The Emmy awards could see the grittier side of television outshine the glossy, but with Downton Abbey leading the charge for the British contingent.
The American nominations are being led by a drama about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth.
Breaking Bad is the show to beat for the night's top honour, best drama series, and Bryan Cranston as the unlikely meth mastermind-turned-ruthless drug kingpin Walter White is favoured to win best actor in a drama.
That would make him a four-time winner for the role.
Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville is backing Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston to beat him for the leading actor Emmy Award.
Bonneville plays the Earl of Grantham in the hit ITV period drama, and will compete against Cranston, Mad Men star Jon Hamm, The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels, House of Cards star Kevin Spacey and fellow Brit and Homeland leading man Damian Lewis for the prize.
Bonneville said he felt undeserving of the acclaim:
I don't think the pressure is on me, frankly. I feel slightly embarrassed to have been nominated alongside these amazing actors and much as I love the others I hope it is Bryan Cranston's year because that show has been phenomenal and his performance has been extraordinary.
He is a great actor, as are the others, but I think it's Breaking Bad's year.
If it wins, Breaking Bad will take the drama prize for the first time, and timing might have something to do with its good fortune.
Although its nominations are for the programme's fifth season, the eight episodes of the AMC show's sixth and final season began airing in August, before Emmy voting concluded, to widespread acclaim from fans.
The defending Emmy champ in that category, Showtime's domestic terrorism thriller Homeland, also has a chance, although critics say its second season did not hit the surprising high notes of its first year, while HBO's slick medieval fantasy Game of Thrones has its share of buzz and 16 nominations overall.
Then there is the big novelty in this year's race, the political drama House of Cards from the TV streaming company Netflix, whose nine nominations were hailed as a validation of production made specifically for online delivery.
But pundits say it has better chances to win in the best actor category, where Kevin Spacey could challenge Cranston with his portrayal of conniving congressional leader Frank Underwood.
For best comedy series, another gritty show appears to be gaining steam: Louie featuring the New York comedian Louis C.K., challenging the winner of the past three years, Modern Family, the smart ABC comedy about unconventional families.
Louis C.K. could also win best actor for comedy.
It could be a year of what Hollywood awards show handicapper Tom O'Neil of Goldderby.com calls "atypical winners."
"Emmy voters are notorious elitists. They vote for the most stylised, upscale programming," said O'Neil, pointing to their support in the past for shows like "Frasier" and "Homeland."
"However, you could say that 'Breaking Bad' and 'Louie' are chic in another way," he added.
"They have elitist appeal because they are cool shows right now. And that is what makes the Emmy contest this year so exciting."
The Emmys are handed out by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in a televised ceremony from Los Angeles, which will be hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris.
They honour a broad swath of television production, from the pinnacle prize of best drama series to more obscure ones like best sound mixing for non-fiction programming.
There are 537 separate nominations and HBO alone picked up 108 of those, more than twice its closest competitors, broadcasters CBS and NBC with 53 each.
Although the premium cable network that made television history with the likes of The Sopranos and Sex and the City has much more competition these days from basic cable outlets like AMC and FX and newcomer Netflix, HBO still wields considerable influence at the Emmys.
In addition to Game of Thrones and comedies Veep and Girls, HBO's Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is the strong front-runner to win best miniseries/movie.
Michael Douglas in the lead role is favoured to take best actor in that category, over co-star Matt Damon, who played Liberace's young lover.
In a testament to the growing power of basic cable outlets, FX's American Horror Story: Asylum about a mental hospital run by nuns racked up the most nominations of any show at 17, just ahead of Game of Thrones.
But the horror genre tends to perform poorly at the Emmys.
Nominees at the Emmy Awards:
Best drama series:
- Breaking Bad
- Downton Abbey
- Game of Thrones
- House of Cards
- Mad Men
Actor in a drama series:
- Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey
- Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
- Damian Lewis, Homeland
- Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
- Jon Hamm, Mad Men"
- Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom"
Actress in a drama series:
- Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey
- Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel
- Claire Danes, Homeland
- Robin Wright, House of Cards
- Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
- Connie Britton, Nashville
- Kerry Washington, Scandal
Supporting actor in a drama series:
- Jim Carter, Downton Abbey
- Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire
- Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad
- Aaron Paul,Breaking Bad
- Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
- Mandy Patinkin, Homeland
Supporting actress in a drama series:
- Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
- Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad
- Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
- Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
- Morena Baccarin, Homeland
- Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
Best writing, drama series:
- Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey
- George Mastras, Breaking Bad
- Thomas Schnauz, Breaking Bad
- David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones
- Henry Bromell, Homeland