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The Strongest Emmy Categories Of All Time

Compared to the Oscars, the Emmys, which air this Sunday, are pretty unpredictable. There isn’t an awards show like the Golden Globes that precedes them, so we can’t use another awards show to help forecast the awards. The Emmys also very recently overhauled their voting methodology, which means that recent history is zero indication for what’s to come.

The gambling odds show two very different types of races for comedies and drama. Comedy is top-heavy: Jeffrey Tambor (“Transparent”) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”) are pretty heavy favorites in Comedy’s Outstanding Lead Actor and Actress, respectively. But the drama awards are far tighter: In Lead Actress, Robin Wright (“House of Cards”) and Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) have the best chance, according to betting houses. For the men, it’s looking like Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”) versus Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”).

Not all classes of nominees have the same dynamic. There will always be variation in the relative strength of each nomination class for each category. I wanted to track this to see which years had the toughest competitions. To do it, I pulled the Emmys nomination history from IMDb, counted up the number of lifetime performance nominations for the people in each category from each year, and figured out which was the most stacked ever.

YEAR CATEGORY NOMINEES’ TOTAL NOMS. WINNER THAT YEAR
2010 Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series 72 Betty White
2009 Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series 71 Tina Fey
1986 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series 64 Sharon Gless
1976 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series 63 Mary Tyler Moore
2012 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series 63 Julia Louis-Dreyfus
1992 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series 62 Candice Bergen
2013 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series 60 Julia Louis-Dreyfus
1999 Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series 58 Tracey Ullman
1997 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special 56 Alfre Woodard
2010 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series 56 Edie Falco
1974 Best Lead Actress in a Drama 55 Michael Learned
1998 Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series 55 Cloris Leachman
2000 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series 55 Allison Janney
1990 Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program 55 Tracey Ullman
1978 Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama or Comedy Special 55 Eva Le Gallienne
2010 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series 55 John Lithgow
Emmy categories with the most nominated actors by year

Source: imdb

Of course, the Guest Actress in a Comedy category would be a staple; guest performances tend to be stacked. Those roles offer established television and film icons the chance to parachute in for an episode or two so they can, say, crush it playing a character’s beloved but salty mom, or endearingly host SNL or maybe play some morally complex pedophile on “Law & Order: SVU.”

The 2009 and 2010 categories come out on top thanks to the consistent and continued contributions of Betty White (“My Name Is Earl” in 2009, “Saturday Night Live” in 2010), Tina Fey (“Saturday Night Live” in both years), Christine Baranski (“The Big Bang Theory” twice) and Elaine Stritch (“30 Rock” twice).

Among the lead performance categories, the ’86 drama competition was the most-stacked deck. Sharon Gless, Tyne Daly, Angela Freakin’ Lansbury, Cybill Shepherd and Alfre Woodard, all nominees that year, are my personal cast for an “Expendables” spinoff starring the leading ladies of mid-’80s procedurals. Gless would go on to win that, pulling in the fourth of eventually six consecutive wins for “Cagney & Lacey” in the category.

I’ve also answered the question that has plagued me for years: Which was the tougher category, the 2012 or 2013 best lead in a comedy series? Both years had Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep,” Amy Poehler in “Parks and Recreation,” Edie Falco in “Nurse Jackie,” Tina Fey in “30 Rock” and Lena Dunham in “Girls.” It’s the other nominees who provide the tiebreaker: There were seven people competing in 2012 and only six in 2013, and so 2012, a year with both Melissa McCarthy and Zooey Deschanel nominated, barely edged out 2013, when Laura Dern was.

That “different number of nominees for silly and arbitrary reasons” is classic Emmys. When it comes to the consistency, continuity and organization of the awards year to year, never forget that the Emmys make the Golden Globes look like the Nobel Prizes.

Read more Emmys coverage: The Most Iconic TV Show In Emmys History

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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