Reality and nonfiction categories produce odd competitors
EmptyBen Timlett and Bill Jones can be excused for feeling perplexed about where their six-part IFC Channel documentary "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers' Cut)" stands in the Emmy race.
Frankly, their competition is a bit strange.
In the nonfiction directing category, fellow nominees include CBS' globetrotting game show "The Amazing Race" and an installment of PBS' "The American Experience" about the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, while in the nonfiction program category, nominees include the fishing adventure series "Deadliest Catch" and PBS' "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," produced by Ken Burns.
"It runs the whole gamut of what you can do in a program, really," says Jones, son of "Python" member Terry Jones.
"It's weird being up against natural history and stuff," Timlett agrees.
Such is the diversity of the reality Emmy categories, which often produce strange bedfellows. This year the matchups are typically odd, making prognostication difficult. What usually brings home the Emmys?
"Anything that's PBS," says "Deadliest Catch" producer Thom Beers, referring to "American Masters," which has won for the past two years (in 2008 it tied with "This American Life").
Beers should know. In its six seasons on the air, "Deadliest Catch" has received 19 Emmy nominations and won only one, for cinematography, in 2008. He wonders why "Catch" doesn't compete in the reality program category, alongside more similar shows such as "Dirty Jobs" and "MythBusters."
"I don't know how we ended up in a category like this," he says. "I don't mean to be critical; I'm really happy and pleased to be nominated. But at the same time, you look at it and just scratch your head."
Conversely, "Amazing Race" co-creator/executive producer Bertram Van Munster is happy to see his show vying for the reality competition program Emmy. "Race" has won the award seven years in a row since the category was established in 2003. Some believe its travelogue format gives it an advantage against mostly studio-based competitors like Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Van Munster cites the show's unpredictability for its appeal with Emmy voters.
"Every 20 hours or so they're in a different location with different obstacles," says Van Munster, who keeps some of his Emmys at home, some in his office and one with his agent at CAA. "India or Africa, then Paris the next day, then back in Botswana the next day. Every show is different from the show before."
In the reality and nonfiction categories, winners tend to be the weightier nominees. For instance, the documentary-style "Race" consistently beats the showbizzy ratings behemoths "Idol" and "Dancing" in the reality competition category.
And Emmy voters might like variety, but their voting record shows them to be creatures of habit. Since 2006, "Race" has been nominated alongside the same four shows -- "Idol," "Dancing," Lifetime's "Project Runway" and Bravo's "Top Chef."
The reality host race, added in 2008, is equally static.
Jeff Probst ("Survivor") won the award in its first two years of existence, and he's nominated again this year, along with fellow three-time nominees Tom Bergeron ("Dancing"), Heidi Klum ("Runway"), Ryan Seacrest ("Idol") and two-time nominee Phil Keoghan ("Race").
If there is anything resembling a wild card in Emmy's reality/nonfiction realm, it's the reality program category. Although many of the same shows tend to get nominated annually -- including PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" (six years running) and Discovery's "Dirty Jobs" (three years) -- winners have ranged from the comedic celeb-reality of Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" to A&E's sobering "Intervention," last year's victor.
This year, there are even two new nominees to spice things up: ABC's "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" and CBS' "Undercover Boss."
"The fun thing about this category is that it's really an unknown," says "Food Revolution" executive producer Craig Armstrong. "I couldn't even begin to tell you who has a better chance because they've all either won before or they're such new, fresh ideas that they deserve to at least be looked at."
Another unknown factor is Griffin, who famously proclaimed "Suck it, Jesus" when accepting her Emmy in 2007. The generally lighthearted tone of her show makes it all the more surprising that it has managed to earn its fourth straight nomination this year, with back-to-back wins in 2007 and 2008.
"Explain to me how Kathy Griffin beats out 'Dirty Jobs,' " Beers says. "I'd love to know that."
The answer might be because she wants it. Desperately.
"This is a big, big deal to me," says Griffin, who travels with her Emmys so frequently that she had to get their carrying cases repaired. "When it's Emmy season, I take myself off tour. I'll go to any sort of kiss-ass thing. If the academy wants me to do a Q&A or anything like that, I'm their bitch. If they made some sort of Emmy category where you get them based on how much you want them, then I would sweep."
For his part, Beers would like to see a new category for what he terms "docu-soaps."
"Every network's got them, and they run the gamut from 'Jersey Shore' to 'Deadliest Catch,' " Beers says. "You've got 'Ice Road Truckers, 'Axe Men,' 'Pawn Stars' -- shows that are doing great numbers. It's a category that should stand alone." After all, he adds, "there are three categories for best (show) in all of reality, but there are four categories for hairstyles."
In the meantime, "Deadliest Catch" stands a good chance of winning this year, ironically, due to the passing of one its most beloved characters, Capt. Phil Harris. His stroke aboard ship Jan. 29 and death 12 days later in a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, provided this season added drama and poignancy -- and media attention -- that helped propel it to record ratings.
Nominees agree the one thing that's easy to predict is their reactions when the winners are announced.
"When you win, you think, 'Well, this is a brilliant way to recognize your achievements and what wonderful judgment the people who vote have,' " says Stephen Lambert, executive producer of "Undercover Boss." "But when you lose, you realize it's complete luck and there's no real science here -- and what the hell do they know, anyway?"