Some years, you almost have to feel sorry for the people who pick the Emmy nominees. What are they to make of this season, with its stops and starts and strike-induced divisions?
Some shows vanished in winter, and others returned for a reduced spring run in far different — and usually worse — shape than they had been in the fall. Just keeping track of what aired when and how is a full-time job.
Which is where this sample ballot comes in, as a not-always-gentle reminder for those who are marking the real ballots. The goal is to help besieged voters make sense of a sense-deprived season and to help all of us see a better slate of nominees come July 17.
As always, the focus is on series, because that's where the most interest and toughest choices reside. But I do have a fast cheat-sheet for movies and miniseries: Skip HBO's overhyped "John Adams," nominate anyone you can from PBS' "Cranford," and if you don't nominate Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sean Combs from ABC's "A Raisin in the Sun", don't bother holding the awards.
Now pick up your pencils, voters, and follow along:
Lead actress, drama
Glenn Close, "Damages", FX
Kyra Sedgwick, "The Closer", TNT
Sally Field, "Brothers & Sisters", ABC
Ellen Pompeo, "Grey's Anatomy", ABC
Five-year-old Jadah has a bright smile and a bubbly personality to match. Though a bit shy at first, Jadah warms quickly to shed her bashfulness and reveal the active extrovert that she really is. She is very talkative, inquisitive and asks tons of questions. Jadah loves to sing, dance, play dress-up and color. Her favorite color is pink.
Jadah's favorite show is Dora the Explorer. She is especially excited when playing with all her Dora the Explorer toys. She loves to be outdoors, too, where you'll usually find her at the playground swinging on the monkey bars or going up, up, up on the swing set. Jadah loves the zoo and is not afraid of animals. She has taken pictures with parrots and even iguanas!
Jadah needs a family that will provide a stable home and give her lots of attention. She hopes for a family that is loving and playful "Friday Night Lights", NBC
There aren't as many women to choose from in drama as there are men, but boy, are the ones we have great.
No list can exist without Close, who used beauty, grace, wit and sheer ferocity to corral a role that could have zoomed over the top. Nor are voters likely to overlook Field, who retains her remarkable ability to find the truth in even the most outrageous scenes, or Sedgwick, whose talent and star power fuel a show that would be forgettable without her.
Voters do have a habit of ignoring Pompeo, perhaps because people sometimes allow their feelings about her character to rub off on her performance. Let's hope her terrific work this spring, as Meredith was forced to confront her demons, corrects that error.
By all rights, the fifth spot should go to Britton, who is so natural and believable in Lights it's possible to miss the skill it takes to create that effect. But if you're looking for an acceptable substitute, consider Evangeline Lilly in Lost or Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men— though voters may see that as a supporting role.
Lead actor, comedy
Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock", NBC
Jim Parsons, "The Big Bang Theory", CBS
Lee Pace, "Pushing Daisies", ABC
Zachary Levi, "Chuck", NBC
David Duchovny, "Californication", Showtime
You need proof that comedy is on an upswing? Consider how much more competitive these acting categories have become.
Start with Baldwin, who earned his spot on the list early on with his "role-playing" stint — perhaps the single funniest scene of the season. Then move on to two sterling newcomers: Parsons, whose socially challenged Sheldon is the season's breakout comedy character, and Pace, whose sweet, low-key appeal keeps you invested in the show's outlandish situations.
Levi showed he could do comedy in "Less Than Perfect"; with Chuck, he shows he has enough goofy good-guy charm to carry a show. And while we knew Duchovny could do both comedy and drama, the rumpled charisma he brings to "Californication" is something of a revelation.
Unfortunately, that does mean skipping over "Big Bang's" Johnny Galecki along with the two men of CBS' "Two and a Half Men" — Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen. And voters will have to figure out what to do with Ricky Gervais, who was back in HBO's "Extras" this season, but only for one episode. He was brilliant, but one episode does not a season make.
Lead actress, comedy
America Ferrera, "Ugly Betty", ABC
Tracey Ullman, "State of the Union", Showtime
Anna Friel, "Pushing Daisies", ABC
Christina Applegate, "Samantha Who?", ABC
Dana Delany, "Desperate Housewives", ABC
Some years you have to stretch to find five actors to fill out this category. Now you have to leave some worthy contenders out, which is a welcome sign of improvement for us, if not for the out-ees.
And look at the range of acting styles the category encompasses. Delany, who sparked a Housewives revival, could just as easily fit on the drama list but will probably end up here. Ferrera is the tender heart that keeps "Betty" alive, while Friel was so winsome and witty, you immediately understood why a man would bring her back from the dead.
Applegate actually played two roles on "Samantha", old Sam and new, and did both impeccably. As for Ullman, she can do anything — and on Union, she pretty much did.
It breaks my heart to leave out Mary-Louise Parker ("Showtime's Weeds"), Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives") and Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("The New Adventures of Old Christine"), but choices have to be made. And speaking of, there's a good chance voters will choose Tina Fey — but only if they ignore the damage she did to her show in its spring run.
Lead actor, drama
Michael C. Hall, "Dexter", Showtime
Hugh Laurie, "House", Fox
Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad", AMC
Jon Hamm, "Mad Men", AMC
Patrick Dempsey, "Grey's Anatomy", ABC
Talk about a category that could withstand massive expansion. Indeed, it's the only one where you could come up with an entirely different slate, and no one could complain.
