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Drama nominations more a guessing game than ever

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This is nothing if not a year of honest-to-God transition for the outstanding drama series category in the Primetime Emmys. One major player, NBC's "The West Wing," is finally gone after four wins and seven consecutive nominations. Another, HBO's "The Sopranos," is seeing its much-ballyhooed final year of eligibility, having one win (in 2004) to show for six successive nominations that's expected to become a seventh. Flush from its first win in the category in 2006, Fox's "24" is widely viewed to have hit a creative bump in the road during its sixth season -- which might or might not prevent a sixth nomination in as many years.

Laying in wait are at least a dozen Emmy-worthy series ready to step in and take the place of the departed, the departing and the (purportedly) diminished, though it's unlikely the drama lineup will undergo a full-on transformation until at least 2008. "Sopranos" is certainly expected to again be among the nominees and could well emerge as the favorite. Additionally, a perceived slip in quality on the part of "24" doesn't mean it won't return to the top drama list. But at least the spot vacated by "West Wing's" retirement is in play, and a few other slots could find new players as well.

Early buzz favors another NBC entry, the freshman hit "Heroes," stepping into the "West Wing" opening. And again, "Sopranos" and "24" have to be looked at as heavy favorites to return to a category in which both have been honored every season they've been eligible. But after that, the forecast for the drama series lineup grows decidedly murky. FX is going to again try a hard sell for its acclaimed pair "Rescue Me" and "The Shield," plus rookie "The Riches," starring Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard. ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" was favored to win a year ago, only to fall to "24." It could be a repeat nominee -- or not.

Then there's ABC's "Lost," which won the drama prize in 2005 but wasn't even nominated last year. Its awards stock is thought to have dropped significantly in the wake of a perplexing story line saturated in eccentricity. But it could rebound and return to the category, as might 2006 nominee "House," even though the two-time Golden Globe-winning star of the Fox medical drama, Hugh Laurie, failed to score a nomination for lead drama series actor in '06.

"I was thrilled to get the nomination last year, but it was a little strange," "House" co-creator/executive producer David Shore admits. "It was literally a foregone conclusion in our minds that Hugh would be nominated. Then the show got it instead. All I can say is, it was great to be thought of in such esteemed company. But Hugh's failing to be recognized shows you just how subjective this whole awards process is."

Tim Kring understands Shore's point all too well. As creator/executive producer of both NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and "Heroes," he is experiencing the Emmy game from both sides of the fence -- having struggled in vain to land "Jordan" any awards attention, but finding himself the early toast of Emmy season for his new series.

"I think 'Jordan' and 'Heroes' are very different animals in that one's a procedural, and one isn't," Kring says. "I think the serial style of 'Heroes' should hopefully help it in the Emmys. We were able to land a Golden Globe nomination this year for drama series after we'd been on the air only nine weeks, and I'm just really proud of the consistency of this show. I looked at the body of work all together on DVD, and I was struck by how high we were able to keep the quality week in and week out."

"Heroes" earned a pair of Golden Globe noms in January: for drama series and for Masi Oka's supporting performance. And there are perhaps a half-dozen other first-year hours thought to have a chance at an drama series breakthrough, though the drama genre is so jammed with quality shows that making it in as one of the five honorees means one has been honored ahead of at least 12-15 candidates of equal repute.

Those other rookies with a shot at the category include Showtime's bawdy period drama "The Tudors" and serial-killer-with-a-heart-of-gold effort "Dexter," NBC's critical darling "Friday Night Lights" and the canceled Aaron Sorkin show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the star-studded ABC nighttime soap "Brothers & Sisters" and the aforementioned "Riches."

The high school football-themed "Lights" was such a questionable renewal for Season 2 that it finds itself in a position similar to that of the departed Fox comedy "Arrested Development," in that Emmy attention could make a significant difference in the show's earning a desperately needed ratings boost. Or, like "Development," it could receive nominations or even wins and have it make no difference whatsoever.

"Forgetting the viewer levels, I'd love an Emmy nomination simply as a way to help spread the word that our show is about so many things other than football," "Lights" executive producer/showrunner Jason Katims says. "It could fuel curiosity that gets us sampled and fuel a little momentum, which we could dearly use."

And while no non-HBO cable series has ever earned a drama series mention (see related story on page S-4), Showtime president Robert Greenblatt has reason to believe this could be the year that little statistic goes the way of the dinosaur. The creatively resurgent cable network has four shows that Greenblatt honestly believes have a shot at breaking into the category: "Brotherhood," "Dexter," "Tudors" and "Sleeper Cell: American Terror." (Season 1 of "Sleeper Cell" was nominated in the miniseries category a year ago but was forced into the immeasurably more competitive drama series area because of a rule change this year.)

"I'm just so incredibly proud of all of our dramas this year, and I've never been more bullish on our Emmy chances than I am this time," Greenblatt says. "I think our original dramas are as good as any on television. And that includes 'Brotherhood,' which never gets the accolades that it should."

