Small-screen wonders

The TV side of awards season has plenty of breakout series.

Don't look now, but the tortoise has caught up to the hare. Or maybe it's the other way around.

The common link that you'll find while assessing the highest-profile TV series eligible to be honored for the first time during the forthcoming awards season is that most are on cable, a major change from years past, when the broadcasters pretty much garnered the majority of the attention at the Golden Globes, as well as at the WGA, DGA and SAG kudofests. And we're not talking here about HBO, which until now has been the recipient of all of the love bestowed on cable -- aside from the odd show on USA ("Monk"), FX ("The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," "Rescue Me"), Showtime ("Dexter," "Weeds") or TNT ("The Closer").

This year, the most talked-about handful of freshman series contenders all are cable-generated. Heading that list is the much-buzzed ensemble drama "Mad Men," from original programming upstart AMC, with FX's tantalizing Glenn Close legal hour "Damages," the offbeat Showtime comedy "Californication," TNT's Holly Hunter drama "Saving Grace" and Lifetime's acclaimed, poignant seriocomic hour "Side Order of Life" not far behind.

This isn't even to mention the popular Lifetime rookie hours "Army Wives" and "State of Mind," starring Lili Taylor, the sexually explicit HBO drama "Tell Me You Love Me" and quirky musical comedy "The Flight of the Conchords," Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program" and the Showtime historical drama "The Tudors." All will be duking it out for awards recognition with fellow first-time primetime qualifiers that launched on the broadcast networks this fall. Those would include ABC's unique and artful hour "Pushing Daisies" and "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff "Private Practice"; the NBC dramas "Bionic Woman" and "Journeyman" and action-comedy "Chuck"; the CBS comedy "The Big Bang Theory" and vampire hour "Moonlight"; the Fox comedy "Back to You," starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, along with the cop drama "K-Ville"; and the CW comedy "Aliens in America."

Yes, there remain plenty of new network candidates vying for honors. But it's the cable guys who have the far stronger group, which could be an indicator that producing fewer episodes with fewer content restrictions is poised to begin paying off at awards season in a far more significant, and consistent, fashion -- at least in terms of generating nominations.

Perhaps most intriguing are the prospects for "Mad Men," the first-ever original drama produced for American Movie Classics (aka AMC), which has both wowed critics and drawn a loyal viewer following since premiering in July. It is, to be sure, an atypical drama, focusing on the personalities who populate a New York ad agency in the early 1960s. It was a bold and risky project for AMC to undertake for its maiden weekly primetime series voyage. But the network already has reaped rewards for its original product, earning massive ratings and 16 Emmy nominations (along with four wins) for the two-night 2006 Western saga "Broken Trail." Among its Emmy triumphs was a statuette as the year's top miniseries.

Of course, "Broken Trail" (which stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church) follows a time-tested Old West formula. By contrast, "Mad Men" breaks new television ground in its period subject matter, if not necessarily its style.

"We really did take a very powerful risk in making a show like 'Mad Men,'" emphasizes Rob Sorcher, AMC's executive vp programming and production, "and it would be really nice to see the industry reward us for it. It required us to take a big leap of faith on so many levels. We took the pilot script all around town and were like, 'Hey, studios, we want to make a drama set at an ad agency almost 50 years ago. It's not like they all ran to us because of its broad commercial appeal."

Sorcher adds that AMC sensed the quality in the material and had no choice but to move forward on "Mad Men." "It was so distinct that we knew having the critics behind us was almost essential," he says, "and fortunately they embraced it immediately. We'd love to have the series itself recognized, as well as the ensemble cast, which has been phenomenal. This show has just gotten better and better."

Also attracting critical kudos has been "Damages," not least because of star Close's dynamic and sinister performance as a queenly litigation attorney. FX entertainment president John Landgraf praises the show's lead as "amazing" and supporting player Ted Danson as "so good he rocks. But the entire cast really is superb -- Zeljko Ivanek, Rose Byrne, Tate Donovan, everyone."

Despite the show's quality, however, "Damages" has suffered from middling ratings and, as of press time, had not yet been renewed. Landgraf describes himself as "cautiously optimistic" it will see a second season and hopes the lackluster numbers don't impact its awards chances. "We're just so immensely proud of this show," he notes. "I don't think anyone is doing any better work in TV right now."

Landgraf also is hoping for some honors for the core drama trio of "Rescue Me," "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck." "The Golden Globes in particular have been very good to us, and we hope that continues," he says.

It's not entirely certain which, if any, of the new fall series on the broadcast networks will be deemed award-worthy. Those cited most frequently include "Pushing Daisies" and "Dirty Sexy Money" and the comedy "Back to You," since stars Grammar and Heaton have plenty of awards cache from their days on "Frasier" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," respectively. But it's still too early to tell which of the debuting shows are even schedule stickers, much less exemplary.

