TV industry's highest honors in what awards watchers call one of the closest Emmys in years.
"There are a lot of predictions, but no sure bets and that's why the Emmys is packing some excitement this year," said Todd Gold, managing editor of Xfinity TV. "It is full of outstanding shows from networks to cable, and premium cable."
Even critical darling "Mad Men" cannot rest on its laurels as a three-time best drama winner, despite its 19 nominations.
But the stylish 1960s advertising drama faces a threat from HBO's new prohibition era series "Boardwalk Empire", which not only won Golden Globe and Screen Actor's Guild prizes earlier this year but walked off with seven trophies last weekend at the creative arts portion of Emmy Awards.
"It looked as if 'Mad Men' was going into this year's Emmys as the inevitable winner. But all of a sudden, we have a real race here," said Tom O'Neil of awards websites TheEnvelope.com and Goldderby.com.
And don't count out HBO's fantasy series "Game of Thrones", based on the best-selling novels by George R.R. Martin.
"Game of Thrones" may skew too young for the older, more traditional members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, who make up the bulk of Emmy voters. But Gold called it "by far the most exciting series of the past season. It was big and bold. It broke barriers and extended the boundaries of what a dramatic TV series can be. It was like a big movie every week."
Five of the 2011 drama and comedy series contenders are first time nominees, while the acting categories feature a slew of Emmy rookies including hot pick Timothy Olyphant ("Justified"), Martha Plimpton ("Raising Hope") and possible upset winner Melissa McCarthy ("Mike & Molly").
But old timers like departing "The Office" star Steve Carell -- a five-time loser -- and Ed O'Neill of "Modern Family" stand good chances of finally winning an Emmy.
"Will Carell get a parting gift as he leaves 'The Office'? He might get a goodbye hug," said O'Neil. As for the "Modern Family" actor who was snubbed at the Emmys in 2010, "There is a perception in Hollywood that Ed is overdue," O'Neil said.
Competition in the best actor drama slot is also fierce in the absence of triple winner Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad""
The "Mad Men" of the 1960s advertising drama have never won an acting Emmy. But after a strong fourth season, Jon Hamm's conflicted Don Draper was seen as leading the pack this year for best actor in a drama.
Until, that is, Steve Buscemi's corrupt politician in "Boardwalk Empire" muscled in. "Buscemi is an actors' actor. They just love him. He is a star of indie films and just the kind of thespian that Emmy voters like," said O'Neil.
While cable TV shows dominate the drama series nominees, network television has the lock on comedy this year.
A repeat win for ABC mockumentary "Modern Family", with 17 nominations, is a near certainty, although Gold described NBC's "Parks and Recreation" as the choice of hipsters.
"'Modern Family' is perhaps the first mainstream comedy about a family for years that has the opportunity to be a long-running classic," said Gold.
Last year's pop culture phenomenon "Glee," on the other hand, "had a soft second season. It was full of guest stars and stunts and it didn't consistently deliver in the way fans expected," Gold said.
However Jane Lynch, who also hosts the live Emmy ceremony on Fox television in Los Angeles on Sunday, looks sure to take home a second trophy for her supporting actress turn as sarcastic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester in "Glee."
As for Winslet, she is seen as a shoo-in for best miniseries actress for her role in HBO's much admired "Mildred Pierce", which leads all Emmy nominations with 21 nods.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte