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Leading The Way

August 06, 2008|TOM O'NEIL

EMMY'S lead acting races for series are judged based upon a single sample episode selected by nominees as an example of their best work. Typically, about 75 fellow actors serve as judges per category, evaluating DVD screeners at home. Ballots must be returned by Aug. 29, along with a signed affidavit attesting that voters viewed everything required. Winners will be announced on Sept. 21. Here are the episodes submitted this year and our take on them:

ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Gabriel Byrne, "In Treatment"

Episode: "Paul and Gina: Week 4." Psychoanalyst Paul (Byrne) seeks the counsel of his own therapist to cope with his romantic feelings for a patient.

Plus: Byrne has a vaunted reputation as an actor, being a darling of the indie film scene. Voters may be impressed that he's bravely tackling TV, baring a haunted soul.

Minus: Therapy sessions can seem whiny, tedious and self-absorbed . . . well, except maybe in Hollywood.

Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad"

Episode: "Pilot." A once-upright chemistry teacher goes crazy and becomes a crystal-meth peddler when he learns he has cancer.

Plus: Cranston's nomination may get special attention because it's a welcome surprise -- a critically hailed performance on a new, low-rated series airing on a basic-cable channel (AMC). This plot premise lets him give a big, wigged-out performance.

Minus: Who's going to vote for a guy cooking up meth to hook kids?

Michael C. Hall, "Dexter"

Episode: "There's Something About Harry." Dexter (Hall) discovers that his dad didn't die of heart failure years ago. He committed suicide when he realized his son was a serial killer.

Plus: This episode is a superb showcase of Hall's subtle acting, full of quiet ache and rawness up until he screams a realization: "I killed my father!"

Minus: It bears repeating: Dexter is a serial killer.

Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"

Episode: "The Wheel." As his marriage crumbles, slick ad agency exec Don Draper (Hamm) throws himself into a pitch to Kodak.

Plus: Hamm is the lead of TV's hottest new drama and he gets a nice teary scene. Showing slides of his once-happy family, he urges Kodak to name its new projector a "carousel" because it moves "the way a child travels, around and around and back home again -- to a place where we know we are loved."

Minus: Emmy voters may find it hard to warm up to a suit who's usually cool and detached.

Hugh Laurie, "House"

Episode: "House's Head." Suffering from a cracked skull, House (Laurie) can't recall whose life he was fighting to save just before a bus crash.

Plus: After two previous losses, Laurie gives his most dynamic performance yet in the two-hour season finale (that's twice as long as other nominees' episodes).

Minus: Emmys are like hugs from your TV pals and who wants to hug a grouch?

James Spader, "Boston Legal"

Episode: "The Court Supreme." Alan (Spader) argues before the Supreme Court for the life of a mentally disabled man condemned to death for raping an 8-year-old girl.

Plus: Three-time champ Spader has never lost, probably because he gets to give grandstanding courtroom speeches. This is his most grandiose yet as he rages at the Supremes, "You've transformed this court from being a governmental branch devoted to civil rights and liberties into protector of discrimination, guardian of government, a slave to moneyed interests and big business!"

Minus: Enough already. Even Spader admits he's baffled by his undefeated streak.

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ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Glenn Close, "Damages"

Episode: "Pilot." Cutthroat attorney Patty (Close) has a secret agenda when she woos an innocent young woman to join her law firm.

Plus: Front-runner Close will be hard to beat. She's at the top of her talents as TV's most fabulous dragon, burning everyone drawn near by her diabolical charm.

Minus: None.

Sally Field, "Brothers & Sisters"

Episode: "History Repeating." Nora (Field) begs her son, a disabled Iraq war veteran, to take his prescribed painkillers even though he's a recovering addict.

Plus: Field freights every line, look and tear with operatic intensity. Voters may want to send the Queen of Outrageous Acceptance Speeches to the podium again -- just to see if she gets bleeped once more.

Minus: This momma's quest may seem offensive in rehab-happy Hollywood.

Mariska Hargitay, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

Episode: "Undercover." Olivia (Hargitay) forfeits her gorgeousness, her clothes and sometimes her sanity to go undercover as a prisoner in a seedy women's jail to find a rapist.

Plus: Hargitay pulled off an upset in 2006. Here, she gives one of her most gripping turns yet, full of terror, tears and heart-pounding suspense.

Minus: Hargitay regularly dispatches TV's worst fiends but she may finally have met her match in this category opposite Glenn Close's devilish Patty Hewes.

Holly Hunter, "Saving Grace"

Episode: "Tacos, Tulips, Duck and Spices." Hunter's chain-smoking, butt-kicking cop catches up to the priest who molested her as a girl.

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