A very wild card may shuffle the Emmy race this year — Netflix's "House of Cards," to be precise.
The big mystery leading into Thursday's nominees is whether Emmy voters will welcome Netflix, the streaming service that hopes to buy into the nominations game with the year's new drama, "House of Cards," and the return of "Arrested Development."
Will TV industry professionals lavish nominations on an online service that could cost them their jobs? We have no idea. But the Emmys do at least acknowledge "House of Cards" exists. One of its stars, Kate Mara, will announce the nominations alongside "Breaking Bad" Emmy winner Aaron Paul.
Will she get to read any nominations for her own series? We'll see. In the meantime, here are our guesses about the nominees in the main categories.
OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
ABC’s hit "Modern Family" has won for three consecutive years. No one would bat an eye if it won again. But Emmy voters, who typically are creatures of habit, may feel obliged to pick something else for the sake of variety.
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"Girls" always kept viewers guessing in its second season, taking almost as many risks as FX’s "Louie." It is a fiercely intelligent and challenging show, but it's only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. "Veep," meanwhile, has just crackled. Not a word of dialog is wasted. "30 Rock" will probably score another nomination, but not a win, for its final season. The show as a whole was one of the best ever, but it refused to go soft with its goodbye season. The admirable lack of sentimentality will cost it. "The Office" may also get a nod, simply because its latest season was its last one.
"The Big Bang Theory" will probably get another nod for delivering inoffensive comedy and being the most popular sitcom on TV.
The big question, again, is whether the Academy might recognize Netflix’s long-delayed fourth season of "Arrested Development," which was released in one chunk, just before the Emmy deadline. Nominating "Arrested" would be a huge step: The TV industry would be essentially bringing its online competition into the fold, and Emmy voters could celebrate a great show that never quite got the audience or awards it deserved during its run on Fox. On the other hand, some critics and "Arrested" fans were disappointed by the Netflix episodes.
Will win: "Modern Family." It ain’t broke.
Should win: For now, I'm saying "Veep." But I’m writing this right before getting to see all those "Arrested" episodes.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
This category is overfilled with deserving nominees, because — historic moment alert — most of the best comedies on television are led by women.
The race is between Julia Louis-Dreyfus, last year’s winner for "Veep," and Lena Dunham for "Girls." But Louis-Dreyfus will probably get an easy repeat for two reasons: First, she’s excellent as the unabashedly self-centered title character. And second, voters will ding Dunham for being naked a lot when she arguably doesn’t need to be and for her character’s carefully crafted annoyingness.
They may also capriciously and unfairly decide that at 26, the whip-smart writer-director-actress has plenty more time to win things.
Laura Dern, on HBO’s brilliant and painful comedy/drama "Enlightened," gave perhaps the best performance by any actress in the past year. Personally, I’d vote for her in a heartbeat. But I don’t think Emmy voters will even think to nominate her, given that she wasn’t nominated last year, and her show has been canceled.
(By the way, yes, the three best women in the category are all on HBO. We didn’t plan it this way, but HBO probably did.)
So who else will round out the category? Amy Poehler deserves another nod for her to-be-treasured turn on "Parks and Recreation." Past winner Tina Fey should be nominated again for the final season of "30 Rock." Zooey Deschanel may be back for being so “adorkable” on "New Girl," but I’d rather see Mindy Kaling score a nod for "The Mindy Project." And we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the return of past winners Melissa McCarthy for "Mike & Molly" or Edie Falco for "Nurse Jackie."
Will win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Should win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Laura Dern
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
The academy has a great opportunity here to look bold while being a little late. It’s time to recognize Louis C.K. as an actor.
Actually, the time was last year or the year before, but that’s OK. The comedian and his brilliant FX series, "Louie," were still new and unfamiliar to viewers then. Now he has reached the media saturation point, and voters may be ready to recognize his — not using this word lightly — genius.
He won in two writing categories last year (good job, Emmys), but C.K. the performer has to sell the bits he writes, and some of them are extraordinarily difficult.
As for the other contenders: Not many people predicted Jon Cryer’s win last year for "Two and a Half Men," which was essentially an acknowledgement that he kept the show steady after Charlie Sheen’s exit and Ashton Kutcher’s addition. He’s unlikely to repeat — and may not even get another nod.
Emmy voters are under no pressure to give another Emmy to Alec Baldwin, either, but the "30 Rock" star does deserve another nomination for staying ruthlessly funny to the end. Always endearing "Big Bang Theory" star Jim Parsons has won twice already.
Don Cheadle will probably be nominated again for Showtime’s "House of Lies," but this doesn’t feel like his year to win. That leaves room for at least one more nominee. It wouldn’t be a shock for Johnny Galecki, Parson’s co-star, to return to the running, given that their show is still surging in popularity.
