By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If it was a good year for American television, Sunday's Primetime Emmy awards could make it a great year for the grittier side of the TV grid, led by a drama about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth.
"Breaking Bad" is the show to beat for the night's top honor, best drama series, and Bryan Cranston as the unlikely meth mastermind-turned-ruthless drug kingpin Walter White is favored to win best actor in a drama. That would make him a four-time winner for that role.
If it wins, "Breaking Bad" will take the drama prize for the first time, and timing might have something to do with its good fortune. Although its nominations are for the program's fifth season, the eight episodes of the AMC show's sixth and final season began airing in August, before Emmy voting concluded, to widespread acclaim from fans.
The defending Emmy champ in that category, Showtime's domestic terrorism thriller "Homeland," also has a chance, although critics say its second season did not hit the surprising high notes of its first year, while HBO's slick medieval fantasy "Game of Thrones" has its share of buzz and 16 nominations overall.
Then there is the big novelty in this year's race, the political drama "House of Cards" from the TV streaming company Netflix Inc, whose nine nominations were hailed as a validation of production made specifically for online delivery.
But handicappers say it has better chances to win in the best actor category, where Kevin Spacey could challenge Cranston with his portrayal of conniving congressional leader Frank Underwood.
For best comedy series, another gritty show appears to be gaining steam: "Louie" featuring the New York comedian Louis C.K., challenging the winner of the past three years, "Modern Family," the smart ABC comedy about unconventional families. Louis C.K. could also win best actor for comedy.
It could be a year of what Hollywood awards show handicapper Tom O'Neil of Goldderby.com calls "atypical winners."
"Emmy voters are notorious elitists. They vote for the most stylized, upscale programming," said O'Neil, pointing to their support in the past for shows like "Frasier" and "Homeland."
"However, you could say that 'Breaking Bad' and 'Louie' are chic in another way," he added. "They have elitist appeal because they are cool shows right now. And that is what makes the Emmy contest this year so exciting."
'AN EXCITING PERIOD'
The Emmys are handed out by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in a televised ceremony from Los Angeles, which will be hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris.
They honor a broad swath of television production, from the pinnacle prize of best drama series to more obscure ones like best sound mixing for non-fiction programming. There are 537 separate nominations and HBO alone picked up 108 of those, more than twice its closest competitors, broadcasters CBS and NBC with 53 each.
Although the premium cable network that made television history with the likes of "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" has much more competition these days from basic cable outlets like AMC and FX and newcomer Netflix, HBO still wields considerable influence at the Emmys.
In addition to "Game of Thrones" and comedies "Veep" and "Girls," HBO's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" is the strong front-runner to win best miniseries/movie. Michael Douglas in the lead role is favored to take best actor in that category, over co-star Matt Damon, who played Liberace's young lover.
In a testament to the growing power of basic cable outlets, FX's "American Horror Story: Asylum" about a mental hospital run by nuns racked up the most nominations of any show at 17, just ahead of "Game of Thrones." But the horror genre tends to perform poorly at the Emmys.
It may not prove to be a stellar night for Netflix, which has a total of 14 nominations split among three shows. But the company that has taken the first big plunge in original programming for internet streaming (and put all episodes online on day one) has Hollywood talking.
"Netflix is an incredible thing," said Matthew Weiner, creator of AMC's "Mad Men," the groundbreaking drama about the 1960s' Madison Avenue advertising world that has won the best drama Emmy four times and is looking for its fifth win on Sunday.
"It's very exciting as a TV writer and watcher to see new things on there, and the talent they've attracted us incredible. The more there is, the better, especially of this quality ... it's an exciting period."
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Peter Cooney)