Mad Mens Jon Hamm. The nominations will be announced on Thursday morning. (Mike Yarish, AMC )
An Emmy nod may be in store for a dark drama about an antihero rising to the top of an all-American industry during a tumultuous historical epoch.
And, no, we're not talking about ethically compromised adman Don Draper, bedding his way through the '60s on "Mad Men."
When the Emmy nominations are announced Thursday morning, many TV pundits expect that HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" will land among the six nominees for drama, most likely putting the heat on AMC's "Mad Men," which was the first basic-cable series to win and has taken home the prize for the last three years.
Executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot), "Boardwalk Empire" stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a morally ambiguous politician who controls Prohibition-era Atlantic City.
Scorsese's series won acclaim from critics and its odds were further bolstered after it took the top TV drama award at the Golden Globes earlier this year. "There's no doubt in my mind it's going to grab one of the six spots," said Matt Whitfield, the TV editor of Yahoo.
The drama field could also include another HBO series, the labyrinthine fantasy "Game of Thrones," which along with "Boardwalk Empire" and the vampire hit "True Blood" signal a series resurgence for the pay-cable outlet after years of near-misses such as "Hung" and outright duds like "John From Cincinnati." Oddsmakers say other shows that could crop up in the highly competitive category include AMC's zombie drama "The Walking Dead," CBS' legal show "The Good Wife" and the much-praised but little-watched NBC/DirecTV small-town drama "Friday Night Lights," which went off the air earlier this year.
"Lots of people thought HBO reached its peak with the end of 'The Sopranos,' 'Rome' and 'The Wire,'" said Paul Levinson, a pop-culture expert and professor at Fordham University. "The advent of 'Boardwalk Empire' and 'Game of Thrones' have vividly proven otherwise.
"'Boardwalk Empire's first season had storylines and acting as good as on 'The Sopranos,' and with the enhancement of historical, period-piece detail," Levinson added. "'Game of Thrones has a medieval grit equivalent to the ancient street feel of 'Rome,' with an appealing fantasy setting.... No surprise that they've hit with fans and critics."
Nominations could help both series connect with broader audiences. Each has been renewed for a second season after delivering solid but less-than-stellar ratings through Season 1. "Boardwalk Empire" premiered to 4.8 million viewers last September, according to the Nielsen Co., but dipped as low as 2.6 million before rebounding a bit for the finale.
"Game of Thrones" opened in April with a modest 2.2 million but gradually built throughout the season and wrapped with a finale that drew 3 million.
By ratings standards, both series have fallen far short of the cultural impact enjoyed by the mob drama "The Sopranos," which had a 2007 series finale that grabbed nearly 12 million viewers — a better number than many shows on broadcast networks can muster these days.
By comparison, the fourth season premiere of "Mad Men" drew 2.9 million last summer. But HBO is a pay cable service with fewer than 30 million subscribers, while AMC is a basic network available in roughly three times as many U.S. homes.
HBO executives argue that "Boardwalk" and "Game of Thrones" are actually reaching wider audiences than the ratings suggest because many viewers tune in to episodes that air as repeats later the same night or elsewhere on the schedule.
For the Emmys, HBO has taken few chances, with lavish "for your consideration" ads for both shows aimed at grabbing nominations. But the premium outlet, unlike AMC, has a lot of shows to promote: This year, HBO entered a record 39 series, movies and specials for Emmy consideration.
Part of that push was to counter new TV academy rules that combined the made-for-TV movie and miniseries categories that HBO has long dominated. (An HBO spokeswoman said that the company would not openly discuss its Emmy campaigns.)
Its newest series have given HBO its best shot at a drama Emmy in years. But in some ways, the network could find itself a victim of its own success.
As Yahoo's Whitfield noted: "Because 'Game of Thrones' and 'Boardwalk Empire' are both from HBO, there might be a case where HBO fans cancel each other out with those votes, and 'Mad Men' could still take the win."