"Mad Men" owned the drama series Emmy for four years running before "Homeland" knocked if off last season. Both shows delivered seasons this year that offer detractors reasons to look elsewhere. Will they? Here's how the field is shaping up.
"Downton Abbey" (PBS)
"Breaking Bad" (AMC)
"Mad Men" (AMC)
"House of Cards" (Netflix)
"Game of Thrones" (HBO)
Prime contenders: "The Americans" (FX), "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO), "The Good Wife" (CBS), "Justified" (FX)
Bubbling under: "Scandal" (ABC), "The Newsroom" (HBO), "The Walking Dead" (AMC), "Bates Hotel" (A&E), "Dexter" (Showtime), "Damages" (DirecTV), "Magic City" (Starz), "Suits" (USA), "The Borgias" (Showtime), "Sons of Anarchy" (FX), "Nashville" (ABC), "The Following" (Fox), "Elementary" (CBS)
For your consideration: "Rectify," Sundance Channel. Between "Rectify" and "Top of the Lake" (eligible over in miniseries/movie), the Sundance Channel cornered the market this year on tense, atmospheric, cinematic drama. You could easily make a case for both being the best of their class. "Rectify," a character study of a man adjusting to life outside of prison after 19 years on death row, kept viewers entirely off-balance over the course of its deeply immersive, six-episode debut season. Its April premiere and low-profile home make it a bit of a long shot this year, but conscientious Emmy voters should put it at the top of their viewing list.
Analysis: "Mad Men" won this category for each of its first four seasons and looked primed for a fifth win after delivering, arguably, its best season last year. But no drama had ever pulled off that feat and voters weren't ready to bestow "Mad Men" that singular distinction, giving the series Emmy to the buzzy, conspiracy thriller "Homeland." Save for "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner, nobody argued the point.
What's different this year is that both "Mad Men" and "Homeland" came in with seasons that some see as subpar, at least by the shows' own standards. "Homeland" at times stretched credibility for the sake of pure adrenaline rush, while "Mad Men" (through its first eight episodes) mined familar themes with diminishing returns. Nearly every "Mad Men" episode this season could be unfavorably compared with a better, more fully realized hour from a past year, though they all had their moments. (We're still smiling, remembering Ken Cosgrove's angry tap dance for Don Draper.)
That leaves the door open ... but for what show? "Breaking Bad" came in with another magnificent season of measured intensity. It has never won the series Emmy, though, and you'd think that if voters were so inclined, they would have rewarded it last year for its Fring-tastic fourth season. (Or they might wait a year and send it off with a win for its finale.) "Downton Abbey" delivered a couple of shocks of its own in its third go-around, and it has the Anglophile crowd wrapped up, even if it did ruin Christmas for those watching the show in England. "Game of Thrones," meanwhile, just keeps getting denser. It's not a show that's going to win fresh votes, because newcomers are too intimidated to jump in without the aid of a flowchart.
Though none of this year's first-year series can quite match the excitement "Homeland" generated, there are some worthy candidates here. "The Americans," "House of Cards" and "Rectify" all had story arcs that equaled, if not bettered, those of last year's nominees. If "Homeland" could best powerhouses like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" in their prime, there's no reason why one of these freshman entries can't find a way to the winner's podium too.