By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A night of upsets could be on the menu at the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, with the countesses and kitchen maids of Britain's "Downton Abbey" bidding to end the reign of television's "Mad Men," while post-9/11 psychological thriller "Homeland" lurks close by.
With a tight race for the best drama series top prize and a great year for comedy actresses, the television industry's biggest night could pack as much drama this year as the plot twists and turns dreamed up by TV writers on screen.
"What makes this year's Emmys filled with such anticipation is that there are no easy predictions and that makes the show exciting," said Todd Gold, executive editor of Xfinity TV.
"There was a period in the 1990s when the Emmys seemed so predictable. This is a year that really reflects the strength and depth of TV across the board," Gold told Reuters.
The Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast live from Los Angeles on Sunday on ABC television, and hosted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel.
"Mad Men," the 1960s-era advertising show on AMC beloved by critics, is hoping to score a fifth consecutive best drama series win from 17 Emmy nominations.
But "Downton Abbey," the upstairs-downstairs period drama set in an aristocratic English house, is nipping at its heels with 16 nods in one of PBS' best years at the Emmys.
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British imports often do well at U.S. award shows. "Hollywood, like the rest of America, has a secret inferiority complex about all things British. 'Downton Abbey' did much better in the nominations than anyone thought. It could really do this," said Tom O'Neil of awards website Goldderby.com.
"Mad Men" emerged empty-handed from last weekend's Creative Arts portion of the Emmys - which honors costumes, hair styling and other mainly technical categories - in what O'Neil said "may be an early omen of what's to come."
Although success at the Creative Arts - where HBO's medieval fantasy "Game of Thrones" was the big winner - does not necessarily indicate glory at the Primetime Awards, "the usually unflappable ('Mad Men' lead character) Don Draper might be sweating under his crisp white collar right now," O'Neil added.
Dark drug drama "Breaking Bad," in its fifth and final season on AMC, 1930s-era gangster show "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO, "Game of Thrones," and Showtime newcomer "Homeland" round out the best drama series choices for the 15,000 voters of the Television Academy.
Claire Danes, who plays a bipolar CIA agent in "Homeland" tracking down a returning U.S. Iraq war hero who has been turned by Muslim extremists, is seen as a sure bet for taking home the best drama actress Emmy on Sunday.
"Homeland," with nine nominations and gushing reviews for its mix of cliffhangers, moral complexity and post-9/11 suspicion, and "Downton Abbey" have "the most buzz for any shows that I can recall," Gold said.
The contest for best comedy actress on TV is also too close to call, according to TV pundits.
"It was a fantastic year for comediennes. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in the race with a hot new HBO series ('Veep') that happens to be about the vice-presidential race in the middle of a presidential election. How perfect is that?" said O'Neil. "And Lena Dunham ('Girls' HBO) is this year's Tina Fey. She does it all - writing, directing, acting, producing."
O'Neil said Fey, creator and star of "30 Rock," also had her best chance in recent years to win. But "New Girl" star Zooey Deschanel on Fox, could clinch an Emmy on her first try.
In the best comedy series, ABC's reigning champion, "Modern Family," appears to have little serious competition, and its stars are also expected to take home some of the supporting acting Emmys.
But there may be a chink in Jon Stewart's stronghold in the variety series slot with his satirical "The Daily Show."
"I think Jimmy Kimmel is going to put a stop to the nine-year juggernaut of 'The Daily Show' this year," said O'Neil. "I think Jon Stewart has met his match. Jimmy is also hosting the Emmys, and this could be his night of nights."
In other key races, Bryan Cranston is favored to win a fourth Emmy as best actor in a dramatic series for his role as a chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin in "Breaking Bad", while History channel's "Hatfields & McCoys," with 16 nominations, is a strong contender for best miniseries.
The show about a legendary feud between two families in 19th century Kentucky and West Virginia was a surprise hit with audiences in May "and reminded critics that American TV viewers are still enraptured by a good Western," said Gold.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)