The serialized format of Showtime's quartet of drama contenders this year raises an issue that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has yet to adequately address as it relates to comparisons between serial and more traditional drama series. How does an awards event evaluate series with ongoing, overlapping story lines such as "Anatomy," "Lost," "Shield" and "24" in the same grouping with procedurals such as NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" or CBS' "Cold Case," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" trio and "Without a Trace"? And what of dramas interspersed with liberal doses of comedy, such as ABC's "Boston Legal," the CW's "Gilmore Girls," "House" and "Rescue"?

That "Gilmore" submitted entries each year in the comedy categories until switching to drama this year -- and "Boston" mulled the possibility before deciding against it -- would seem to point to a certain hybrid category void, or at least a difficult assessment yardstick.

CBS' "Criminal Minds" executive producer Deborah Spera maintains that procedurals like her show typically get shortchanged when it comes to Emmy consideration.

"In some ways, I think voters look only at serialized dramas and don't really consider the rest of the landscape," Spera says, "which means that projects aren't always judged entirely on merit. It comes down to crime dramas not being taken as seriously as they should be. Clearly, the public loves them and can't get enough of them. The true crime/forensic science sections of the bookstore continue to grow."

Whether the list of drama contenders devolves into an apples-and-oranges measure is irrelevant to "Rescue" executive producer, writer and star Denis Leary, who received a lead drama actor nomination in 2006 and considers it "a real honor to be considered in the same class as the guys who got nominated. We're a smaller show on a smaller network, so any awards attention is just gravy. Drama, comedy, dram-com, it doesn't matter what they want to call us. We have freedom to go creatively where we want to go. The rest is just labels."

But there has been discussion, or at least scuttlebutt, about the way some hourlong series billed as either comedy or drama actually fall comfortably into neither category, hybrids that they are. Television Academy president and CEO Dick Askin notes there has been no serious or even preliminary discussion about adopting a "dramedy" category by the rulemaking ATAS Board of Governors.

"The problem with the 'dramedy' idea is that there simply aren't enough series falling under the heading to break it out as its own category," Askin maintains. "We may be only talking about a handful of hours that would even qualify. Even if we're talking six, seven, even 10, that falls short of our current minimum to form a category, which is 14. If there were 10 and we honored five nominees, that's a 50/50 chance, which wouldn't be fair to shows in, say, the drama category."

While David E. Kelley -- himself a 26-time Emmy nominee and 10-time winner -- has entered the show he created and executive produces, "Boston," as both a comedy (for the 2006 Screen Actors Guild Awards) and a drama, he agrees with Askin that inaugurating a hybrid Emmy list probably isn't such a good idea.

"I'm not sure we need another category," Kelley says. "But I would love to see us earn a drama series nomination, in part because I feel like we just finished our strongest season. This is our best run at getting series attention; we took our best run at it. The problem is that we're not a show that fits easily into one of those definable slots. But our actors, James Spader and William Shatner, already have won. Maybe it's the show's time now."

As someone who has received 25 fewer nominations and won 10 fewer Emmys than has Kelley, "Battlestar Galactica" executive producer Ron Moore would like to think his series could get recognized. But he well understands the long odds against a Sci Fi Channel series being so honored regardless of the immense praise that's been heaped on his show over the past two years.

"It's honestly difficult even to convince people on the judging panels to take a look at our show," Moore says. "This is what I've heard, anyway. Once they give it a chance, they're usually really surprised at the quality. But they first have to get over that 'It's only science-fiction' mind-set, which takes a lot of convincing. The genre gets written off sight unseen, even though we're socially relevant and deal in meaningful issues, the things you think voters are supposed to embrace."

On the other hand, Sci Fi hasn't cornered the market on victimization by closed-minded snubbing. Not even mighty HBO is immune, as evidenced by the consistent ignoring of a crime drama that many TV critics hail as one of the all-time drama greats: "The Wire." It is thought to have a thin chance at nomination attention at best. The final season of "Deadwood" has a better shot, having been nominated in the category two years ago. But it's hardly a shoo-in this year.

If there's anything to learn about the Emmys, it's that nothing is a sure thing. Evan Katz, an executive producer on "24," understands that fact all too well and thus has no inclination to make any predictions for this year in light of his show's significantly reduced buzz in Season 6 despite last year's drama series win in tandem with Kiefer Sutherland's lead dramatic actor triumph.

"To have that outstanding drama victory last year was such an unbelievable acknowledgment for everyone connected to the show," Katz says. "Anyone who tells you winning an Emmy isn't one of the highlights of their life is lying.

"But you know, this business is very humbling," he continues. "We're on top of the mountain after Year 5, which we all realized was our high point. Then this year, we had some challenges trying to equal that. It's been tough, even though I submit that Kiefer has done some of his best and most disciplined work this year. We're more critical of our own material that anyone else, and we've been hard on ourselves. But I also have to say we've set the bar awfully high, and I hope that figures into the equation."