9 Emmy Races to Watch: Will the Wins be Historic or Embarrassing?

Stars involved in intriguing categories include Jon Hamm, Viola Davis … and stealth nominee Leonardo DiCaprio

Last Updated: August 29, 2015 @ 6:54 AM

Final ballots for the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards are due in the hands (or the computers) of the Television Academy’s accountants by the end of the day on Friday, which should give Ernst & Young plenty of time to count the votes and announce the winners. The first batch of 70-odd categories will be handed out at the Creative Arts Emmys on Sept. 12, with the final two dozen categories dispensed with more grandeur on the televised Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 20.

With 106 categories and 567 total nominees, it can be hard to wrap your head around the entire Emmy landscape, where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love‘s 23-year-old daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, is going up against Leonardo DiCaprio (she’s an executive producer of the nominated documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” and he has the same title on “Virunga”), and “Mad Men” could set a record for the most Outstanding Drama Series wins ever, but only if it manages to break a three-year, 0-for-33 losing streak.

This year’s Emmys are something of a moratorium not just on last season’s shows, but on the Television Academy voters themselves. Will they stick with the old or embrace the new, get daring or play it safe, honor departing legends or welcome fresh faces?

As the accountants get to work tallying votes, here are nine categories TheWrap thinks warrant particular attention.

Outstanding Comedy Series
The question here is a simple one: Will “Modern Family” break the record by winning its sixth consecutive outstanding-series award? It has never lost in this category, even in a year like 2014, when it lost in almost every other category. The feeling is growing among Emmy-watchers that “ModFam” is more vulnerable than ever, but that was the feeling last year, too.

Still, HBO’s “Veep” had a killer season, and Amazon’s “Transparent” seized the zeitgeist in a way no other series could match, thanks partly to an assist from Caitlyn Jenner. You could also make a case for “Louie,” “Silicon Valley,” “Parks and Recreation” or “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” But really, anything but “Modern Family” would be a significant statement here–though a sixth win for that show would be a statement of its own.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Again, it comes down to something simple: Will Jon Hamm finally win an Emmy for playing Don Draper on “Mad Men?” He’s been nominated eight times, and he’s lost to Jeff Daniels, Damian Lewis and Kyle Chandler, and to Bryan Cranston four times. With “Mad Men’s” final season behind him, this is his last chance. All eyes will be on Hamm, who seems likely to win his first-ever Emmy, in the process delivering what could well be one of the emotional high points of this year’s Emmys.

Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series
But Jon Hamm could also have his big emotional moment undercut in another way, because he’s also nominated in the guest-actor category for his role as a cult leader in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” And that category will be handed out at the Creative Arts Emmys on Sept. 12, the weekend before the big show. If he wins for “Kimmy” – and at the moment, he’s favored to do so – it’ll mean that a win for “Mad Men” would be his second Emmy in eight days, not his first ever. It’s hard to begrudge the guy a statuette any way he can get it, but doesn’t it just seem right that he should win his first Emmy for playing Don Draper, not the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne?

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
No African-American has ever won in this category. Two are nominated this year: Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder” and Taraji P. Henson in “Empire.” They are the two favorites. History awaits, though Robin Wright, Elisabeth Moss, surprise nominee Tatiana Maslany and past winner Claire Danes could play the role of spoiler.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
How big a problem is vote splitting? If one show has multiple nominees in a category, will it hurt them? Fans of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” will find out in this category, where three of the six nominees are from that show. Stars Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates are all in the running – and even if a majority of voters would like somebody from “AHS” to win, they could still divide the vote and allow Regina King, Mo’Nique or Zoe Kazan to win for “American Crime,” “Bessie” or “Olive Kitteridge,” respectively.

And while we’re talking about potential vote splitting, honorable mention goes to the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series category, where four of the seven nominees are different episodes of “Game of Thrones.” Voters obviously think that’s the best-shot series on television, but the four separate nominations could potential open the door for “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Good Wife” or “House of Cards.”

Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special
This category is intriguing not just because it’s the Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Frances Bean Cobain race, but because it also has the potential to impact the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature.

Two of the nominees – “The Case Against 8” and “Virunga” – were up for the Oscar earlier this year (“Virguna” was nominated but lost to “Citizenfour”), while two others, Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and Alex Gibney‘s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” will be in the running for the Oscars that’ll be handed out next year. Could winning an Emmy give them a made-for-TV stigma in the eyes of the Motion Picture Academy, and hurt their chances for a win or nomination? Some doc-watchers think so.

Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series
Producer Laura Ziskin may have succumbed to breast cancer in 2011, but before her death the producer worked tirelessly as a cancer activist, co-founding Stand Up to Cancer. The work she did also earned her an executive producer credit on this year’s nominated nonfiction series “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” meaning that Ziskin could be a posthumous Emmy winner four years after her death. Still, her competition includes one of that series’ other producers, Ken Burns, who is also nominated for “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” as well as Andrew Jarecki for “The Jinx” and Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman for “The Sixties.”

Outstanding Variety-Talk Series
“The Colbert Report” should be the favorite, since it won the last two years in a row. And it’d be a nice, sentimental sendoff to give the award to Stephen Colbert for his last year on the show, as he heads off to take over CBS’s “Late Show.”

But Colbert only had that show for nine years, while Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show” for 17, at one point winning 10 consecutive Emmys in this category. So how could voters resist giving him a golden goodbye? He’s got to be the favorite instead.

Then again, David Letterman just retired after 33 years on late night, including six wins in this category. Dave is so iconic that he’s definitely the favorite, right?

“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” are also in the running, in case voters don’t give a hoot about sentimental sendoffs. But even those guys would probably be in favor of giving the prize to Letterman, Stewart or Colbert–it’s just a matter of figuring out which one.

Outstanding Television Movie
Nominees in this category, which has been dominated by HBO for the past few decades, include three of the cable giant’s offerings, “Bessie,” “Nightingale” and “Hello Ladies: The Musical,” the first two of which are probably the favorites. But among the other contenders, which include the National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus” and Acorn TV’s “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain, Poirot’s Last Case,” is one film with the potential to truly embarrass the Academy.

Lifetime’s “Grace of Monaco” might have been the opening-night film at Cannes in 2014, but it was widely derided there, with Weinstein Company chief Harvey Weinstein not only finding a charity engagement to keep him away from the premiere, but then scrapping a theatrical release completely. Lifetime picked up Olivier Dahan‘s overheated biopic of Princess Grace, which managed an Emmy nomination despite sitting at a whopping nine-percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

This could be a cringeworthy Emmy winner, though it’s safe to say that the Academy will most likely dodge a bullet and go with something worthier.