The Emmy ballots went out a little over a week ago, and Fienberg and I have spent a lot of time since going back and forth about who will be nominated and who should, based on who submitted themselves and in which category. (Actors choose if and where to submit, and you can take a look at the full ballot for performers here.)

Nominations won't be announced until July 8, and over the course of this week, Dan and I are going to approach the process, major category by category, from two different angles. Dan is going to present overviews of the leading contenders he thinks could be nominated in each category, while I'll do my annual ritual of presenting my hypothetical ballot were I an Emmy voter.

First up is arguably the toughest field of any of the acting categories: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. Dan posted his gallery of potential nominees last night, and if you click through to the rest of this post, I'll give my thoughts on how I narrowed the ballot down to six names, as well as the toughest omissions.

Again, this category is a beast, and that's even with an entire nomination's field worth of terrific supporting actors who submitted themselves as guest stars - including John Lithgow from "Dexter," Walton Goggins from "Justified," Zach Gilford from "Friday Night Lights," Robert Morse and Jared Harris from "Mad Men," Adam Arkin from "Sons of Anarchy," Henry Ian Cusick from "Lost," etc. My initial list of potential nominees ran more than 20 names, thanks in part to ensemble shows like "Mad Men," "Lost," "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy" that had multiple deserving nominees. I could, for instance, do a ballot with Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks from "Breaking Bad" and any other two guys from my list and feel like everybody on my ballot was deserving. Ditto a ballot that started with Josh Holloway, Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn and Nestor Carbonell from "Lost."

Ultimately, I decided the only way I could sanely approach this was to adopt a share the wealth approach and pick only one actor per show. That may not be the philosophy I use with other categories, but it was the only one that felt remotely satisfying here. And keep in mind that my reasons for dismissing people in no way should be read as negatives on them. Anybody mentioned at all from this point is someone whose nomination and/or win would please me on some level; it's just that when there are this many great performances, hard cuts have to be made. These are the six I ultimately chose, but in this category I could come up with a completely different group of six that would feel equally deserving.

So we start off with my current favorite drama on television, "Breaking Bad." While I could, again, easily nominate four actors from that show (five, really, since Bob Odenkirk is terrific in a largely comic role), if I'm only picking one, it has to be the amazing Aaron Paul, who would also get my hypothetical vote to win the category. How charismatic and scary and moving and pathetic and brilliant was Paul this year? Let's put it this way: the Television Critics Association Awards ballot doesn't distinguish between lead and supporting actors (nor by gender), so Paul and Cranston were nominated together, and I voted Paul.

Emmy voters are supposed to pick a winner based on a single submitted episode. This is done for practical purposes, since the people who work in television don't have an awful lot of time to watch television. (Which raises the larger question of why they should be voting on an award like this, but we'll save that for another time.) While I understand the rationale behind it, that philosophy always bothers me, because actual TV viewers do not approach their shows that way. They watch most, if not all, episodes of their favorite shows, so they can tell you who was great over the course of a season, and not just who knocked it out of the park when given a great script. All of this is preamble towards explaining why, if I had to pick one "Lost" actor for this category, it would be Josh Holloway. Emerson and Carbonell were absolutely fantastic in their respective showcase episodes, but were marginalized and/or absent for large chunks of the season. O'Quinn was dominant throughout the year (even more than Holloway), but he was by far at his best in the Sideways Locke episode, and I liked but didn't love his performance as Smokey. (Though that owed as much to the writing as to any choices O'Quinn made.) Over the course of the season, I thought Holloway had the most consistently interesting material to play, and Sawyer at the vending machine was by far the most affecting the finale's many reunions. 

Anyone on "Mad Men" who isn't Don or (to a lesser extent) Betty Draper tends to drift in and out of the narrative, so it then becomes a question of which second banana made the biggest impact in their relatively limited screen time. Do I go with Vincent Kartheiser for playing Pete the lonely wolf in the episode with the au pair? John Slattery for the Roger-in-blackface episode, and/or for how much confidence and joy he brought to the finale? Or Bryan Batt for showing the ecstasy and agony of Sal finally accepting his sexuality, then having his career destroyed over it? All were swell, but I go Bryan Batt for how he played Sal's reaction to the phrase "You people."

Similarly, you can't go wrong with any of at least three "Sons of Anarchy" actors here: Ron Perlman, Ryan Hurst and Kim Coates. Perlman was involved in one of the best scenes on any drama anywhere this season (Gemma's confession in "Balm"), but Hurst and Coates were both sensational in showing Opie and Tig's anguish over the murder of Opie's wife. Splitting hairs at this point, but I guess I'd pick Ryan Hurst based on "the outlaw had mercy" scene.

So those were my four tough ensemble calls. (And I would have loved to make room for Taylor Kitsch and/or Michael B. Jordan from "Friday Night Lights," but, again... brutal.)

My other two slots goes to John Noble, who was so good I stuck with "Fringe" for far longer than the show itself held my interest; and to Andre Braugher, who was his usual splendid dramatic self when asked to be on "Men of a Certain Age," while also turning out to be that sneaky show's strongest comic weapon.
 

Tough omissions (beyond those mentioned above): John Goodman from "Treme," Max Burkholder from "Parenthood" (who for some reason is listed as "Miles Bukholder" on the ballot) and Justin Chambers from "Grey's Anatomy."

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com