LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Emmy voters may need to steel themselves to sort through this year's top nominees: a macabre, medieval-style tale; a meth kingpin and his violent downfall; a bleak mystery about detectives tracking a ritual killer, and a heartbreaking saga of the AIDS epidemic's roots.
Small-screen fare has steadily been pushed into bolder, even brilliant territory by cable and, now, online offerings, and it's enticing the TV academy to recognize programs that are more emotionally and dramatically complex — as well as sexually explicit and, for better or worse, much more violent.
In this widely proclaimed golden age of television-plus, the brutal fantasy saga "Game of Thrones," based on the work of novelist George R.R. Martin, emerged Thursday as the leading nominee with 19 nods. Dramas "Breaking Bad" and "True Detective" and movie "The Normal Heart" are among the other front-runners.
That's just for starters. The self-evidently titled "American Horror Story: Coven," along with "Fargo," a riff on the black comedy film of the same name, are provocative miniseries hopefuls for the awards airing on NBC in August.
The academy's broadening embrace includes individual performers as well. They gay rights group GLAAD saluted Laverne Cox's guest-actress nod for "Orange is the New Black" as the first for an openly transgender person.
Emmy has welcomed change before, giving a best-drama award to breakthrough 1980s police drama "Hill Street Blues" for its unprecedented grit and honesty. But it took four tries for "Breaking Bad," one of the most lavishly praised TV series ever but with an anti-hero at its centre, to capture a best drama trophy. It won last year.
Whether 21st-century voters will go far enough to crown "Game of Thrones" with the top drama award is an intriguing question. With the exception of "Lost," shows that fall within the fantasy and sci-fi genres have fallen short, although they have reaped other awards such as Peter Dinklage's 2011 supporting actor award for "Game of Thrones." He's nominated again this year.
"Voters like shows that feel more real and important in terms of today's social or political topics," said Tom O'Neil, author of "The Emmys" and organizer of the Gold Derby awards website.
The best drama contenders besides the nicknamed "GOT" are "Breaking Bad," ''Downton Abbey," ''House of Cards," ''Mad Men" and "True Detective."
Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards," which made a breakthrough last year as the first online series nominated for a major award, has the chance again at Emmy victory. The prison-set "Orange is the New Black," also from Netflix, leaped that barrier on the flip side this time around with a bid for best comedy series, along with a nod for star Taylor Schilling.
Also competing for best comedy honours are "The Big Bang Theory," ''Louie," ''Silicon Valley," ''Veep," and "Modern Family," a four-time winner that has the chance to tie "Frasier" as the all-time winning sitcom with one more award.
There were so many such candidates for the six best drama slots that the critically acclaimed "Masters of Sex" and "The Good Wife" were among those that failed to make the cut. For the latter, coming off a daring season in which a major character died, the snub provoked a flood of online fan dismay.
It may be time for the Emmys to follow cousin Oscar, which has expanded its best picture category to encompass up to 10 nominees.
The 66th prime-time Emmy Awards ceremony certainly will have big-screen star power to spare. This year's Academy Awards best-actor winner Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club") and nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave") are both nominees for TV projects, as are past Oscar winners, including Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton.
McConaughey and "True Detective" co-star Harrelson both will vie for best drama actor honours, along with four-time winner Cranston for "Breaking Bad," Jon Hamm for "Mad Men," Kevin Spacey for "House of Cards," and Jeff Daniels for "The Newsroom," who won the Emmy last year.
Nominees in the lead actress drama category are last year's winner, "Homeland" star Claire Danes along with Lizzy Caplan for "Masters of Sex," Michelle Dockery for "Downton Abbey," Julianna Margulies for "The Good Wife," Kerry Washington for "Scandal" and Robin Wright for "House of Cards."
The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards will air Monday, Aug. 25, on NBC, with emcee Seth Meyers, the former "Saturday Night Live" player and new NBC late-night host. The ceremony, traditionally held on Sunday, was moved to avoid a conflict with NBC's "Sunday Night Football" and with MTV's Video Music Awards.
HBO received a leading 99 nominations, followed by CBS with 47; NBC, 46; FX Networks, 45; ABC, 37; PBS, 34; AMC, 26; Netflix, 31; Showtime, 24; Comedy Central, 21; Lifetime, 17, and Fox, 18.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber .
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