Noms prove we're in golden age of TV drama


It's likely to be nothing but a mob scene when it comes to the Primetime Emmy Awards most competitive category: outstanding drama series.

HBO's "The Sopranos" represents just one of many shows that indicate we're in a golden age of TV drama, but it's likely to get the sole credit for lifting the quality bar come Emmy night. And it naturally doesn't hurt that the show's farewell season climaxed with June's tantalizingly inconclusive series capper -- perhaps the most debated, ruminated-over and bewildering single episode of TV ever to air.

Earning 15 nominations -- including entrants in five of the six drama acting lineups (lacking only a nod for guest actress), as well as directing and writing -- "The Sopranos" could turn the 59th Emmys into its very own pep rally. But while the show has been nominated for top drama each season that it's been eligible (seven times), it has only one win, in 2004 -- having butted heads with four-time category winner "The West Wing" throughout much of its run. But like Tony Soprano himself, the series was a survivor, outliving one chief antagonist ("West Wing") and finding no competition in another former primary contender (ABC's "Lost," which wasn't nominated).

It raises the natural question of whether a series that has racked up 111 nominations throughout its Emmy lifetime and risen to legend-in-its-own-time stature can possibly lose this time -- and if it does, if a follow-up federal inquiry might be required. Mind you, it isn't that the show necessarily even enjoyed its best season, merely its most buzzed-about and (over)analyzed. If it wins, the prize will be mostly a body-of-work tribute.

David Chase, the man who created and nurtured "The Sopranos" from beginning to end, retained his reclusive streak throughout most of the show's final glory days -- and also declined an interview request for this article. But HBO president of entertainment Carolyn Strauss was more than happy to discuss what it was like to ride shotgun with a genuine pop culture phenomenon.

"It's been just a once-in-a-lifetime experience to work on this show," Strauss says. "We mourn the end of 'The Sopranos' because to all of us, these characters were actual three-dimensional people. To have happen what occurred before and after the final episode, it was just an unbelievable thing that had a life of its own."

But enough about the Bada Bing gang, especially since there are four other quality shows competing for the big prize -- including repeat nominees "House" (Fox) and "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC) and first-timers "Heroes" (NBC) and "Boston Legal" (ABC) -- and they have casts and crew who'd like to think their nominations are more than just exercises in futility.

Then again, are they? Is a "Sopranos" wipeout of everything in its path simply inevitable?

"More than likely," admits David E. Kelley, whose nomination as creator and executive producer of "Boston Legal" was not only the series' first in the category but Kelley's first in six years. "You wouldn't want to bet against 'The Sopranos' this year, obviously. But I'm more than satisfied just being nominated this year."

So is "House" co-creator and executive producer Katie Jacobs, who is especially gratified to have her show make it into the category for a second consecutive year (scoring four noms in all).

"We beat out a lot of great shows to get this far, and believe me, that isn't lost on anyone here," Jacobs emphasizes. "It could have gone either way with us. I mean, you could craft a scenario where five completely different shows get nominated than the ones that did. There are so many deserving programs in this category in particular that it's a major thing to have our show slip in, because we're never at the top of anyone's buzz list."

Although "House" star Hugh Laurie (a Golden Globe winner for the role in January) had been snubbed in 2006, Jacobs was more confident that he would crack the list than she was that the show itself would this time. "And we both got it, which it great," she says, "except next we'd like to see Robert Sean Leonard get recognized for supporting actor."

Heading the list of shows that also were considered strong category contenders but failed to earn a nomination is no less than the 2006 winner, Fox's "24," which was torpedoed by the general consensus that this past season was its weakest creatively, followed by the 2005 champ, "Lost," which couldn't overcome an artistically sluggish start to the season despite the critical perception that it finished with a bang (including a knock-your-socks-off Season 3 conclusion). It's the first time in six seasons that "24" has failed to be included in the category's quintet.

Critics in particular were also upset that NBC rookie "Friday Night Lights" failed to earn an honor, though its fellow freshman network hour "Heroes" did snare a nomination here, one of eight. It capped a terrific week for "Heroes" creator/exec producer Tim Kring, who also saw his series voted program of the year at the Television Critics Assn.'s annual awards show on July 21.

"I know it's such a cliche, but in the case of the Emmys, it truly is a honor just to be nominated," he says. "For a show like ours that maybe wasn't taken all that seriously at the start because of its sci-fi content -- and for that reason was probably dismissed by a certain segment of the audience -- this kind of validation is hugely important. When you combine it with critical acclaim, it hopefully opens the door to our getting sampled by a larger audience next season."

While "Grey's Anatomy" did nearly as well in the nomination count this year (10) as it did a year ago (11), it's possible that some of the air has leaked from the medical soap's balloon, so to speak, given its internal conflicts and personality issues that led to the cutting loose of series regular Isaiah Washington (who quickly jumped back on board with NBC's new edition of "Bionic Woman" in a five-episode guest arc). Certainly, it's a huge long shot to win here despite laying claim to six acting nods.

That leaves six-time nominee "Boston Legal," which managed to score an elusive series honor for Kelley and company despite its almost reluctant submission as a drama contender. In 2006, it entered the SAG Awards competition as a comedy and came away with four nominations, though no wins. Hard not to understand why Kelley's semidisbelief over the nod appears genuine.

"We've had to address the question of what we are annually," he says, "and we finally concluded we were slightly more dramatic than comedic. But that doesn't necessarily instill confidence in your getting Emmy attention."

And yet "Boston Legal" did, with Kelley not discovering the honor until he arrived in the office the morning of the announcement. He had forgotten the Emmy nominations were being announced that day, you see. But he doesn't imagine that he'll forget what night they're being distributed.

"I'll definitely show up," promises Kelley.


Spot-checks: Five things you might not know about the Emmy-nominated drama picks

The nomination for "Boston Legal" is creator/executive producer David E. Kelley's 16th as a producer for outstanding series (14 of them for drama, two for comedy). He's won eight times.

The six Emmy acting nominations for "Grey's Anatomy" are the most cast nods     without honoring a lead performance for a series in a single year. All told, the show has received 12 acting nominations over three seasons, none of them for its leads.

In its first year of Emmy eligibility, "House" earned creator/executive producer David Shore an Emmy win for drama series writing, while the show itself wasn't nominated for outstanding drama series. Each of the past two years, however, the Fox hour was nominated for outstanding drama series -- but not for its writing.

Masi Oka, who landed a supporting actor nomination for "Heroes," appeared at age 12 on the cover of Time magazine in 1987 with five others beside the headline, "Those Asian-American Whiz Kids." Oka has an IQ of 180.

The 15 nominations for "The Sopranos" are the most nabbed by a series in its     final season in Emmy history.

-- Compiled by Ray Richmond


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