Big names dominate writing field


Every series needs a writing staff to keep it going; a show creator pumping out 20-odd stories every season is headed for major burnout in no time, at the very least. Yet creators, as long as they stay with the shows they birthed, often keep a firm hand on the control switches -- and many of today's TV scribes are also producers who guide story arc and character development each week.

Thus, despite the large writing staffs and multiple script contributors that most established shows enjoy, this year's Emmy nominations have gone to the most familiar names: David Chase for HBO's "The Sopranos," Tina Fey for NBC's "30 Rock," Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for ABC's "Lost," etc. Though the lesser-known shows may indeed have a shot, it's those big names, with their big buzz, that have the best chance come Emmy night.

Here, an analysis of the year's five writing races:

Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series

Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, "Extras" ("Daniel Radcliffe") (HBO)
Greg Daniels, "The Office" ("Gay Witch Hunt") (NBC)
Michael Schur, "The Office" ("The Negotiation") (NBC)
Tina Fey, "30 Rock" ("Tracy Does Conan") (NBC)
Robert Carlock, "30 Rock" ("Jack-Tor") (NBC)

Gervais and Merchant have to be considered the front-runners here, given that both "The Office" and "30 Rock" are in vote-splitting mode. On the other hand, Daniels' "Gay Witch Hunt" is a standout episode from a standout series; and voters looking to reward "30 Rock" might be inclined to ignore Carlock altogether and throw their support behind his boss, Fey. It's a situation that Carlock jokes about, saying, "I'm fulfilling the nonfamous-writer academy demand."

Still, Carlock notes that a win for Fey is really a win for him. "There are nine writers in or out of the room at various stages of a script," he says. "Tina and I put our imprimaturs as best as we can on everything, but no TV show gets to this stage without a big collaborative effort."

As for "Jack-Tor," an episode in which Alec Baldwin's ruthless network executive, Jack Donaghy, freezes up while doing a promotional spot, Carlock points to one simple reason why he thinks it was nominated: "Alec is amazing."

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series

Ronald D. Moore, "Battlestar Galactica" ("Occupation/Precipice") (Sci Fi Channel)
Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse, "Lost" ("Through the Looking Glass") (ABC)
Matthew Weiner & David Chase, "The Sopranos" ("Kennedy and Heidi") (HBO)
Terence Winter, "The Sopranos" ("The Second Coming") (HBO)
David Chase, "The Sopranos" ("Made in America") (HBO)

Even with three "Sopranos" episodes fighting each other, it might be impossible for the academy to ignore Chase -- and the final episode of one of the most acclaimed series of all time. But if there's any hour of television this season as widely discussed as "Made in America" and its sudden, series-ending blackout, it had to be "Lost's" "Through the Looking Glass," which wrapped up a resurgent second half of a shaky third season with a shocking, game-changing flash-forward.

The dark horse here is clearly Moore, writing for a show that has amassed critical plaudits while getting the brushoff from the academy. Says Moore, "It's great company to be in, I'll say that. To be mentioned in the same breath as those people and those shows is just a tremendous honor." And if Emmy voters take a clear-eyed look at the show's season-opening two-parter, which sees the Galactica crew fighting off a Cylon occupation reminiscent of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, they might find the same kind of political relevancy that they used to look for in "The West Wing."

As Moore explains: "Some episodes, just by their nature, have more of a direct connection to contemporary politics, while others are more tangential. The episodes I was nominated for are about an occupation and an insurgency and suicide bombings. I was aware as I was writing it that I was dealing with things that are charged."

Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special

Alan Geoffrion, "Broken Trail" (AMC)
Daniel Giat, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (HBO)
Sandy Welch, "Jane Eyre" ("Masterpiece Theatre") (PBS)
Frank Deasy, "Prime Suspect: The Final Act" ("Masterpiece Theatre") (PBS)
Sara Parriott & Josann McGibbon, "The Starter Wife" (USA)

The "Broken Trail" juggernaut ought to carry through to the writing category, but it would be a mistake to count out "Masterpiece Theatre," which is one of the most Emmy-winning series of all time. This year, the PBS standby has two very different programs up for writing awards: the final installment of the popular Helen Mirren-starring policier "Prime Suspect," and an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."

Notes "Masterpiece Theatre" producer Rebecca Eaton: "Aside from the high quality of the writing and the fact that they're on 'Masterpiece Theatre,' the only things these two have in common is that the main character's name is Jane, and both are about independent women finding their way in a man's world. But they are, as they say in England, chalk and cheese." As for the persistent superiority of the writing on "Masterpiece," Eaton says: "British writers are respected and nurtured in a way that writers aren't so much in this country. Frank Deasy and Sandy Welch work in television and occasionally work in feature films and the theater too. You can have a respectable life as a writer in England, because of the British appreciation for the written word. And here in the U.S., we reap the benefits of that."

Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming

James Sanders & Ric Burns, "American Masters" ("Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film") (PBS)
Star Price, etc., "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" ("Wal-Mart") (Showtime)
Gary Parker, "Planet Earth" ("Mountains") (Discovery Channel)
Steven Smith, David Comtois & Kevin Burns, "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed" (The History Channel)
Nancy Updike, "This American Life" ("God's Close-up") (Showtime)

The stylistic range of these nominees is stunning, from the high-definition showcase that is "Planet Earth" to the sprawling biographical documentary "Andy Warhol." If persistence matters, the show to keep an eye on is "Penn & Teller," which has been nominated in this category for four consecutive years without nabbing a statuette. And as executive producer Star Price points out, the writing process on his conventional-wisdom-debunking comedy series sets it apart from anything else on TV.

"We lay out the foundation for an argument before we start shooting," Price says. "Then we analyze the footage that comes back, because it's always different from what we wanted to go get. And then we try to weave it all together with the writing, which is somewhat complicated because we're trying to be convincing, whether we're saying that recycling is B.S. or Wal-Mart is being unfairly criticized. Meanwhile, first and foremost, the show is a comedy."

Price insists that even though the show deals with hot-button political topics, there aren't too many screaming matches in the writers' room. "There were some people in the office saying, 'How can you do a show saying Wal-Mart is great?' but that's not what we're doing. We're just saying, 'Wal-Mart is following the principles of capitalism, and that's what our economy is based on.' Usually we all end up on the same page, because what we're pointing out in each issue is not that one side is right and the other side is wrong, but that there's a lot of bullshit being thrown around that's unnecessary."

Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program

Stephen Colbert, etc., "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central)
Steve Bodow, etc., "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (Comedy Central)
Mike Sweeney, etc., "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (NBC)
Eric & Justin Stangel, etc., "Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS)
Billy Martin, etc., "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO)

Last year, freshman series "The Colbert Report" came in to Emmy night with a lot of heat, only to get iced in the writing category by its parent show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." The time slot partners go at it again this year, with "Colbert" earning a second straight nom and "Daily" picking up its millionth nomination. Or rather, according to Comedy Central general manager Michele Ganeless, "I think it's 27 now."

But Ganeless says that she's not going to start counting on her network's two crown jewels getting automatic nods every year. "It's a jinx thing," she says. "I never want to say stuff like that out loud. These are two of the best-written shows on television, and every year we're hopeful that they'll be included. We have not been let down yet." About that writing, Ganeless adds, "Pound-for-pound, there is more writing in these two series than probably any of the other variety, music or comedy programs. These are two intensely written shows. To write a half-hour of incredible comedy four nights a week is an unbelievable task, and these shows do an amazing job."