Emmy Watch: A look at  cable, broadcast drama


Something historic appears to be brewing in anticipation of the July 17 nominations announcement for the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, a sea change that -- as it relates to the outstanding drama series category in particular -- might be called a "c" change (as in cable).

There is near-unanimous agreement that if ever cable series are going to get their rightful representation beyond just HBO, this is the year, what with acclaimed rookies like AMC's "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," FX's "Damages," and TNT's "Saving Grace" now in the mix along with Showtime's second-year pair "Dexter" and "The Tudors."

Not that there is necessarily any sort of unanimity between the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., but the latter already chose four cable shows among the six nominees for best drama at the Golden Globes in January. Moreover, one of them, "Mad Men," won.

And now "Mad Men" creator/exec producer Matthew Weiner dares to dream of Emmy glory as well.

"Oh my God, winning both an Emmy and a Globe would be amazing," says Weiner, who executive produced last year's category winner, HBO's "The Sopranos." "It would be especially sweet because with this show I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do. And the 'Mad Men' idea was hardly a natural sell. I mean, a New York ad agency in the early 1960s? And then I was able to hire people for the cast who weren't famous. It's all worked out perfectly."

That Weiner was permitted so much artistic freedom underscores the wider creative parameters afforded writers and producers in cable over broadcast, and why the quality meter has begun to swing in cable's direction the past few years. It could well lead to a radical shakeup of a category that in 2007 featured "The Sopranos," NBC's "Heroes," Fox's "House," and ABC's "Boston Legal" and "Grey's Anatomy" as nominees.

At least three of those, and possibly more, could be replaced this year, without even tapping the legion of cable series that have been passed over year after year: HBO's "The Wire," Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica," and FX's "The Shield" and "Rescue Me." None has ever received noms here, nor has any non-HBO cable series -- ever.

One showrunner who doesn't see the nomination dynamic changing anytime soon is James Duff, creator/exec producer of TNT's "The Closer." Nevertheless, he believes that cable is consistently doing better stuff than just about anything seen in movie theaters.

"TV is the more profitable, interesting and entertaining medium by far, and we should stop pretending otherwise," Duff asserts. "These shows are deftly plotted and have clarity and ambiguity in equal measure. And we're finding the trusting of the storyteller more on cable these days than anyplace else. To continually not reward that would be shortsighted and ridiculous."

Broadcast Bites Back

Early cable buzz has some broadcast producers feeling under siege, even if they understand where the hype is coming from. Notes "Law & Order: SVU" executive producer Neal Baer, "Once a show has been on a number of years it gets swept into the back, and critics are always looking to the new shows that are on. But shouldn't it be best drama, not best new drama? That's often dispiriting to those of us who've been on shows a long time that are still hits."

Other producers feel that being on broadcast makes them step up their game: "Not having the latitude in terms of language and situations makes you think harder to make it work," says "House" creator-producer David Shore. "If I could have one change, it would be to have 'f***' be one of them. But we manage to do all right anyway."

Aside from the greater creative restrictions placed on broadcast drama series, shows that aired on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox during 2007-08 also bore the brunt of the impact from the WGA strike that took a three-and-half-month chomp out of the season. By comparison, most cable dramas were unaffected in terms of meeting their order, "Breaking Bad" being the exception (completing only six of its eight episodes).

"I have to believe that this year's Emmys should carry an asterisk beside them due to the strike," says "Heroes" creator/exec producer Tim Kring, whose show's first-year buzz almost evaporated entirely during Season 2. "Especially for serialized dramas like ours that rely on building some sort of momentum that leads to a dramatic conclusion, it tossed a measure of chaos into the mix that self-contained, stand-alone shows really didn't have to deal with."

The forced hiatus generated by the strike likewise threw new shows off their game, says Shonda Rhimes, the "Grey's Anatomy" creator/exec producer, who spent this past season launching spinoff "Private Practice." "We were just figuring out what the show was when the strike hit," she says. "On the other hand, the time off gave us a chance to recharge our batteries and do some real reassessment."

On the other end of the spectrum was the widely praised "Damages," the diabolical legal hour that was picked up at the end of 2007 with a rare two-season renewal. "Just being spoken of for awards consideration is very gratifying," admits Todd Kessler, one of three creator/exec producers on the series. "While there are a lot of great legal shows, none have been able to attack the genre quite the same way as we've been able to."

"Damages" isn't a pioneer -- FX's "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," "Rescue Me" and "The Riches" all have been heavily promoted for drama series nominations, only to be consistently passed over. So any excitement that this has to be the year that the cable floodgates open wide should be tempered with the understanding that Emmy barriers don't easily fall. Moreover, the idea that AMC could bust through and stand as a genuine favorite for TV academy plaudits is almost surreal, given the network's identity a mere few years ago as a theatrical film acquisition service.

Perhaps more intriguing still is the idea that a series like "Breaking Bad" could be considered an Emmy contender at all. Renewed for a second season, it's a show about a straitlaced and uptight high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer (Bryan Cranston) who becomes a crystal meth cook as a way to generate quick money. Not exactly a traditional tale of redemption.

"Pitching this to a broadcast network never even crossed my mind," admits the show's creator/exec producer, "X-Files" alumnus Vince Gilligan. "But today, there are destinations for a show like this. And between our show and 'Mad Men,' I think AMC is showing what can happen when you take a big risk. The rewards can be big, too."

Could-Be Contenders
In a post-'Sopranos' world, which cable network can measure up to the standard set by HBO?

Everybody knows that no cable network outside of HBO has ever been nominated for either outstanding drama or comedy series at the Emmys. This year, however, seems likely to change all that, thanks to an upsurge in quality across the cable spectrum. Here, four ascendant networks expected to get a nod this year:

A year ago, AMC served notice that it had joined the ranks of major players when it came out of nowhere to score 16 nominations for its Western miniseries saga "Broken Trail." This season, it rocketed to the forefront of cable's series players with its much-praised early-1960s drama "Mad Men" (already the Golden Globe victor for best drama) and the brilliantly off-kilter "Breaking Bad."

FX has been cranking out great shows for six years, dating to the debut of "The Shield" in March 2002. Yet neither that cop drama nor "Nip/Tuck," nor "Rescue Me," nor "The Riches" has managed to break through in the category. "Damages" is likely to change all that and bring this network some vastly overdue recognition.

Some believe that Showtime's consistent quality over the past three years has already left HBO eating its dust, "Sopranos" or no "Sopranos." With the clever "Dexter," the lavish "The Tudors" and the underrated "Brotherhood," it has three shows worthy of consideration. "Dexter" in particular could potentially crash the list this time.

With "Saving Grace" having joined "The Closer" this past season, TNT has a pair of genuine original hits centered on strong female characters played by superb actresses (Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick, respectively). If Emmy doesn't bestow a suitable acknowledgment soon, it's destined to become an embarrassment for the TV academy.