Summer debuts, cable programming heat up noms

Showtime's "Dexter"

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If there is a sea change in store for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. as they gauge the pool of potential TV series nominees for the 65th annual Golden Globe Awards, it would be this: Summertime has, at least temporarily, eclipsed fall as the season during which to debut the most buzzed-over original shows. And at the same time, basic cable has suddenly raced to the forefront as the hip new launching pad.

It's surely expected that alongside the usual suspects, the Golden Globe nominees list, being released bright and early on the morning of Dec. 13, will include a few, if not several, of the hottest shows and stars to emerge from cable's most quality-rich summer perhaps ever.

That cable would premiere its best and brightest during the warm-weather months is, of course, nothing new. Cablers have long opportunistically seized the spotlight to take advantage of the broadcast nets' relative dormancy -- excepting their usual onslaught of unscripted programming.

But by summer standards, 2007 was uniquely packed with the kind of artistic, high-octane breakout series that have a tendency to warm the cockles of a HFPA voter's heart. The most prominent of those shows would include the critically lauded AMC 1960s ad agency drama "Mad Men"; FX's tantalizingly convoluted legal thriller "Damages," which proved a tour de force for both Glenn Close and Ted Danson; the TNT drama "Saving Grace," starring the dependably dynamic Holly Hunter; the action-spy hour "Burn Notice" from USA Network; Lifetime's "Side Order of Life," which puts a character living with cancer front and center; and historical ensemble drama "The Tudors" (which actually premiered in the spring rather than summer, but close enough).

As far as new fall shows from the broadcasters, the one that has generated the most critical heat has been the ABC hour "Pushing Daisies," a drama about a guy (Lee Pace) who can both bring people back to life and kill them again with his touch (sort of like a network entertainment president). The sly ABC serial "Dirty Sexy Money" could also garner some Globe attention for its cast members like Peter Krause, as could the Fox comedy "Back to You" with its awards-magnet stars Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. But there are thought to be far fewer new broadcast entries on the HFPA radar than in each of the past several years.

Even some of last season's darlings, such as NBC's "Heroes" and "Friday Night Lights," have suffered sophomore backlashes while introducing problematic new story threads. And while no one is predicting that cable will surpass broadcast in terms of nomination attention, parity may well be at hand.

"Will the networks be overshadowed completely this year by cable? I don't think so," says Vera Anderson, a member of the HFPA's television committee. "Cable is like the independent film end of television in presenting shows that are more specialized, genre-style pieces that don't have to kowtow to advertisers as much. However, that doesn't mean we're going to honor it more than broadcast. There is room to pay tribute to both.

"I will say this: I think there's a very good chance that a few new shows will gain Golden Globes recognition this year. But I can't say anything more than that."

Anderson doesn't have to. The truth is that we're in something of a Golden Age for cable drama, and the overwhelming likelihood is the Globe noms will reflect that this time around. Besides the aforementioned rookies, there's also the formidable FX trio of "Rescue Me," "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" (a surprise Globe winner for top drama in 2005); the hugely popular TNT hour "The Closer," starring the January Globe victor for lead actress in a drama, Kyra Sedgwick; Showtime's superb "Dexter" and underrated "Brotherhood"; and HBO's "Rome" and polygamy drama "Big Love" (a Globe nominee a year ago).

Not to mention the 800-pound gorilla in the room, a show you thought you'd finally heard the last of: HBO's "The Sopranos." Yes, it has one more year of Globes eligibility left, and it could shake up the Globes in the same way it did the Emmys with a win for top drama series in its swan-song season. The fact that the tumult created by the show's confounding finale has completely died down doesn't necessarily mean it won't land sizable attention in the noms.

But "Sopranos" aside, this is poised to be cable's most recognized year to date from the Hollywood Foreign Press, which has a greater affinity for the less mainstream fare cable generates to begin with. This is the same HFPA that bestowed on "The Shield" its best drama trophy along with lead drama series actor to star Michael Chiklis in the show's first year of eligibility (2003).

And it's not as if cable is off the Globes' radar in comedy, either. It boasts a half-dozen top contenders this year, including past nominees "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage" from HBO, along with that network's Ricky Gervais entry, "Extras"; USA's "Monk"; and Showtime's two-time comedy series nominee "Weeds," and the disarmingly offbeat "Californication," anchored by David Duchovny.

The litany of reasons often cited for cable's increasing success during awards season includes the fact that the episodic orders are typically fewer in number than those for the broadcast network shows, while the individual production care and marketing are greater since cable networks generally have fewer series to mount and promote. Cable shows also benefit from less restrictions in terms of language, nudity and subject matter. And because cablers target a smaller niche audience, their shows need not be all things to all people, as they so often must be in broadcast.

"I know how hard it is to try to make something good even if you only produce one episode," acknowledges Greg Berlanti, an executive producer on both "Dirty Sexy Money" and ABC's second-year ensemble drama "Brothers & Sisters," which also will be gunning for Globes attention. "So anyone who can make anything good deserves all the credit in the world. That includes 'Mad Men,' which may be the most interesting show I watched all of this year.

