Emmy Wrap: Writer/Director

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The creative sting wrought by the 100-day WGA strike hit the industry hard, but perhaps nowhere more acutely than the Primetime Emmy nominations for writing and directing, where the truncated seasonal output for comedy and drama series resulted in a greatly reduced pool of potential submissions -- and a somewhat unusual list of nominees. Somehow, none of this seems to worry the chosen ones.

Dramatic Shots

"To have been nominated for directing a show that I'm amazed ever got on the air in the first place is a huge honor whenever it happens," emphasizes three-time nominee Vince Gilligan, cited this year for directing the pilot of the eccentric AMC drama "Breaking Bad." "I feel really fortunate."

Gilligan could be excused for feeling ganged up on, because nominations have al so gone out to four members of the late "Sopranos" creative team. Two of those alums are competing against him for drama series direction: five-time nominee Allen Coulter, up for the pilot of FX's "Damages"; and Alan Taylor, who won the category last year for "Sopranos" and is now up for AMC's "Mad Men" pilot. The other ex-"Sopranos" staffers back at the Emmys with new shows are Todd A. Kessler, a three-time nominee who picked up two more this year for co-writing the "Damages" pilot with fellow executive producers Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman; and Matthew Weiner, a two-time winner/five-time nominee with "Sopranos," who earned three nods this year for his creation "Mad Men." Weiner's 2008 noms include two for writing (one shared with Robin Veith) and one for producing.

"It's wild to see how the 'Sopranos' influence is really still there," says Weiner. "I was up winning as a producer for that show last year, and now to have the opportunity again in this sort of overwhelming way is just amazing."

It almost doesn't seem fair for the "Sopranos" production team to have figured out a way to be back at the Emmys so soon. The series carted off the drama writing Emmy six times, and it appears likely that Weiner will take it home for "Mad Men's" pilot on Sept. 21. Still, it wouldn't be a shock should Kessler-Kessler-Zelman snatch it for their much-praised "Damages" series kickoff. David Simon and Ed Burns, up for their series capper of HBO's "The Wire," might have a slight chance as well, since TV academy voters could feel beholden to honor the show after ignoring critical raves throughout its run -- but it is unlikely.

In drama directing, Coulter and Taylor (who won the drama series DGA Award for "Mad Men" earlier this year) are seen as something of co-favorites, with Gilligan a long shot and the other two nominees -- one-time nominee Arlene Sanford for the "Boston Legal" (ABC) episode "The Mighty Rogues" and newcomer Greg Yaitanes for the "House" (Fox) installment entitled "House's Head" -- even longer shots.

Lighter Touches

The comedy writing-directing lineups are refreshingly "Sopranos" free, though that's hardly surprising. They include Emmy triple-threat (producing-writing-acting) Tina Fey heading the list of scribes that penned "30 Rock" (NBC) episode "Cooter," while in directing, Barry Sonnenfeld looks to be the man to beat for the pilot of ABC's freshman hour "Pushing Daisies." (This is his first Emmy nomination, and earlier this year he won the comedy series DGA Award for "Daisies.")

Fey's chief competition figures to come from two-time nominee Bryan Fuller for the "Pushing Daisies" pilot as well as from one of her own "30 Rock" staffers: three-time Emmy winner Jack Burditt, who penned the standout episode "Rosemary's Baby" that also earned two-time nominee Michael Engler a comedy directing nom this year.

"It's agonizing because I have to go up against Tina, and I owe everything to her," Burditt admits. "The fact is she hired me to work on this incredible show. She also pushed me to submit the episode. So given all of that, I guess there's only one thing I can say: That bitch is goin' down!"

Also nominated for comedy series writing are newcomers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky for the "Dinner Party" episode of NBC's "The Office" and four-time nominee James Bobin and stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie (both with their first nominations this year) for HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" installment "Yoko." "The Office" won the category last year, and the comedy series Emmy the year before, which gives it an edge over its competitors. In any case, the last comedy to win twice in a row for writing was "Arrested Development" (2004-05).

With regard to comedy series directing, there has been no repeat winner in an even longer stretch, since "Malcolm in the Middle" in 2000-01. That won't change this year, as last year's winner, ABC's "Ugly Betty," was overlooked. Aside from "Daisies'" Sonnenfeld, the lineup includes Bobin for the "Conchords" episode "Sally Returns," two-time winner/four-time nominee Paul Lieberstein for "The Office" two-parter "Money," two-time nominee Paul Feig for "The Office: Goodbye, Toby," and one-time nominee Dan Attias for the "No Cannes Do" installment of HBO's "Entourage."

Screen Time

The only so-called "sure thing" in these writer-director races surfaces in the movie/miniseries categories, which figure to be a tsunami of adoration for the seven-part, $110 million HBO epic "John Adams." With that mini, three-time nominee writer Kirk Ellis and two-time nominee director Tom Hooper (who won in the category for 2005's "Elizabeth I") have emerged as the heaviest of favorites in their respective categories. If they don't win, the predicted "Adams" sweep officially fizzles.

Not that anyone's acting like it's already in the bag.

"No one really knows how these things play out," cautions Ellis, who wrote his teleplay largely from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough. "The challenge for me was to convey it to a modern audience. I'm proud that the film had such an energizing effect on the people who watched it."

Adds Hooper: "I think of 'John Adams' as my 19th century 'Lord of the Rings' in terms of sheer scale. I have to give a lot of credit to HBO for allowing us to bring this project to the screen with the proper reverence for the material. It's great to work for people who take the audience seriously. They never ask me as a director to dumb it down. I was permitted to bring in all of the requisite complexity and ambiguity, which was terribly exciting."

The best shot to upset "Adams" in movie/mini writing is first-time nominee Danny Strong, who crafted the script for the HBO political thriller/ docudrama "Recount." The other category nominees include first-timer Hugh Costello's teleplay for HBO's "Bernard and Doris," starring Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes; fellow newcomer Heidi Thomas' script for PBS' "Cranford (Masterpiece)"; and the script for the series-ending special to HBO's "Extras" from two-time winner/eight-time nominee Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (one win/six nominations, all shared with Gervais).

Gervais and Merchant's "Extras" finale is also nominated for the directing Emmy, and they'll face off against fellow nominees Hooper, first-timers Bob Balaban and Jay Roach for "Bernard and Doris" and "Recount," respectively, and past winner Mikael Salomon for TNT's "The Company."
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