Time for part 7 of our look at the Emmy nominations process for 2012. As always, Fienberg and I are going to approach things in two ways. I'll pretend that I have an Emmy ballot and make my picks for the six actors or shows I would put on my ballot, while Dan will rank the potential nominees from most likely to least. And, as always, we are working off of the actual Emmy ballot, so we can't consider people who didn't submit themselves, nor can we reassign anyone to a more suitable or easier category.

We're continuing to move through the lead performer categories, this time with Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Dan's predictions are here, and my preferences are coming right up...

This category doesn't have the absurd depth of its supporting counterpart (what does?), but boy is it tough at the top. Five of last year's nominees return, and Bryan Cranston is eligible again after sitting out last year's window. So it could very easily be those six guys. And while I stopped watching both "House" and "Dexter" a while ago, it wasn't because of the fine work Hugh Laurie and Michael C. Hall were doing.  That said, there are a couple of new performances I really want to see recognized, plus a departing performance that's different from Laurie, so I'm going to shake things up a bit. But let's start with the familiar, obvious choices.

Bryan Cranston has won this category every year he's been eligible. He's deserved to win it every year he's been eligible — though a number of the people he kept from winning have been just as deserving — and if he gets called to the podium in September, he'll be deserving then, too. With each passing season of "Breaking Bad," Walter White recedes and Heisenberg ascends, and Cranston continues to be mesmerizing as he plays that transformation from milquetoast to monster.



I'm starting to fear that Jon Hamm isn't going to win one of these things for playing Don Draper. Last year seemed like it had to be his year, since Cranston was ineligible and Hamm had what seemed like a perfect submission episode in "The Suitcase." But Hamm didn't win then, and the competition's only going to be tougher this year. But he continues to be fantastic in this role, this year showing a different, unsettling side of the character as Don obsessed on his new marriage and let work slide in the process, before ultimately accepting that his wife is more independent than he had hoped, and that he needs to define himself by the success of the agency. He may not have had a single episode with the range of "The Suitcase," but over the course of the season — the "Mystery Date" fever dream, the aftermath of the Howard Johnson trip, his reaction to Joan and Peggy's professional transitions, and more — he was superb.



I would unfortunately not be surprised to see Timothy Olyphant get bumped to make room for some new (and/or more famous) blood in this category, especially since the Academy has always displayed ambivalent feelings towards FX dramas. And there's also the danger that in a season with so many vivid supporting performances, Olyphant might get overlooked. In fact,  the rise of villainy in Harlan only gave Olyphant more to play, as Raylan grew increasingly frustrated with Wynn Duffy (see below), Boyd, Limhouse, Quarles, his father and all the rest, and as his personal and professional lives fell apart at once. I've been rewatching "Deadwood" this summer, and as good as Olyphant was on that all-time great show, this is an even deeper, more varied performance.



Now we get to people who weren't nominated last year. Let's start with Dustin Hoffman. When HBO announced that Hoffman had signed on to star in a show written by David Milch and directed by Michael Mann, the assumption was that he'd have a Cranstonian stranglehold on the award for a while. But "Luck" got a very mixed response, and Hoffman's part of the show not only felt detached from the rest, but often got upstaged by what was happening at the track with the less prominent actors. That said, name recognition and movie star envy alone will get him a nomination, and he'll deserve it. Yes, Ace's revenge plot didn't always feel like a part of the same series as what was happening at the track, but Hoffman's performance — particularly in the series finale, where he got to play several scenes opposite his son Jake — showed all the resentment, regret, rage and wisdom lurking just beneath Ace's slick surface. We likely wouldn't have seen the full power of that performance until the aborted second season, but Hoffman showed more than enough in these nine hours to make the cut. 



The assumption is that the awards hardware for "Homeland" this year is going to Claire Danes, but her co-star Damian Lewis is equally deserving of both a nomination and a win. (Though, really, I'd be happy with any of these six winning, plus a few past them. It was a very good year for lead male performances.) If anything, Lewis had the trickier role, in that Danes' Carrie was an open book, while his Sgt. Brody was one where we only got to see a few pages at a time. But his guarded performance showed just enough to hook us in the early episodes, and only got better as we learned more of what had happened to Brody in captivity and why he made the decisions he had. I've been a huge Lewis fan since "Band of Brothers," and I'm glad to finally see him in a role that has a shot at legitimate awards consideration.



Those five were no-brainers for me. I could have gone in several directions with the sixth slot. Even leaving out Laurie and Hall (where I assume their work was still great, but I simply didn't see enough to feel confident), I could have gone with Steve Buscemi for the stronger Nucky moments on "Boardwalk Empire," Kelsey Grammer for erasing all memory of Frasier crane on "Boss," or Peter Krause for shouldering so much of the load even in the large "Parenthood" ensemble. Ultimately, though, I kept coming back to Ray Romano, who technically qualifies this year because the last six episodes of "Men of a Certain Age" aired during the eligibility window. Like the work by more celebrated co-stars Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, what's so impressive about Romano's performance on "Men" is how small it is, and yet how big the emotions always felt, whether he was dealing with his gambling addiction (see below) or his various fears about himself, his kids and his friends. A great, great performance on a show not enough people saw.



Others considered: Steve Buscemi from "Boardwalk Empire," Ted Danson from "CSI," Kelsey Grammer from "Boss," Charlie Hunnam from "Sons of Anarchy," Jason Isaacs from "Awake," Peter Krause from "Parenthood," Jeffrey Dean Morgan from "Magic City," Noah Wyle from "Falling Skies."

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com