"But it's also true that we in broadcast primetime have to be broad in how we produce a show. It's the difference between making a blockbuster studio release and an indie film. We can make things that are qualitatively great, but it's harder due simply to the nature of the beast."

"Mad Men" producer Scott Hornbacher will cop to the fact that his show has been the recipient of considerable TLC from the brain trust at American Movie Classics and producer Lionsgate as the first original drama series ever produced for AMC. "They clearly supported the show wholeheartedly from the beginning," Hornbacher says. "They didn't want us to dilute or compromise it in any way. We were rewarded for all of that creative integrity, if not in viewers then in critical acclaim -- which has been hugely thrilling."

Having premiered in July, "Mad Men" has wowed critics and generated awards buzz as a provocative, evocative and decidedly atypical piece of television. It focuses on the personalities who populate a New York ad agency in the early 1960s and surely represented a bold and risky move for AMC's maiden original-series voyage on the primetime seas.

"It would be really nice for the industry to reward us for taking this kind of risk," admits Rob Sorcher, AMC's executive vp programming and production. "It wasn't like there was a clamor to make a drama series set inside an ad agency almost 50 years ago. It required us to take a big leap of faith on so many levels."

Somewhat less risky was TNT's greenlighting of "Saving Grace" -- but only somewhat. It stars Hunter as a cynical Oklahoma City police detective who is raised from the depths of despair by an unconventional guardian angel. It proved an immediate hit with audiences as a companion to the network's other female-centric smash, "The Closer."

"Saving Grace's" creator and exec producer Nancy Miller isn't shy about hyping the Globe qualifications of not only Hunter but her entire cast, which she calls "one of the best in television. But beyond that, I love being on cable. I couldn't tell the stories I'm telling with the freedom I have on a broadcast network. The things we get to explore in this show are positively thrilling."

Is the difference between cable and broadcast really so vast in terms of opportunity and independence? Shawn Ryan, executive producer for both "The Shield" and "The Unit" (CBS), comes at the question from a unique perspective as a man working in both worlds.

"I don't necessarily see it as being so black-and-white," Ryan
stresses. "We've been able to make some pretty dark, subversive episodes of 'The Unit.' But it's hard to compare it to 'The Shield,' which was written as a spec pilot that I never thought I'd be able to produce. But FX gave me the opportunity, and that wound up earning me a Golden Globe for best drama. It's proudly sitting in my living room."

But Ryan learned just how fickle these things can be the following year when "The Shield" wasn't even nominated. "I guess the Globes had said what they wanted to about my show and moved on," he says. "But we've had seasons that were just as good as that first year, if not better. You know, you do your work, and when you're invited to the party, you go. And when you're not, you stay home and get drunk."

It should also be noted here that for all of the HFPA's celebrated independence in embracing the fresh and edgy -- and for all of this article's earnest discussion of a cable quality revolution -- the past two years have found ABC series carting off the statuettes in both the drama and musical/comedy series categories. In 2006, it was "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives"; this past January, it was "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty."

Indeed, "Lost" and "Housewives" have each received series Globe nominations all three years they have been eligible, while "Grey's" has been honored both years of its eligibility. Moreover, ABC dramas have filled five of the 10 drama series nomination slots in 2006 and 2007. But with "Grey's" and "Lost" losing some of their buzz appeal and Fox's perennial nominee "24" suffering a down year, the drama nomination equation could well see a vast revamp this time. That's less likely for musical/comedy, where "Entourage," NBC's "The Office," "Ugly Betty" and "Weeds" will make strong bids to repeat. "Housewives" could finally fall off the list and be replaced by, say, "Extras" or "Californication."

The dramas given the best chance of replacing some of the fading incumbents on the roster include "Mad Men," "Damages," "The Closer," "Saving Grace," "Rescue Me," "Dexter" and Fox's never-nominated "House," whose star, Hugh Laurie, has won the lead drama acting Globe two years running and could well make it three straight.

That their star has taken home the statuette twice while the show itself hasn't been nominated is a bit confusing for "House" creator and exec producer David Shore. "We're obviously thrilled for Hugh, and it's great to be able to share his acclaim, which is wholly deserved," Shore says. "But maybe Hugh might consider allowing the Globes voters to toss us a little bone at some point, too."

Meanwhile, in the Golden Globe made-for-TV movie/miniseries race, the safe prediction is that longform powerhouse HBO will once again dominate. It hasn't lost this race since Showtime's "Dirty Pictures" took home the prize in 2001, and the network has emerged victorious here in eight of the last 10 years (also claiming 11 of the nomination spots over the last four years, or nearly three per year).

HBO's typically formidable original movie roster includes six-time Emmy winner "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"; the February docudrama "Longford," starring Jim Broadbent and Samantha Morton; the summertime adaptation of Shakespeare's "As You Like It"; the Queen Latifah flick "Life Support"; and the well-received October mini "Five Days," which was produced in concert with the BBC.

Also figuring to receive strong support among telepics (non-HBO division) is Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2," which delivered the largest single audience in basic cable history (17.2 million viewers) when it premiered on Aug. 15, while the USA mini "The Starter Wife" that featured Debra Messing and Judy Davis could make some nominations noise as well.
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