LOS ANGELES, July 16 (UPI) -- Emmy handicappers are giving the HBO crime family drama "The Sopranos" good odds of dominating the proceedings when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announces nominations Thursday in Los Angeles for the 55th Emmy Awards.
At the same time, some pundits are suggesting that the passion may be fading in the TV Academy's three-year love affair with the NBC White House drama "The West Wing," but that Emmy's new fascination with "Friends" is still going strong.
A collection of critics and entertainment writers whose work appears regularly on GoldDerby.com generally agree that "The Sopranos" will return to the list of Best Drama Series nominees this year. The show was not a factor last year because it did not air any new episodes during the qualifying time period.
Matt Roush of TV Guide, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly and Tom O'Neil of In Touch Weekly all expect that "The Sopranos" will be joined on the list of nominees by "Law and Order," "Six Feet Under," "24," "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing."
That would mean that "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" -- the No. 1 drama on TV -- would miss the cut, after being nominated last year for the top prize.
O'Neil -- author of "The Emmys" -- said the return of "The Sopranos" this year would most likely force "CSI" out of the picture.
"'CSI' was not nominated two years ago when everybody was gushing over it," he said, "but it kind of took 'The Sopranos' spot last year."
O'Neil suggested that Emmy voters might be tired of "Law and Order," after nominating it for Best Drama Series for 11 straight years. But he doubts that will happen.
"I believe voters have a fierce loyalty to the show as viewers," he said. "Also I believe it's their bread and butter show. At least a third of Emmy voters have worked on the show. It's been on forever and with all the spinoffs, maybe more than half the voters have worked on it in some form. I don't think they're going to want to bite the hand that feeds them."
A 12th straight nomination would set a new Emmy record. Currently, "Law and Order" is tied with "Cheers" and "M*A*S*H" for the longest consecutive streak of best series nominations.
If the experts miss their bet about the top drama series nominees, O'Neil said it is possible that new shows such as "Boomtown," "Without a Trace" and "The Wire" could find a spot on the list -- along with returning shows including "Alias" and "The Shield."
Tucker is hoping that voters will find room on the drama series list for "The Wire" -- the HBO series based on creator David Simon's book about drug trafficking in Baltimore.
The nominations announcement could provide some real drama, said O'Neil, for "The West Wing" -- which enters the coming season without its creator, Aaron Sorkin. NBC announced earlier this year that Sorkin was leaving the show and turning it over to super-producer John Wells.
"(Academy members) voted on these nominations during the news that he was leaving," said O'Neil. "They may throw 'The West Wing' out of the game with him because he was part of what made the show so great."
"The West Wing" has won best drama Emmys in each of its first three seasons on the air, and has won a total of 22 Emmys.
In the comedy field, Roush and O'Neil both see the best series nominations going to the same five shows nominated last year -- "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Friends," "Sex and the City" and "Will & Grace." O'Neil called the 2002-03 season "a weak year" for comedy.
"It was a lousy year for comedy altogether," said Roush.
"We're really going to see 'the usual suspects' this year," said O'Neil. "The only new blood we're going to see in a top category is Tony Shalhoub for best actor in a comedy series."
Shalhoub won a Golden Globe Award in January for his performance as the obsessive-compulsive title character in the USA Network detective series "Monk."
In past years, Emmy nominations and awards have helped turn poorly rated shows such as "Cheers" and "Hill Street Blues" into hits. O'Neil said that could happen this year for "Life with Bonnie," a comedy starring Bonnie Hunt.
"Bonnie Hunt's show is an example of a show that can be given life if it gets any nominations," he said. "I think she has a shot."
The reigning comedy champ, "Friends," is a virtual lock for a best series nomination, and Jennifer Aniston is all but certain to get another crack at Best Actress in a Comedy Series.
"I'm curious how many of the 'Friends' will make the cut," said Roush. "Jennifer Aniston for sure, but maybe also Lisa Kudrow among the women; of the men, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry could squeak in."