Emmys 2011: 5 Big Trends That Will Shape Awards Night

Randy Tepper/Showtime; John Paul Filo/CBS; HBO; Bill Records/NBC; Abbot Genser/HBO; AMC

To understand the deeper meanings of the Emmy race, don't focus only on who's winning and losing. Think about what the nominees say about the winds of change in TV.

We tend to view the Emmy drama race in terms of smackdowns. Can AMC's Mad Men win a fourth consecutive series Emmy against HBO's freshman Boardwalk Empire (while Jon Hamm pounds Steve Buscemi into the Atlantic City sand to take lead actor)? Can Showtime's Dexter whomp the HBO pair Boardwalk and Game of Thrones (while Michael C. Hall beheads his rivals)? Another way to look at it is to discern larger trends that the six nominees exemplify. Here are five evident in the drama series race:

1. Networks are responding to cable's Emmy-gobbling competition.

The Good Wife, a smart show driven by dialogue, character, ideas and social issues, airs on CBS -- the same network as the well-performing NCIS and Hawaii Five-0. But unlike those dramas, Wife has the critical momentum and chops to actually win. Meanwhile, NBC might have screwed up Friday Night Lights with ham-fisted network meddling, but the show survived via an innovative deal with DirecTV and could become the smallest-audience Emmy winner ever.

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2. Contender series are becoming more like movies.

"It's almost like a hybrid of TV and film," co-creator D.B. Weiss says of his Thrones. "We think of it as a movie that lasts 60 to 70 hours." You could say the same about Mad Men or Boardwalk. Instead of ending abruptly in classic TV style, Friday Night Lights' auteurs had time to compose a final season that shapes the story into a movielike whole. And Good Wife co-creator Robert King tells THR he plans to make next season more "filmic," less reliant on dialogue and more visual.

3. Surprise hit Thrones proves Emmy's long curse on fantasy is ending.

"That was a real anomaly this year," says TV Academy senior vp awards John Leverence. "Fantasy and sci-fi have had no category traction in the past." In June, Thrones co-creator David Benioff told THR, "We're a dark horse -- a dark, beheaded horse." Now, he and Weiss send THR this statement: "The drama series nomination was completely unexpected. Shocking, from our perspective. As for the 'curse,' it's really a question of how you define fantasy. For high or epic fantasy, it does seem like a first, and that's a huge honor. But The X-Files had fantastic elements, as did Lost." Fantasy fans help all genre shows by being vocal. "I got more angry calls from fans of Buffy than any other Emmy-snubbed show," says Leverence. "Postcards from Paris and Bangkok that only said on the back, 'Grrr argh!' " But fantasy fans alone won't make Thrones win. It clearly has broken through to a cross-genre audience with 9.2 million gross viewers (including DVR, HBO on Demand and linear plays). That's only 1.5 million behind Boardwalk and 5 million behind HBO's all-time champ, The Sopranos. Not bad for a show infested with dragons.

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4. The real Emmy smackdown might be between the epic and the intimate.

What Treme exec producer Eric Overmyer says about HBO can be applied to the Emmy race in general: "HBO has two styles: the epic -- Thrones, Boardwalk, True Blood, Deadwood -- and the realistic. [The latter] is ordinary or extraordinary people -- families, usually -- in extraordinary contexts: Six Feet Under, Big Love, Sopranos, Treme." This year is a contest between front-runner epic Boardwalk and Mad Men, which Overmyer calls "a show about offices and bedrooms." But intimate, familylike dramas in offices and bedrooms (Mad Men, FNL, Good Wife and Dexter, intimate in its own way) might beat such epics as Boardwalk and Thrones.

 5. The real winner this season is the viewer.

"The truly encouraging thing," say Benioff and Weiss, "is just the range of shows nominated this year -- gangsters, admen, lawyers, knights, serial killers, high school quarterbacks. If diversity is a measure of health, the TV ecosystem is doing pretty well."