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Originally published September 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 20, 2009 at 6:00 PM

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Are Emmy voters out of touch?

On the TV awards show, critically acclaimed programs such as "Mad Men" are edging out popular shows such as "Lost."

Contra Costa Times

On TV

'The 61st Primetime Emmy Awards'

8 tonight on CBS. Preshow coverage begins at 4 p.m. on E!

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Tonight in Prime Time

Commentary

Neil Patrick Harris makes his debut as Emmy host tonight — just as the telecast could use a great big blast of his "awesomeness."

The Emmys, you see, have a public-relations problem. Long regarded as the ugly stepsister to the Oscars, they've lost even more luster lately as ratings plunged and buzz waned.

Blame, in part, the major disconnect between Emmy voters and the masses. This year's nomination list is again riddled with TV's equivalent of little art-house films — niche shows that hardly anyone watches. To wit: AMC's "Mad Men" is a snazzy, handsomely crafted drama, but there are probably some traveling carnivals larger than its audience.

And so why would people watch an Emmy telecast that celebrates shows they don't watch?

The TV academy tried to ease the problem by expanding a few awards categories to six or seven nominees. That opened the door to some colorful newcomers ("Family Guy"). But it also let in more cult upstarts ("Flight of the Conchords"). Meanwhile, some of TV's biggest shows — "CSI," "Grey's Anatomy," "Two and a Half Men" — are only sparsely represented.

The academy also attempted to shake things up by banishing some fringe categories to earlier in the evening before the telecast starts. But the guilds howled, and the plan was scrapped.

Maybe Harris, with his abundant wit and charm, can be a game-changer. Then again, maybe they should have enlisted Kanye West. He seems to know how to bring buzz to an awards show.

Here's a rundown of the major categories and some predictions:

Outstanding drama

The nominees: "Big Love" (HBO); "Breaking Bad" (AMC); "Damages" (FX); "Dexter" (Showtime); "House" (Fox); "Lost" (ABC); "Mad Men" (AMC).

The lowdown: "Lost," which last won in 2005, put together another mind-blowing season. But our guess is that the voters are still madly in love with "Mad Men."

Outstanding comedy

The nominees: "Entourage" (HBO); "Family Guy" (Fox); "Flight of the Conchords" (HBO); "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS); "The Office" (NBC); "30 Rock" (NBC); "Weeds" (Showtime).

The lowdown: "30 Rock" has won two straight years, and it figures that, sooner or later, the voters will tire of Tina Fey's twisted satire. Then again, "Frasier" once ruled this category five straight years. So we've got "30 Rock" achieving the threepeat. Sorry, Stewie.

Outstanding actor, drama

The nominees: Simon Baker ("The Mentalist," CBS); Gabriel Byrne ("In Treatment," HBO); Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad"); Michael C. Hall ("Dexter"); Jon Hamm ("Mad Men"); Hugh Laurie ("House," Fox).

The lowdown: This category is the toughest to call. Every nominee is deserving, even the rookie Baker, who won us over with his charm and charisma. Our dream pick would be Hall, who manages to make his serial-killing monster empathetic. But something tells us the long-overdue Laurie will collect the hardware.

Outstanding actress, drama

The nominees: Glenn Close ("Damages"); Sally Field ("Brothers & Sisters," ABC); Mariska Hargitay ("Law & Order: SVU," NBC); Holly Hunter ("Saving Grace," TNT); Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men," AMC); Kyra Sedgwick ("The Closer," TNT).

The lowdown: Not nearly as competitive as the men, this category appears to come down to two nominees — Close and Moss. We'd take Moss, but Close will prevail with the showier role. (Also, Emmy voters typically suck up to former movie stars).

Outstanding actor, comedy

The nominees: Alec Baldwin ("30 Rock"); Steve Carell ("The Office"); Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords"); Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory," CBS); Tony Shalhoub ("Monk," USA); Charlie Sheen ("Two and a Half Men," CBS).

The lowdown: And a geek shall inherit the prize. Parsons had the breakout comedy performance of the year as the brainy, obsessive "Star Trek"-loving Sheldon Cooper. Nothing against the veterans here, but they need to make way for the hilarious newbie.

Outstanding actress, comedy

The nominees: Christina Applegate ("Samantha Who?," ABC); Toni Collette ("United States of Tara," Showtime); Tina Fey ("30 Rock," NBC); Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("The New Adventures of Old Christine," CBS); Mary-Louise Parker ("Weeds," Showtime); Sarah Silverman ("The Sarah Silverman Program," Comedy Central).

The lowdown: We have an unyielding crush on Applegate and threw a little snit when her show was axed. But we're also realists, and we can't see anyone beating Fey.

Outstanding reality competition

The nominees: "The Amazing Race" (CBS); "American Idol" (Fox); "Dancing With the Stars" (ABC); "Project Runway" (Bravo); "Top Chef" (Bravo).

The lowdown: OK, we get it. "The Amazing Race" is an amazing show. Now let someone else win the blasted Emmy. We don't care who. Anyone.

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