Tomorrow morning, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. But it's not too early for a little fist-shaking. That's because between leaks and formal NATAS announcements, there is a list of "pre-nominees"—a widely used informal industry term—for the major categories. The pre-nominations are lists of 10 potential nominees in each category, selected by an academy popular vote. We won't know until tomorrow which five out of every 10 will become finalists. But we do know anybody not on the semifinalist list doesn't have a snowball's chance in mid-July. The following is a list of the major categories, and the contenders who were overlooked, in this critic's humble opinion.
Best Comedy Series: 'Desperate Housewives'
Emmy voters sure know how to hold a grudge. "Desperate Housewives" has never been able to get back into their good graces following its disastrous second season. The third season was a marked improvement, and this year, the show has started to resemble the quality of its award-winning maiden season, due largely to the zesty addition of Dana Delany as a series regular. Of course it's not purely a comedy, but neither is "Weeds," which made it into the pre-nominations despite a lackluster season. What's it gonna take to get "Housewives" out of the dog house?
Best Drama Series: 'Breaking Bad'
Chances are AMC, newcomers to the original programming game, will have nothing to complain about when the nominations are announced. "Mad Men," a look at America through the prism of a 1960s advertising agency, is almost certain to be nominated in this category. That doesn't make it any more fair to overlook the equally compelling "Breaking Bad," about a high-school chemistry teacher who starts to cook and sell crystal meth to finance his fight against cancer. Sure it's dark, and sure, the writers' strike truncated its debut season. But the writing and performances are spectacular--particularly in the pilot, which is impossible to avert your eyes from, starting with that image of a pair of Dockers flying through the air.
Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Christopher Meloni, 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'
"Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf has always prided himself on making his franchises characterproof, allowing even its stalwarts to exit without the house crumbling around them. He erred with "SVU," which, while as focused on the procedural element as the other shows, is completely entangled in the complex relationship between Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson and Christopher Meloni's Elliot Stabler. Hargitay has been widely recognized for her work, but Meloni's intense performance has been often overlooked. The last season found Meloni's character dealing with a near-fatal car accident involving his pregnant wife, a storyline that gave him the emotional moments that Emmy typically jumps at.
Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Evangeline Lilly, 'Lost'
Katherine Heigl caused a fuss when she announced she wasn't submitting to the Emmys because "Grey's Anatomy" didn't give her good enough material this season. Maybe she should consider hopping aboard ABC's other multiculti ensemble, "Lost," as its stellar fourth season gave nearly all its stars plenty to chew on. Lilly, who plays the fugitive Kate Austen, had perhaps the most dynamic arc, as she was forced to figure out how she was going to assimilate back into society after being rescued from the island. Lilly brought a heft to her many emotional scenes this season, partly because the plotline forced her character to become more mature in a hurry.
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Kelsey Grammer, 'Back to You'
If the multicamera comedy format completes its march toward extinction, the failure of "Back to You" will be an important point on the timeline. With its pedigree of veteran writers and directors, and Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton as its leads, the show seemed destined for greatness. It stumbled, failing to find an audience, but it was through no fault of Grammer, who turned in a performance as hilarious and layered as his lauded work on "Frasier."
Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Amy Pietz, 'Aliens in America'
When "Aliens in America" premiered, I was skeptical, to say the least. The premise of a narrow-minded Midwestern family struggling to relate to a Pakistani Muslim exchange student was at first bumpy and broadly drawn. But it settled into one of the smartest and sweetest comedies on the air, thanks to Amy Pietz. Pietz played Franny Tolchuck, a mother who is initially cold to Raja (Adhir Kalyan) until she realizes that another child in the house means one more person to smother. She's pitch-perfect in every scene, which is why it's a shame that "Aliens" won't return in the fall and that Pietz won't be recognized for her worthy, if short-lived, performance.
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Jamie Hector, 'The Wire'
The hardest part of making this list was figuring out where "The Wire" entry would go. A list of Emmy snubs could consist exclusively of the show's cast members. The show itself still has yet to be nominated for Best Drama. (And don't hold your breath for a nomination this year: the over-under is grim.) But of all the performances to highlight in "The Wire's" final season, I kept coming back to Jamie Hector, whose intensity as drug lord Marlo Stansfield is unparalleled. Even when dispatching his enemies, he never raised his voice above a whisper, making it that much more terrifying when, in the second-to-last episode, his rage rises to the surface.
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: January Jones, 'Mad Men'
Emmy voting tends to work to the disadvantage of actors who aren't well-known names, and that's about the only explanation I can come up with for why January Jones, who played dissatisfied housewife Betty Draper, was scorned. Betty's arc over the season was about sadness and disillusionment, the frustration that comes with getting what she thought she wanted only to find out that she still wasn't happy. Few scenes affected me as much last year as when Betty tried to return to modeling in an effort to reclaim some of her former glory, only to find herself with silent tears running down her face when things don't go to plan.
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Andy Samberg, 'Saturday Night Live'
The cast members of "SNL" tried something daring this year, submitting themselves in the Supporting Actor category rather than their usual Variety category. The only "SNL" player it worked for was Amy Poehler, who eked out a pre-nomination. But the more deserving Andy Samberg was left in the cold. Poehler is great, but anyone who's been following "SNL" for the past couple of years knows that the funniest parts of the typically flaccid show are the digital shorts. The shorts are Samberg's fiefdom, allowing him to execute ideas that might not work in front of an audience. (See: "Laser Cats.") If anyone from "SNL" is recognized, it should be the guy who consistently brings the funny.
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Jennifer Esposito, 'Samantha Who?'
Who says blondes have more fun? Christina Applegate is practically a lock for lead actress in a comedy for her performance on "Samantha," but it's her co-star Jennifer Esposito who gets tossed the tartest one-liners, and she spikes every last one. Applegate plays a selfish, inconsiderate jerk who awakens from a coma with amnesia and a desire to change her ways. Esposito plays Andrea, Sam's best friend from the pre-coma, alpha-female days and has so much fun swilling vodka and belittling people, it's hard not to love her.