There are several reasons why most pundits predict Laura Linney ("The Big C") will win the Emmy for best comedy actress. For starters, the three-time past champ has never lost. Her first victory was for best guest comedy actress in "Frasier" (2004); her other two were in the contest for best actress in a movie/miniseries ( "Wild Iris" in 2002, "John Adams" in 2008). This year she competes for best comedy actress for her new TV series on Showtime, which has owned the category for the last two years with victories by Toni Collette for "United States of Tara" (2009) and Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie") in 2010.
Linney gave Emmy judges the pilot episode, a potent mix of defiant comedy and high drama in which she battles her neighbor, students, husband and son while hiding the secret that she's got cancer. It's loaded with so much emotional impact, range and sympathy that she'll be hard to beat.
However, four of the other five nominees submitted episodes that give them a strong fighting chance. "Saturday Night Live" alums Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation") and Tina Fey ("30 Rock") both submitted strong material.
Poehler entered "Flu Season," in which her character -- small-town civil servant Leslie Knope -- comes down with the flu but insists on making an important presentation to the chamber of commerce anyway. The hilarity of her performance builds as, first, she battles flu symptoms, then the mind-altering effects of her medication. Poehler doesn't display Linney's gravitas, but she's a lot funnier. Her only problem may be that "Flu Season" is an ensemble-driven episode, which means she has far less screen time than Linney.
Fey might have the same problem in her "30 Rock" episode, "Double Edged Sword," in which she battles her boyfriend, airline pilot Carol (guest-acting nominee Matt Damon), during a lengthy flight delay. She's terrific while battling on the behalf of her fellow passengers, but she shares the episode with two major subplots -– one involving Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) winning an Oscar, and the other following Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and his wife in Canada –- so she might also be at a disadvantage.
Ironically, screen time is not a problem for Martha Plimpton, who many thought would have been better off competing in the supporting category for "Raising Hope." But entering the lead race proved to be a shrewd move. She earned a nomination and submitted "Say Cheese," one of her best episodes of the season, in which she is shown in flashbacks trying to corral her family for the perfect family portrait photo. She's arguably more of a lead actress in this episode than Poehler and Fey are in theirs. Plimpton was a surprise nominee, but if she wins, don't say I didn't warn you.
Melissa McCarthy is also a potential spoiler. She came out of nowhere to secure a nomination for CBS' "Mike & Molly," undoubtedly helped by her increased notoriety from this summer's blockbuster comedy "Bridesmaids." She stands a fair chance thanks to her episode, "First Date," in which she, like Poehler, reacts strongly to a heavy dose of cold medicine. She wouldn't be the first star to upset at the Emmys with the help of a hit movie; Katherine Heigl won best supporting drama actress for "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007, the same year she starred in Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up."