Emmys Drama Race: ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ and More

The race for the Emmy Awards’ top drama prize is fierce (hello, Downton!). Jace Lacob assesses the field to see whether Mad Men will make history with a fifth win.

Can Mad Men could do the impossible on Sunday and win a fifth Emmy Award for Best Drama? After walking away with the statuette four years in a row, all eyes are on AMC’s Emmy darling, which could make history with a five-time win.

Currently, Mad Men shares the record for most Best Drama wins with such notable programs as Hill Street Blues, The West Wing, and L.A. Law, all of which were crowned victors four times. But a win at Sunday’s 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards would make Mad Men the undisputed drama record-holder, no small feat for a show that is about to go into its sixth season—reportedly the show’s penultimate—and whose loyal viewers are considerably dwarfed by HBO’s and Showtime’s entries.

Mad Men’s fifth season found Don Draper (Jon Hamm) rediscovering himself as a newlywed after his surprising proposal to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré); Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) facing his mortality; Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) selling herself to become a partner; Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) leaving the firm; and poor Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) taking his own life in the office. Often polarizing, Season 5 of Mad Men was a challenging and gut-wrenching season of transformation for its characters, and a lyrical and haunting experience for many viewers.

It’s Mad Men’s toughest road to the Emmys podium. This year’s competition is fierce; so fierce, it seems, that there isn’t a single broadcast network drama competing for the top prize. (Stalwart CBS drama The Good Wife is the most obvious omission.) Instead, Mad Men’s competitors come almost entirely from cable, with AMC sibling Breaking Bad, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, and Showtime’s Homeland all represented.

And then there’s Downton Abbey, the British costume drama that transformed itself into a phenomenon this year. The Julian Fellowes–created show—which depicts the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants in the post-Edwardian era—airs on PBS’s venerable Masterpiece, the 41-year-old anthology series that has suddenly become a mainstream success story thanks to its wise and prescient investment in Downton.

Downton’s considerable wins in the movies and miniseries categories last year came as no surprise, as it was a clear victor and offered a palpable threat to HBO’s hegemony in the longform department. But its move to the Best Drama race is also fraught with peril, as it’s now facing off against the big guns of American drama … and HBO and Showtime have some deep pockets when it comes to awards campaigning.

Still, Downton Abbey could very well be the spoiler this year, after a second season—set during World War I and the Spanish-flu epidemic in England—that cemented its status within the collective consciousness of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. While some viewers and critics (myself included) griped about some of the relative weakness of Season 2, especially when compared to the dazzling perfection of Downton’s first season, what lingers is the absolute beauty and power of that season finale (a.k.a. the “Christmas Special”).

Additionally, the widespread cultural impact of Downton Abbey shouldn’t be overlooked, as Emmy voters have often gone for shows that blend critical acclaim with popular acceptance, and Downton seems to meet both of those equally. The staggering ratings for the show’s second season (a cumulative audience of 17 million on Masterpiece!) demonstrate just how much of an impression the show is continuing to make on popular culture.

There’s an innate awareness of the show that transcends its public-television roots and that has once again—and correctly—moved PBS back to the forefront of discussion, amid a time of declining federal support for public broadcasting. Downton’s success story is hard to beat.

Still, the Crawleys and the Drapers have some hardy competition.

AMC’s Breaking Bad—eligible for last year’s explosive fourth season—has been gathering steam. The show’s recent fifth season return may have helped, reminding voters of its existence at a time when last year’s shows seem positively forever ago. But while Breaking Bad has walked away with statuettes for the magnificent portrayals of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman by its leads—Bryan Cranston (a consecutive three-time winner) and Aaron Paul (last year’s winner for Best Supporting Actor)—the show itself has yet to crack the Best Drama race, though that could change this year, thanks to one of the year’s most buzzed-about episodes of television in “Face Off.”

Showtime’s Homeland had a very strong first season that landed it on many critics’ top 10 lists for 2011, thanks to deft plotting and strong performances from series leads Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, whose escalating game of cat-and-mouse led to one of the most tense hours of television in recent memory. Danes’s bravura turn—as a disgraced CIA agent obsessed with unmasking a man she suspects of being a terrorist while trying to maintain a grasp on her quicksilver sanity—pushed Homeland out of mere political potboiler territory and into true psychological portraiture, rendering both obsessed predator and conflicted traitor with the intensity of chiaroscuro.

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(Still, Homeland wrapped up its first season nine months ago, and the show could have been too distant in voters’ minds—despite the on-going promotional campaign for Season 2, which begins September 30, and the charged political nature of the show in an election year—when it came to putting down the Showtime drama on the ballots. Claire Danes, meanwhile, remains the big favorite to take home the Best Actress award.)

HBO’s entries—the sweeping fantasy drama Game of Thrones (based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels) and Martin Scorsese-produced mobster drama Boardwalk Empire—while worthy in their own rights, don’t really seem to be viable contenders to disrupt Mad Men’s reign.

Game of Thrones’s genre trappings, while catnip for critics and viewers, don’t lend themselves entirely to members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which historically tends to turn up its collective nose when it comes to science-fiction and fantasy shows. Despite the fact that Season 2 featured an intense and immense battle—the scale of which few motion pictures could hope to capture—and some very real thrills (shadow baby, anyone?), the buzz surrounding the show has gone deathly quiet of late. Plus it’s hard to imagine that a show with so few acting nominations (other than Peter Dinklage, who is competing in Best Supporting Actor) could steal the crown.

Boardwalk Empire turned in a very strong second season that was often drenched in blood as Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) completed his journey from less-than-legitimate businessman to full-blown mobster, a path that was strewn with the corpses of his enemies. Treachery, murder, and even incest found their way into the Atlantic City–set Prohibition drama, but detractors have accused the show of iciness, and for those who haven’t been able to fall under Boardwalk’s spell, this period drama lacks the nuance of Mad Men and the guts-and-garters savagery of Game of Thrones. At this point, it would be a real long shot for challenger Boardwalk to unseat Mad Men.

I hate issuing predictions because they very often embarrass the issuer after the fact. That said, I believe that Mad Men is the show of our time. That’s not to disparage the great work done by other shows, but Mad Men deserves to win a fifth time. It perfectly captures not only the turbulence and charged atmosphere of the 1960s, but also casts at times an uneasy reflection of our own society, our own flaws, and our own Rubicons to cross. Many reeled when Hendricks’s Joan considered selling her body for a shot at a partnership, but that says more about us as viewers in 2012 than it did about Joan in 1967. A plot about mentor and protégée Don Draper and Peggy Olsen becomes a story about women in the workplace, saying goodbye, and knowing when it is time to move on.

It is not yet Mad Men’s time to step out of the spotlight. The Academy would be wise to recognize how much of a rare beast Mad Men continues to be in the television landscape, and how much we need its stories of bad men, mistreated women, and Madison Avenue mavericks. We need to see where we’ve come from in order to see just where we’re going.