For most characters in this year's race, there's always next year. These five worthy roles need to win now or never.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (NBC)
The biz's latest SNL-spawned movie star claims she always had planned to quit the show after seven years. And she couldn't have picked a better moment for her May 19 sendoff, during which she got an emotional goodbye from her fellow castmembers. What she deserves now is a big, fat Emmy kiss on the lips. It's not only the $288 million heartwarming laugh-riot movie Bridesmaids that makes her Emmy-worthy -- though that sure didn't hurt her Emmy odds. The Bridesmaids parts Wiig co-wrote for co-stars Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph helped propel them to Emmy noms this year as guest actresses on SNL. Everybody wants to smooch Wiig these days, hoping her success will rub off. But from an Emmy strategy standpoint, she's smart to dance free of SNL because leaving seems to increase a performer's odds of earning a nomination. Rudolph, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon got no Emmy love as castmembers, but each got noms as returning guests. SNL is the biggest Emmy magnet in history, with a record 156 noms, but only 17 castmembers have been nominated in 37 years compared with eight guest Emmy noms during the past three years. Bill Hader became the first male castmember nominated for comedy actor since Eddie Murphy in 1983. The obvious fact is, Wiig merits the win more than anyone else, as evidenced by her supporting comedy actress nominations each of the past four years. Few did more sketches per episode than Wiig, and hers were seldom sketchy work. Her versatility was unmatched, even by the long-running show's considerable standards. Who can forget her preternaturally irritating grade-school cutup Gilly, her I'm-not-kidding-but-I'm-a-motormouth travel agent Judy Grimes or her dour Midwest film critic Aunt Linda? In a cast famous for impressions, her Suze Orman stood out, and while her Nancy Pelosi might not have affected a real-life election as Fey's Sarah Palin did, it certainly swept the studio-audience laugh vote. Not even Wiig's one-upping egoman-iacal character Penelope could claim to outdo her creator in the diversity of her achievements. So let's give Wiig a hand -- a much bigger hand than the weirdly teensy ones on her character Dooneese -- and hand over the Emmy already.
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (ABC)
Joosten played the funniest woman on Wisteria Lane -- tart-tongued busybody neighbor Karen McCluskey -- and was beloved by her TV Academy peers in real life. There's great reason to believe she might win that rarest of accolades, a posthumous statuette. In such cases, real-life sentiment counts as much as onscreen achievement. Who could blink back tears when John Travolta accepted the Emmy for his late sweetheart and co-star Diana Hyland in 1977? Joosten also gets inspiration points for daring to launch her career at age 42, moving to L.A. at 55 and making it to the top at an age when even big stars find themselves falling. But Joosten deserves the guest comedy actress Emmy on talent alone. In fact, she won it in 2005 and 2008, plus a nomination in 2010. Nobody could cut somebody dead with a glance like Joosten, and few could match her death-defying vitality. She earned all of her Emmy kudos after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001. It's hard to believe the scene of her character's cancer death in the show's finale, filmed weeks before Joosten's actual death, will leave voters unmoved. She told her Housewives colleague Brenda Strong, "You know, I might not make it long enough to get to the Emmys, but regardless, I hope you'll vote for me." Who's going to say no?
HARRY'S LAW (NBC)
With an Oscar, two additional Oscar noms and 11 Emmy noms, Bates is a law unto herself in Hollywood. Not even her Titanic character, Molly Brown, was so unsinkable. And even though her David E. Kelley-penned show Harry's Law got mixed reviews and was canceled in May -- usually a dire sign for a show's Emmy prospects -- her long run as a star of art house classics and blockbuster hits could and should nab her this shiny doll that has so tantalizingly eluded her. She picked a flashy episode to submit, "Onward and Upward," in which she pulls out all of the emotional stops, including sobbing at a cemetery. Tears play well with Emmy voters, as do movie stars, and Bates proves she's not too big a star for small-screen glory.
MAD MEN (AMC)
The son of Harry Potter star and Brit acting god Richard Harris exemplified button-down rectitude as Lane Pryce, the sole British partner at the increasingly unbuttoned, morally unmoored Mad Men ad agency. Harris dazzled in portraying Pryce's corruption by the seductive American milieu of Don Draper, illuminating his step-by-step descent into dishonesty and squalor, ending with his spectacular, half-comic, utterly tragic suicide in his office -- a cowardly act intended to shame his partners for sacking him after he desperately embezzled from the firm. If Emmy voters overlook Harris' subtle, startling performance, then shame on them.
BREAKING BAD (AMC)
There never has been a TV villain like Esposito's Gus Fring. His stone face had the impassive grandeur of Samuel Beckett and the thunderously quiet authority of a yoga master (in fact, Esposito modeled the character on Gandhi). This meth lord literally was lordly in his bearing, his formidability in repose and his sinister elegance in motion. Infinitely better dressed than your average fast-food chicken-joint owner, Gus was natty to the last, straightening his tie even the moment after half his face was blown off. Yes, Esposito would be the first African-American to win the supporting drama Emmy (also the first Italian-African-American), but who cares? His antihero was an all-American, consumed by ruthless ambition, willing to kill children to avenge his beloved partner -- who might or might not have been his lover. In a medium addicted to obviousness, Gus was built around a core of mystery. If Emmy doesn't get how great he was, that would be the biggest mystery of all.
If not now, when? If not them, who? It's high time the Emmys recognized these five masters of their craft. In fact, it's the last chance to recognize them for their roles because either their characters were killed off, the actor or actress has moved to other projects, their show was canceled or, in one sad case, the actor passed on to TV immortality. The field of Emmy candidates is so vast and the voters so busy that it's easy for many worthy talents to get overlooked. Here's hoping, come Emmy night, these five great performers earn the spotlight each so richly deserves.