So why these five? Let's start with two performances that deserve attention not just because they were terrific (though they were), but also because they were new, and Emmy always needs a nudge when it comes to the new. Cranston was riveting and fearless as a dying geek turned drug dealer, and Hamm's deceptively cool adman was simply one of the great breakthrough star turns of the season.
When it comes to deception, no one tops Hall as TV's most magnetic killer-in-hiding. And if he hadn't already, Laurie cemented his spot on the ballot with his moving work in the season finale.
The fifth spot is the killer. There are so many worthy choices: Denis Leary ("Rescue Me"), Dominic West ("The Wire"), Matthew Fox ("Lost"), Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights"), Anthony LaPaglia ("Without a Trace"), Jonny Lee Miller ("Eli Stone"), Gabriel Byrne ("In Treatment") and John Barrowman ("Torchwood") chief among them. But I'm going with Dempsey, for his sometimes undervalued ability to expose the fear, doubt and lazy selfishness behind that McDreamy facade.
Supporting actor, drama
Jesse Plemons, "Friday Night Lights", NBC
Michael K. Williams, "The Wire", HBO
Michael Emerson, "Lost", ABC
Henry Ian Cusick, "Lost", ABC
Robert Sean Leonard, "House", Fox
Stuck with one of the year's worst stories (murder and its cover-up), Plemons made do, and given one of the year's best stories (the death of his girlfriend), Leonard made hay. You could nominate almost anyone from The Wire or Lost and feel safe, but the three actors above had standout seasons. As for substitutes, consider Vincent Kartheiser or John Slattery from ""Mad Men, or Justin Chambers, who got the same kind of finale gift and lift from Grey's as Leonard did from House.
Supporting actress, drama
Sandra Oh, "Grey's Anatomy", ABC
Chandra Wilson, "Grey's Anatomy", ABC
Lisa Edelstein, "House", Fox
Yunjin Kim, "Lost", ABC
Sonja Sohn, "The Wire", HBO
This is your last chance, people, to honor Sohn for her work in "The Wire"; don't miss it. Otherwise in this category, there's an abundance of possible choices from "Grey's" and "Lost", not to mention Maria Doyle Kennedy from Showtime's "The Tudor"s or January Jones and Christina Hendricks from "Mad Men". Oh, and if it took that cheerleader outfit to get voters to finally notice Edelstein, then three cheers for short skirts.
Supporting actress, comedy
Vanessa Williams, "Ugly Betty", ABC
Jean Smart, "Samantha Who?", ABC
Wanda Sykes, "The New Adventures of Old Christine", CBS
Kristin Chenoweth, "Pushing Daisies", ABC
Swoosie Kurtz, "Pushing Daisies", ABC
I hate to leave off "Daisies"' Ellen Greene, but three stars from the same shortened show is pushing it. And even if she were included, I'd still feel bad about skipping "Christine's" Emily Rutherfurd, "Men's" Holland Taylor, "Weeds'" Elizabeth Perkins and "My Name Is Earl's" Jaime Pressly.
Supporting actor, comedy
Neil Patrick Harris, "How I Met Your Mother", CBS
Jack McBrayer, "30 Rock", NBC
Chi McBride, "Pushing Daisies", ABC
Ray Wise, "Reaper", CW
Hamish Linklater, "The New Adventures of Old Christine", CBS
We'll move more quickly through the supporting categories. Why pick Linklater over "Christine's" equally invaluable Clark Gregg? Because last year I went with Gregg, and it seems only fair to alternate.
"Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)
"The Wire" (HBO)
"Rescue Me" (FX)
"Mad Men" (AMC)
Striking a new path
Remember that ill wind that blows a bit of good? If we're lucky, the strike's confusion will cause voters to reach beyond their comfort zones to one of the best dramas ever to air on TV: "The Wire". No slate would be valid without it, or without "Lost", which benefited from better planning and a shorter run, or "Mad Men", a gorgeously evocative look at America on the cusp of the '60s social revolution. As for "Grey's", this buoyantly entertaining romance was the only series to use the strike to regroup and improve.
Beyond those four, the choices become harder. "House" was too erratic, and while "Friday Night Lights" remains a favorite, there has to be some punishment for that wildly out-of-character murder plot. Cases can be made for "The Tudors", "Breaking Bad" or "CSI", which shook up its cast and its formula while maintaining its ability to produce crowd-pleasing episodes. Still, go with "Rescue Me", which remains basic cable's riskiest and often most rewarding series.
"30 Rock" (NBC)
"The Big Bang Theory" (CBS)
"Ugly Betty" (ABC)
"Pushing Daisies" (ABC)
"The New Adventures of Old Christine" (CBS)
If no show fared better post-strike than "Grey's", none fared worse than "30 Rock", which makes its status on the list iffy. Still, when it was funny, it was the funniest show on TV, and that should count for something.
The other choices are easier. "Pushing Daisies" was the best new show; let's pray voters remember it. "Big Bang" and "Old Christine" restore your faith in conventional sitcoms. And while "Betty" faltered badly at the end, it was still good enough to earn a slot. Anyone who disagrees should feel free to turn that spot over to "Weeds", "Californication" or "Samantha Who?"
READERS: Which TV performances deserve recognition from Emmy voters? Share your suggestions in the comments below.