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For the first time in recent memory, nominations for the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards delivered the closest thing to a sure thing in a major series category. If HBO’s “The Sopranos” were to get shot down by one of its four outstanding drama series competitors when the statuettes in 27 high-profile categories are distributed Sept. 16, the earth itself could well cease to spin on its axis. The iconic HBO mob drama, nominated for 15 Emmys in its much-buzzed farewell season, looms over the proceedings as the TV industry pays homage with what’s expected to be a festive send-off.
However, if these confounding awards have taught us anything, it’s that just when we think we have them figured out, they toss us a curveball. This is, after all, the second year in a row in which the previous year’s outstanding drama series winner wasn’t even nominated in the category the year after it won — ABC’s “Lost,” which won in 2005, and this year with Fox’s “24.”
So while it’s difficult to imagine the scenario that could lead to an upset win for ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Boston Legal,” NBC’s first-year “Heroes” or Fox’s “House,” a “Sopranos” backlash is always possible, if highly improbable. It’s also true that no drama in its final season has taken home the biggest series prize in at least 30 years. So, there is that to consider.
“It’s hard to argue against the importance of the ‘Sopranos,’ ” acknowledges FX president and general manager John Landgraf. “It’s a landmark TV series and absolutely a precursor to all of the edgy dramas we have on our network. I mean, it positively paved the way for ‘The Shield.’ “
Adds “Heroes” creator and executive producer Tim Kring: “It feels like there’s an anointing probably due ‘The Sopranos.’ But that’s OK.”
No such heavy favorite sits on the comedy side of Emmy’s ledger, where new kids on the block kept pace with vets: the ABC freshman hour “Ugly Betty” with 11 nominations and NBC’s “30 Rock” with 10, followed by NBC’s “The Office” (last year’s winner for top comedy) with nine, and HBO’s “Entourage” and CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” with seven apiece. Those five also fill out the outstanding comedy series category, where the only mild surprise was perhaps the inclusion of “Entourage.”
“We’re thrilled because we still see ourselves as a small show,” says “Entourage” creator/exec producer Doug Ellin. “Anything that gets the word out about us makes me happy.”
Perhaps the happiest bunch on the morning of nomination day was the brain trust of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which has endured significantly less hand-wringing wrath in the press than it did a year ago in the wake of a tweaked voting system in the biggest series and acting lineups. There were no embarrassments of note — three-time winners James Gandolfini and Edie Falco of “The Sopranos” both got tapped, along with “House” star and this year’s Golden Globe victor Hugh Laurie.
Yet none of the acclaimed FX dramas — “Rescue Me,” “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “The Riches” — cracked the outstanding drama roster (though “Rescue” star Denis Leary and “Riches” co-lead Minnie Driver received lead acting nods). Additionally, fans of “Lost” had to be perplexed to find the show missing from the top drama list for the second consecutive year after having won in 2005. And critics were in an uproar because NBC’s much-praised first-year drama “Friday Night Lights” was passed over. But three freshman series (“Ugly Betty,” “30 Rock” and “Heroes”) made the top series lists, and five shows in total (adding “Boston Legal” and “Entourage”) were honored in their respective categories for the first time. The new blood has therefore effectively mixed with the old.
“Heroes” showrunner Kring, for one, feels like he’s riding out a dream after years of vain efforts to land Emmy attention for his previous NBC series, the never-nominated “Crossing Jordan” and its star, Jill Hennessy.
“It seems we’ve clearly managed to tap into a zeitgeist with this show,” Kring believes. “To receive this kind of Emmy attention as not only a first-year show but one with these kind of sci-fi genre elements to it is a little unexpected and hugely gratifying.”
“Ugly Betty” exec producer Silvio Horta uses the word “shock” to describe what he and his fellow producers all were feeling after learning they had generated 11 Emmy honors to pace all comedy series. “We were hoping and expecting to get something, but I mean, not 11,” Horta says.
This year’s nomination roster also included David E. Kelley for the first time in six years as exec producer of “Boston Legal.” The 27-time Emmy nominee (and 10-time winner) clearly wasn’t expecting an honor coming in the legal drama’s third year.
“There are so many quality dramas on TV now,” Kelley notes. “It isn’t the same as when I was making ‘L.A. Law,’ where it was hard to even find five shows worthy of honoring. That makes this particularly sweet.”
Another surprise had to be the extent of the recognition for a pair of longform projects with Western themes: HBO’s made-for-TV epic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” based on the celebrated 1970 book by Dee Brown, which hauled in 17 nominations, and the two-part AMC miniseries project “Broken Trail” with 16.
“It’s an amazing sense of accomplishment to see a lot of hard work get recognized this way,” exults AMC executive vp programming and production Rob Sorcher. “We’re ecstatic at the way this illustrates how serious we are about being in the moviemaking business.”
HBO is, as usual, the favorite in the top made-for-TV movie category, with “Wounded Knee” and the equally acclaimed “Longford” doing battle with TNT’s “The Ron Clark Story,” Discovery Channel’s “Inside the Twin Towers” and Lifetime’s “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy.” Outstanding miniseries features the trio “Broken Trail,” PBS’ “Prime Suspect: The Final Act” and USA Network’s “The Starter Wife.”
Then there are the reality/nonfiction categories, where the biggest story remains the annual facedown between CBS’ “The Amazing Race” and Fox’s top-rated “American Idol” in the reality-competition program lineup. Thus far, it’s been no contest, with “Race” having won four straight times and looking to make it five. “Idol,” meanwhile, looks to break not only that streak but the dubious distinction of having zero wins to show for its 22 nominations to date. Were “Idol” to lose in all seven of its nominated categories this time, it will beat the all-time record for Emmy futility of 25 winless noms set by “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Well, at least they’d be in good company.
MORE EMMYS COVERAGE
Noms prove we’re in golden age of TV drama
Nonfiction categories are stranger than fiction
Showdown at the Longform Corral
The children’s hour is a mixed bag of goodies
Handicapping sitcoms is no funny business
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