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Is It Really an Honor Just to be Nominated?

Neil Patrick Harris has his work cut out for him.

Desperate to rescue the Emmy broadcast from last year's near total ratings collapse, the Television Academy approved two major changes. It (and CBS) chose the well-liked and now once again Emmy-nominated star of How I Met Your Mother to host the show, in hopes he'll pull in younger viewers and restore some critical luster after last year's reality quintet debacle. And they tweaked the voting rules - expanding some categories from the usual five nominees, eliminating judging panels in favor of a straight popular vote - in an attempt to squeeze a few higher-rated shows in to what had become a very niche mix.

Well, one out of two isn't bad.

Despite their leaders' best (or some would say worst) efforts, the voters once again produced a slate of nominees that in most cases boils down to a competition between the hardly watched and the not-watched at all. Outside of some important nominations for Lost, House, The Mentalist's Simon Baker, Two and a Half Men's Charlie Sheen and (hallelujah!) The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, actual hits in the major categories are so few, they don't even count as far between.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The Emmys should be based on quality, not popularity - and while an Emmy broadcast built around shows such as 30 Rock, Mad Men and Breaking Bad may not be a big draw, one that ignored them would not be worth watching at all.

And yet, in their race to embrace the small and peculiar - and, perhaps, in their ingrained Hollywood crowd desire to appear hipper than the room - the voters seem to be rejecting better shows just because they're bigger. It's as if popularity, which by all rights should be a neutral factor, has somehow become a negative one.

How else to explain a voting procedure that stretches the series categories to seven nominees and yet skips TV's best and hottest comedy, CBS' Big Bang Theory? And for Flight of the Conchords, no less, a cult non-hit that pleases a very devoted very few and perplexes everyone else.

That's a very bad decision - but this is not, overall, a bad year for the nominations as a whole. There are always things we'd change, but the list is interesting and quirky, a description that fits any that makes room for Weeds, Family Guy and Sarah Silverman as well as Bob Newhart and Ian McKellen. If nothing else, it beats the general Emmy norm of dull and predictable.

Well, some things are predictable. It's still nearly impossible for a freshman series to get noticed, which may explain why True Blood, Fringe and No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency were ignored, outside of CCH Pounder's excellent guest star spot on Ladies'. The only two major nominees to break that freshman curse were Baker and Toni Collette for United States of Tara.

As for other standard patterns, it's usually easy to get an Emmy nomination if you have an Oscar - though that didn't help Blood's Anna Paquin. It's even easier to get an Emmy nomination if you've already had an Emmy nomination - though that didn't help Jeremy Piven, a three-time winner whose bad Broadway behavior may have annoyed actors in Los Angeles as much as it annoyed actors in New York.

And it's easiest of all if you fall into that rare category of actors whom the voters love beyond reason and measure. No doubt Mariska Hargitay is a good actress and lovely person, but it's hard to explain why she has been nominated six years running - bucking better network shows and the academy's own fondness for cable dramas.

Speaking of academy over fondness, as good as 30 Rock is, it doesn't deserve a record-setting 22 comedy nominations. And on the flip side, how do you leave Big Love out of every other category - from acting to hairstyling - and yet nominate it for best drama? So what exactly was so good about it?

As in any year, there are the inevitable snubs, some more egregious than others. Many will mourn the lack of final-season love for The Shield, Battlestar Galactica and Jay Leno's Tonight Show, but I'm not among them. Instead, any grieving here will be reserved for 24, Rescue Me, Friday Night Lights, Pushing Daisies, True Blood, No. 1 Ladies, Big Bang, The New Adventures of Old Christine, So You Think You Can Dance and Fringe's John Noble.

Still, rather than dwell on who was left out, let's be happy for some of the more unexpected inclusions. In addition to Parsons, Baker and Pounder, it was particularly nice to see the nominations for Daisies' Kristin Chenoweth, Bad's Aaron Paul, Rescue Me's Michael J. Fox and 24's Cherry Jones and Kiefer Sutherland - even if Sutherland's was for the movie.

It's the Emmys. The surprise is when it works, not when it doesn't.

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