That wasn't the case a year ago, when the then-rookie NBC dramas "Heroes" and "Friday Night Lights" and comedy "30 Rock" (this year's Emmy victor for outstanding comedy), along with ABC's "Ugly Betty," were identified early on as quality productions. "Betty" actually won Golden Globes in January for both top comedy and for America Ferrera as lead comedy actress (a victory she repeated at this year's Emmys). Expect "Heroes," "Betty" and "30 Rock" -- which earned Alec Baldwin a lead comedy actor Globe a year ago -- to again be in the middle of the awards equation this year, along with fellow second-year effort "Brothers & Sisters," from ABC.

The other network shows that figure to have a sizeable impact this season would be the ABC dramas "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Boston Legal," as well as the comedy "Desperate Housewives"; the NBC comedies "The Office," "30 Rock," "Scrubs" and "My Name Is Earl"; the Fox dramas "House," "24" and "Prison Break"; and the CBS comedies "How I Met Your Mother," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Two and a Half Men" (though the latter is annually snubbed by the Globes in particular).

In the Globe and SAG Awards acting races, broadcast series stalwarts like Ferrera, Baldwin and Tina Fey ("30 Rock"), Steve Carell ("Office"), Jason Lee ("Earl"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Old Christine"), Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman ("Housewives"), last year's Globe winner Hugh Laurie ("House"), Kiefer Sutherland ("24"), and Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey ("Grey's") will be doing battle with cable series standouts like Sedgwick, Close, Hunter, Michael C. Hall ("Dexter"), Mary-Louise Parker ("Weeds") and, of course, Edie Falco and James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos") -- among others.

Speaking of cable, Showtime president Robert Greenblatt has high hopes for his edgy and eccentric new half-hour "Californication," starring "X-Files" lead David Duchovny, whom the network chief believes to be "in a class by himself. Who else could have made this character so deeply layered and likable in spite of his self-aware flaws? As for the show itself, on the surface, it looks all titillating and sexy, but as the episodes play out, I hope people see that it's really a show in which family values are tested -- and reaffirmed."

Never one to favor any one of his children over the others, however, Greenblatt also voices his bullishness on the historical drama "The Tudors" ("one of the most ambitious and original shows on television"); the serial-killer drama "Dexter," which in its first season earned star Hall a Globe nod ("The writing, production values and acting are at the highest level, and I put this show up against any series on TV as best drama"); the second-year organized crime drama "Brotherhood" ("by any measure, one of the best shows on television"); and the potcom "Weeds" ("Mary-Louise, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk are all at the top of their game").

TNT also is certain to make some noise this awards season with its hugely rated third-year drama "The Closer," which in January won star Sedgwick a Globe for lead drama actress, and with "Saving Grace," a companion hour with a strong female professional at its center, in this case Hunter (who could well earn some attention from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and SAG).

Sci Fi Channel is still itching to have its much-commended series "Battlestar Galactica" finally receive the awards notice that the show's legion of fans -- which includes many TV critics -- believe to be long overdue.

And while Lifetime has historically found little success in the series categories at any awards ceremony, there is hope that its luck could change this year with its trio of well-received hours, including "Army Wives," which stars Catherine Bell, Wendy Davis and Kim Delaney, "State of Mind," featuring Taylor, and "Side Order of Life," with castmates Marisa Coughlan, Diana-Maria Riva and Jason Priestley. All three series brought Lifetime the kind of critical praise rarely heaped on the femme-targeted net, and none more so than "Life," whose creator, executive producer and chief writer, Margaret Nagle, is proud to have shepherded onto TV.

"We were able to make a show that features a primary character, a Hispanic woman, with cancer," Nagle points out, "and at the same time depict cancer in a very modern, progressive sort of light -- where the person with cancer is still having sex and falling in love. We were able to strike a chord with this show, men as well as women. And our cast was truly phenomenal from top to bottom."

This brings us to HBO and a little drama called "The Sopranos," which already carted off its second Emmy for top drama in September in recognition of its much-ballyhooed final season. It should earn significant attention from the WGA, DGA and SAG, as well as the HFPA.

The Time Warner premium cabler also will be making strong pushes for a pair of awards season neophytes, the drama "Tell Me You Love Me" and comedy "Flight of the Conchords," as well as its period drama "Rome," critics' darling "The Wire," polygamy hour "Big Love" (a Globe nominee a year ago), and the veteran comedies "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage." Also in contention again is the comedy "Extras," whose star Ricky Gervais took home the lead comedy actor Emmy this year in a shocking upset.

Then in longform, HBO's typically formidable original movie roster includes the Russian nukes drama "PU-239," which premieres next month, as well as six-time Emmy winner "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," the February docudrama "Longford," starring Jim Broadbent and Samantha Morton, the summertime adaptation of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," the Queen Latifah film "Life Support" and the well-received September mini "Five Days," which was produced in concert with the BBC.

Also figuring to receive strong support in the telepic arena is Disney's "High School Musical 2," which delivered the largest single audience in basic cable history (17.2 million viewers) when it premiered on Aug. 15. And USA Network could well score some nominations for its mini "The Starter Wife," which featured Debra Messing and Judy Davis.