In Depth

Flaws Add Flavor to Their Roles

Applegate, the Newcomer Among Comedy Actress Nominees, Relishes Multifaceted Part

They include a divorced mom who is dating again, a real estate agent with amnesia, a suburban drug dealer, the writer of a sketch comedy show and a fashion magazine assistant, and the women playing them are all in contention for the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series.

Four of the five nominees—America Ferrera, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mary-Louise Parker—find themselves in a familiar place. They all competed for the same trophy last year, with Ms. Ferrera taking home the prize for her performance as Betty Suarez on ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” Two years ago, Ms. Louis-Dreyfus won the Emmy for “The New Adventures of Old Christine” in its first season on CBS.

The fifth contender, Christina Applegate, plays the title character Samantha Newly in ABC’s freshman comedy “Samantha Who?” In the WGA strike-shortened season, which encompassed 15 episodes, she portrayed a vice president at a Chicago real estate firm who gets hit by a car and falls into a coma. Upon awakening eight days later, she has no idea who she is or what she’s done with her life. But she soon finds out that she has not been very nice to the people around her. The incident is a wake-up call that it’s time for a change, and she sets out to make up for what the old, evil Samantha did, and to become a better person.

After 15 years of working in episodic television, Ms. Applegate had moved on to Broadway and films. “In watching TV, I saw a lot of opportunities for women to have freedom with characters that were beautifully flawed, and I started looking at pilots and scripts, but nothing captured my attention until this came along,” said Ms. Applegate. “It had a sort of wit and a sardonic quality. I liked the idea of getting to play two facets of this person, and the character was completely brand-new. All of us have our history in the fibers that makes us who we are, so what does it feel like to not have that anymore? It’s something I was really interested in finding out about.”

Ms. Applegate received Golden Globe and SAG nominations for her performance earlier this year. She won an Emmy for her guest turn on “Friends” in 2003.

In addition to last year’s Emmy, Ms. Ferrera received a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for her endearing performance as the lead character in “Ugly Betty,” set in the New York offices of a glossy high-fashion magazine and in suburban Queens, where Betty lives.

As Christine in “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” Ms. Louis-Dreyfus is a longtime favorite of Emmy voters, winning the statuette in 2006, 10 years after taking home her first Emmy as supporting actress as Elaine in “Seinfeld.”

“Frankly, doing comedy is a really great gig for any actor,” Ms. Louis-Dreyfus said. “We also shoot in front of a live audience, which is thrilling and it gives everybody a major high. That kind of performing is exhilarating. And we do shoot in advance of the audience, too, and that also is fun, when you’re trying to make the crew laugh. The whole thing is kind of dreamy. It’s kind of everything I’ve ever wanted.”

As Nancy Botwin in “Weeds,” Ms. Parker has relocated her suburban drug-dealing enterprise to a new town in the show’s fourth season, which premiered on Showtime in June. At the end of last season, Nancy, along with her family and cronies, escaped from a wildfire that burned their fictional hometown of Agrestic.

“She’s sort of tangled and her psyche has unraveled. I don’t see her getting healthy. She wouldn’t be that interesting, and I’m not in favor of her going to therapy,” Ms. Parker told TelevisionWeek. “She’s trying and failing and she’s just not a big success story, not the cheerleader that went on to succeed.”

Ms. Parker won a Golden Globe in 2006 for her performance in “Weeds” and received an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe in 2004 as supporting actress in the HBO miniseries “Angels in America.”

In addition to her nomination as comedy actress—one of 17 nods for NBC’s “30 Rock”—Ms. Fey also scored a nomination for her guest performance this season on “Saturday Night Live,” her television home for nine years before she left to develop “30 Rock” with “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels.