Television helmers create golden age

With many heralding a second golden age of television, the competition among possible DGA nominees this year is as heated as it's been in decades.

As voting members of the Directors Guild of America prepare to choose TV category nominees for their 59th annual DGA Awards, set to take place Feb. 3, those who direct for the small screen have rarely, if ever, been so blessed with an abundance of quality projects on which to earn their keep.

Indeed, directors find themselves in the midst of a new drama series golden age that affords them the opportunity to direct the likes of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," Fox's "24" and "House," FX's "Rescue Me," HBO's "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos" and newcomers such as CBS' "Jericho" and NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." And complaints about comedy notwithstanding, they now get to choose between quirky gems such as NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office," HBO's "Entourage" and Showtime's "Weeds" as well as more traditional fare such as CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and NBC's "30 Rock."

Even the struggling made-for-TV movie genre annually boasts standouts from HBO and Lifetime, esteemed productions like the former's "Elizabeth I" and the latter's "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy." There are at least 25 networks all over the broadcast and cable dials making original product, and directors finally are in a position to influence primetime's programming direction with increasing significance.

They are permitted to speak with their own voices, which makes the DGA Awards in every way an acknowledgment of professionals who have become more and more integrated into the production process.

With the DGA Awards nominations set to be announced Jan. 10 and 11, following is a look at how the races might play out.

Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series -- Night

Not to say that he didn't deserve it, but it was indeed interesting to see DGA president Michael Apted win in this category a year ago for an installment of the epic HBO series "Rome." It was Apted's first Directors Guild nod (he received a nomination for "Coal Miner's Daughter" in 1981). And you've got to believe that if the popular DGA chief can do it once, he can make it happen again. That would mean a nod for an episode of the ABC hour "What About Brian" titled "What About the Fish." We shall see.

DGA royalty aside, the field of potential nominees figures to make handicapping the list something of a fool's errand. For one thing, "Sopranos" is back in the fold following a year of ineligibility due to a lack of episodes, which could mean that at least a couple of the five or six slots stand to go to the perennial DGA powerhouse.

Duking it out among the "Sopranos" group figure to be four-time DGA nominee (and two-time winner) Timothy Van Patten for the mob drama hour "Members Only," for which Van Patten already received an Emmy nom. David Nutter also had an Emmy-nominated directorial turn this year on the "Sopranos" episode "Join the Club," and it figures to be a strong candidate for DGA attention along with Alan Taylor and his segment "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh."

The freshman HBO hour "Big Love" also could snare some category attention, specifically for Rodrigo Garcia and his Emmy-nominated pilot. Fellow pay-cable network Showtime stands a good shot at cracking the list with one of a few episodes of "Dexter," specifically Michael Cuesta's pilot and the installment titled "Crocodile."

Two other drama series openers are poised to jump onto the DGA Awards nomination train this time: Thomas Schlamme's acclaimed kickoff of NBC's "Studio 60" and David Semel's two-hour launch of the NBC hit "Heroes" are especially strong contenders, particularly given Schlamme's DGA track record as a seven-time nominee and three-time winner (all for the Aaron Sorkin-produced shows "Sports Night" and "The West Wing").

If there were a category favorite to take the crown, however, it would have to be Jon Cassar for his episode of Fox's pulse-racing thriller "24" titled "Day 5, 7:00 A.M.-8:00 A.M." It earned Cassar an Emmy earlier this year, one of two trophies he took home that night (he also won as executive producer of the series, which was voted top drama).

Also giving chase are Christopher Misiano and Mimi Leder for segs of NBC's swan-songing "West Wing" -- Misiano (a 2004 DGA winner in the category) for "Election Day: Part 2" and the series capper "Tomorrow" and Leder (a three-time nominee for NBC's "ER") for "Election Day," which already earned her an Emmy nom. Fellow 2006 Emmy nominee Jack Bender likewise stands a solid chance of snaring attention with his "Live Together, Die Alone" episode of ABC's "Lost."

Perpetual bridesmaid Mark Tinker, meanwhile, will be gunning for his eighth DGA nomination as he looks for his first win. His submissions include one of four installments of the edgy and profane Western "Deadwood," as well as the "Anatomy" segment "Losing My Religion," while Jeff Melman will be gunning for his second DGA nom after earning one a year ago for "Anatomy."

Also bidding to land an invite to the DGA party are "Rescue Me" director Peter Tolan (for any of several episodes of the acclaimed firefighter drama, including "Devil" and "Discovery"); Jace Alexander, also for "Rescue Me"; and several directors of the medical drama "House," including Daniel Attias, Deran Sarafian and executive producer David Shore.

Directorial Achievement in Comedy Series -- Night

The fact that HBO's perennial DGA Awards darling "Curb Your Enthusiasm" had no original episodes directed during the qualifying period seemingly opens up the comedy series list to new blood. Yet, it would be something of a shock were "Office" not the natural heir to "Enthusiasm's" DGA throne, given its acknowledged creativity and quirky show-within-a-show conceit.

Perhaps the larger question surrounding the 2006 Emmy victor for top comedy series is which "Office" directorial efforts will be chosen, given the show's high degree of quality from week to week. Heading that list are Ken Kwapis' segs "Booze Cruise" (from Season 2) and the season wrapper "Casino Night"; three-time DGA nominee Bryan Gordon (who won in the category for "Enthusiasm" in 2003) for "The Injury"; 2005 DGA nominee Charles McDougall for a number of installments including "Dwight's Speech" and "Conflict Resolution"; and Ken Whittingham for the episodes titled "Michael's Birthday," "The Convention" and "The Merger."