Will win: Louis C.K.
Should win: I think my feelings are pretty clear.
OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
Along with "House of Cards," FX's "The Americans" also scored with critics and is very much in contention, and Sundance's "Rectify" has earned lots of buzz for its short first season.
There's plenty of room for surprises in this category. Last year’s winner, "Homeland," was perceived by many critics to suffer a sophomore slump. If Emmy voters agree, that could throw open the race. The "Homeland" win broke a four-year streak for AMC’s "Mad Men," which roared back this season with one of its strongest years ever.
It’s absurd, meanwhile, that "Breaking Bad" has never won. But the first half of its final season, which aired in the eligibility period, felt too much like a setup for the fireworks to come. I'd nominate it in a second, but don't know if Emmy voters will.
Perpetual nominee "Downton Abbey" will likely be back after a particularly eventful season. And HBO’s "Game of Thrones" and "Boardwalk Empire" deserve to return as well. FX’s Soviet spy drama "The Americans" keeps getting better, but it may have too much action and not enough weeping for Emmy voters’ tastes.
"The Walking Dead" provided some of the most gripping, scream-at-your-screen moments of the year, but Emmy voters can’t seem to get past the gore and zombies.
So if "House of Cards" or other new shows join the category, what will they bump? Perhaps — I know this sounds crazy — "Breaking Bad." The same voters adventurous enough to vote for the meth drama may also be willing to give Netflix its due — while making plans to recognize "Breaking Bad" next year, finally, for its final episodes.
Will win: "Downton Abbey," which might have the votes to get a companion piece to the Miniseries or Movie Emmy it won before having to switch categories.
Should win: The gorgeous, understated "Boardwalk Empire," which TheWrap picked as the best show of 2012. It’s not as flashy as its competition, but is much richer in its subtleties. It’s as smart as people think "Downton Abbey" is.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Even when "Homeland" took twists that some viewers found hard to swallow, Claire Danes, last year’s winner, remained excellent. But she has lots of competition this year.
Julianna Margulies will be back for her consistent excellence on "The Good Wife," one of the only broadcast dramas Emmy voters seem to love. It will be laughable if Elisabeth Moss isn’t nominated for "Mad Men," a show on which she’s now the de facto audience surrogate by virtue of Don Draper becoming such a monster. Michelle Dockery should be back for "Downton Abbey."
That leaves Emmy voters room to recognize two other actresses. They tend to award film performers who switch to TV, so that could mean a nod for Vera Farmiga’s enticing turn on "Bates Motel." They could — and should — also recognize Keri Russell for her captivating turn on "The Americans."
Of course, if voters are in the mood to recognize "House of Cards," Robin Wright’s complex, vivid turn as a D.C. power broker will be a stiletto shoe-in.
Will win: Elisabeth Moss. It’s time.
Should win: Moss. Or Robin Wright.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
There’s a very elegant solution here for voters who want to recognize "House of Cards" without giving away the store: Reward Kevin Spacey for his mesmerizing performance as a scheming congressman.
We can play process of elimination with the other likely nominees. Bryan Cranston has already won three times, so voters will probably wait until the end of his run on "Breaking Bad" to give him another Emmy.
Voters may also be waiting for the end of Jon Hamm’s run on "Mad Men" to finally give him a win in the category. Last year’s winner, Damian Lewis from "Homeland," will probably be denied a repeat because of the show’s wild twists.
Steve Buscemi deserves an Emmy, and this was his best year, but his generosity as an actor may work against him: "Boardwalk Empire" is very much an ensemble, and he makes his role look easier than it is. Hugh Bonneville may score another nod for "Downton Abbey," while "Dexter" may have gotten too crazy last season to help Michael C. Hall. He could, though, return to the fold next year for his show’s last season.
Kevin Bacon is another contender: The movie star's new Fox show, "The Following," is one of the biggest new dramas of the season and lets Bacon run the gamut from callused agony to sheer rage. And we know how Emmy voters love film actors — which is also good for Spacey.
Will win: Kevin Spacey
Should win: Kevin Spacey
OUTSTANDING REALITY-COMPETITION PROGRAM
"The Amazing Race" has won for nine of the 10 years this category has existed. We think Emmy voters may be ready for a change, in the form of NBC’s "The Voice".
Wait, you say: "The Amazing Race" is still excellent, and it isn’t fair that NBC should win with a show that borrows so many elements from Fox’s "American Idol." We agree. But it’s time for Emmy voters to try something new, and the current incarnation of "The Voice" is more unpredictable and inspiring than the current incarnation of "Idol". Not fair, we know.
But it's hard to feel too terrible for a show that ruled television for eight years and still does well, despite recent declines.
Will win: "The Voice"
Should win: "The Voice"