Whittingham, in fact, looks to be almost a shoo-in this year to be nominated for something. Aside from "Office," he also directed installments of three other high-profile comedies: "Entourage," ABC's rookie hit "Ugly Betty" and the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris."

Speaking of "Betty," Richard Shepard's work on the series pilot is likely to crack the DGA noms list. And on the subject of "Entourage," Julian Farino -- a DGA nominee a year ago for the episode "Exodus" and an Emmy nominee this year for "Sundance Kids" -- can choose from among more than a handful of possible submissions for the HBO comedy as the series' primary director.

The only thing close to a lock in the category, however, figures to be a fellow named James Burrows. By landing his 16th DGA nomination a year ago, he claimed the title as the most-honored helmer in the history of the awards. Burrows has been nominated an astonishing 14 of the past 16 years, having won four trophies in all, and it might take an act of God to keep him from landing his 17th nom for the series finale of NBC's "Will & Grace." He could even make the list twice, also having directed the much-praised pilot of the CBS comedy "The Class."

Other pilot directors hoping to draw a little DGA attention are Adam Bernstein for the kickoff of "30 Rock" (along with two other episodes of the Tina Fey comedy) and Andy Ackerman for the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom "New Adventures of Old Christine." Ackerman has been nominated four times for the DGA statuette, all for "Seinfeld" (he won twice).

Another strong category contender is Marc Buckland for his work on the pilot episode of "My Name Is Earl," for which he carted off both the DGA Award and the Emmy for comedy series directing earlier this year. He will have a shot with any of numerous segments of the series as its primary director, with his competition including fellow "Earl" executive producer Greg Garcia.

Craig Zisk also can toss his hat into the ring for "Earl," but he's more likely to land a nom for one of a handful of episodes of "Weeds" (one of which earned him an Emmy nom this year).

Finally, there is ABC's "Desperate Housewives." After having launched a creative comeback in Season 3, the series could well return to the DGA fold after being snubbed last year, with the most likely candidate being Larry Shaw for any of several installments including "Remember" (Parts 1 and 2) and the season opener "Listen to the Rain on the Roof."

Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television

It's always a safe bet to predict that HBO projects will wind up well represented on this list: Over the past three years, directors of HBO movies and miniseries have claimed more than half of the available nomination slots. So, it requires no crystal ball to foresee another few entries making the cut this time, too.

Heading that list would be Emmy winner Tom Hooper for the two-part mini "Elizabeth I," starring the incomparable Helen Mirren; Bharat Nalluri for the two-night "Tsunami: The Aftermath"; Jim McKay, who directed the powerful story "Angel Rodriguez"; and Edward James Olmos for the Latino-themed story "Walkout."

This is historically a particularly tough category to gauge. A year ago, in fact, most were picking either Joseph Sargent ("Warm Springs") or Fred Schepisi ("Empire Falls") to take the prize, only to have Sargent deadlock not with Schepisi but with George C. Wolfe (for a third HBO longform saga, "Lackawanna Blues") for the trophy.

(While Phyllis Nagy, who helmed HBO's fact-based drama "Mrs. Harris," also would seem a strong contender here, she has yet to become a member of the Directors Guild and thus isn't eligible.)

As for the non-HBO world, the most likely nominees figure to be Peter Markle, who landed an Emmy nomination for his work on the Sept. 11 story "Flight 93" for A&E (not to be confused with the Universal's big-screen project "United 93"), and Justin Chadwick (also Emmy-nominated as a longform director this year) for his acclaimed PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" mini "Bleak House." The director who won the choreography Emmy this year, Kenny Ortega, also has a shot at a nom for his Disney Channel production of "High School Musical."

While the ABC mini "The Path to 9/11" generated heavy controversy for its divergence from the established facts of the 9-11 Commission report and what many critics charged was a politically driven agenda, the project also was praised for its powerful presentation and could thus generate a nomination for director David L. Cunningham.

And the directors of a pair of Lifetime biopics also stand to be in the running for DGA noms: Peter Werner for "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy" and Agnieszka Holland for "A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story." Werner is a two-time DGA nominee, for 1990's "Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes" and 1995's "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story."

Directorial Achievement in Reality Programs

When this category was added to the DGA Awards roster a year ago, it spoke to the dedication of the guild to addressing the genre's legitimacy. It generated an especially eclectic quintet of nominees and resulted in a two-way tie between Tony Croll for NBC's "Three Wishes" and J. Rupert Thompson for that same network's "Fear Factor." It was an important acknowledgment for those who work in the unscripted universe that these shows don't simply direct themselves.

The inaugural reality-directing honor was indeed a hard-won prize, a result of intense lobbying and organizational efforts following the guild's successful implementation of its Reality Television Agreement three years ago. The DGA defines a reality program as "a nonfiction series or special" but excludes "shows featuring dramatic or variety performances or that air theatrically prior to TV." This means directors of CBS' "The Amazing Race" qualify, while those who work, say, the Oscar telecast would not.

This year could well bring attention to the directors of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," the old CBS war horse "Survivor," the CW's "America's Next Top Model," Fox's megahit "American Idol" and NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and "The Apprentice."