EMMYS: 2011 Drama Series Overview

This year’s Emmy race for Outstanding Drama Series will continue cable’s dominance in this most prestigious category. Cable claimed 10 of the 13 nomination spots over the past two years, and 13 of 19 since 2008. By contrast, cable earned a mere nine nods combined in the seven years between 2001 and 2007 when the networks still ruled. The shift from broadcast is so extreme in 2011 that CBS’ The Good Wife is considered the only network series with a solid shot to earn its second nomination in as many years. (Though not in that league, NBC/DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights, NBC’s Parenthood, and CBS’ Blue Bloods deserve consideration while ABC has entered a rebuilding phase.) The sad reality is that the broadcast networks, which just signed a new eight-year deal with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to carry the Emmys, are facing a possible first-ever shutout from the top drama series category. That’s because of the continuing strength and ambition of programming on cable — in particular, HBO in a return to form, and AMC still on a roll.

HBO’s Prohibition-era hourlong Boardwalk Empire drew the most critical attention this Emmy season because of its pedigreed producer team, headed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and creator/showrunner Terence Winter, a Sopranos alum. How interesting that the pay channel’s expensive serial will compete against another period drama from that other Sopranos alum Matt Weiner. AMC’s first acclaimed original series, Mad Men, has won this category three years running and is bidding this year to be the first series to win four in a row since NBC’s The West Wing (2000- 2003). Though the frontrunner, Mad Men could be hurt by a long hiatus.

AMC has seized the mantle from HBO as TV’s preeminent quality-drama purveyor with a pair of newcomers that could crack the series field this year: the zombie-themed hour The Walking Dead, and the dark murder mystery The Killing. Even though two-time category nominee Breaking Bad is not eligible for 2011, AMC could still land three nods, becoming the first network in 10 years to do so in this category, after NBC scored the hat trick in 2001 with The West Wing, ER, and Law & Order. No cable network has ever managed the feat to date.

And then there’s Showtime, whose Dexter is in the running for its fourth consecutive Outstanding Drama nomination, along with first-season Shameless. FX is pushing its increasingly buzzed-about Western, Justified and, to a lesser extent, Sons Of Anarchy. TNT wants attention for The Closer, Men Of A Certain Age, and Southland. USA is pressing Covert Affairs and White Collar. Here’s our assessment of the chances for this year’s drama series in alphabetical order:

HBO’s serial about a polygamist Mormon family faltered in its fourth season but regained its footing when it returned this year, just in time to go
out on top. However, it’s only been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series once (in 2009 — and lost). The series is a long shot against HBO’s own Boardwalk Empire.

Though this CBS hourlong is one of the fall season’s few broadcast breakouts, there’s been far more drama behind the scenes. Series creators Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green exited at the end of last season, and this came nine months after then-showrunner Ken Sanzel left, too. If the show can’t fi gure out if it wants to be character-driven or more procedural, then how will Emmy voters?

Coming off victories for the SAG, WGA, and DGA awards, this Prohibition-era drama all but has its Emmy nomination in the bag, and may have the inside track to win as well — because HBO has more money to campaign for Emmy than its primary cable rival, upstart AMC, does. As showrunner Terence Winter notes humbly: “Awards attention is very gratifying. But the work itself is the real reward.”

No USA Network series has ever broken through in the Outstanding Drama lineup, though there’s general agreement that the overall quality of its hourlongs has improved. This year, USA is proud enough of Covert Affairs and White Collar to give them a big-screen promotional campaign in movie houses this spring. Covert’s best shot for Emmy attention resides with rising star Piper Perabo.

The Showtime thriller’s most recent fifth season was controversial, to say the least. The TV community both loved and hated the storyline featuring Julia Stiles as a victim-turned-romantic partner for Dexter. It still didn’t generate anywhere near the buzz of Season Four and John Lithgow’s memorable Trinity killer. But you can’t write off the series’ chances — it has been nominated three times.

After series leads Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton snuck into the Emmy derby last year via DirecTV, of all places, there is at least hope that the big-hearted, high school football drama could score a nomination for its fifth and final season. Showrunner Jason Katims says a posthumous award “would remind me a lot of a FNL episode, in the 11th hour, in the final seconds of the game.”

The Fox hit should be a contender, given that its third season was its best reviewed yet. But the Emmys rarely recognize sci-fi series (The X-Files a notable exception), and there’s probably jealousy over J.J. Abrams’ continuing success in television as well as motion pictures. The odds are probably against it.

The reviews for HBO’s medieval fantasy are good, and its ratings have been growing steadily. But this dazzling and densely-plotted show is still a first-season wild card, even if it will be fresh in voters’ minds since it’s still on.

Nominated last year for its excellent freshman season, and with an Emmy win for supporting actress Archie Panjabi already under its belt, this sophomore CBS drama is a favorite for a second nod in 2011. The praise “was especially flattering because there hasn’t been a lot of attention to network shows in the last few years,” says Michelle King, co-creator/co-showrunner with husband Robert.

The days of this medical drama landing noms as it did in 2006 and 2007 are long past. None of its performers were nominated last year, either. Yet, the ABC series gets significant props for its musical episode this year, possibly giving it renewed Emmy heat. And it remains a player in the 18-to-49 demo, landing eighth overall among all broadcast primetime series for the 2010-2011 season.

After being nominated for Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row without a win, this veteran was passed over last year. Is the show’s best shot behind it?

Although this Western, created by Graham Yost and based on a story by Elmore Leonard, was denied an Outstanding Drama Series nomination last year, it did receive a Peabody Award. With its second season just as strong as its first — if not stronger — it remains arguably FX’s best shot at a nod. Though packed with gallows humor, it’s not a “dramedy,” maintains Yost. “It’s just trying to be entertainment. We’ll see if that gets attention. I hope it does.”

Cold Case veteran Veena Sud’s dark, new murder mystery starring Mireille Enos as a brooding detective furthers AMC’s brand as a source of top-tier programming despite fan complaints about this season’s finale. The show — based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen — created the most memorably grim atmosphere since Twin Peaks. “The way I like to describe The Killing is a character drama wrapped up in the conceit of a cop show,” Sud says.

Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series for the last three years in a row, AMC’s pitch-perfect, period piece set in the cigarette-and-martini 1960s is a shoo-in to again find itself with a nod. And devoted fans of star Jon Hamm (aren’t we all?) believe this finally may be his year with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston out of the picture this time. Question is, will creator Matthew Weiner’s very public and very rich contract negotiations impact the outcome of this drama category?

The TNT dramedy suffered unimpressive ratings when it opened its third season, but it arrived on Emmy’s radar when Andre Braugher earned a supporting actor nod in 2010. But voters may perceive this as just another comedy from Ray Romano, who acknowledges, “It’s taken a little bit for that to get weeded out.”

The NBC series developed by Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims maintained its quality control in Season Two. But it was snubbed last year and generates little Emmy hype. On the other hand, audiences and critics have warmed to the show and its large ensemble cast, which includes TV standouts Lauren Graham and Peter Krause. “Weirdly, it’s tough now for a network show to break through, but I believe we’ll get there,” Katims says.

Showtime’s newbie, dysfunctional-family drama starring William H. Macy is considered a breakout hit and a dramatic departure from Executive Producer John Wells, who has already won six Emmys. Based on the British series of the same name, it took eight years to develop this realistic depiction depiction of the American underclass. Emmy voters may consider its debut particularly timely. “A lot of the jobs that were there for working people just aren’t there anymore,” Wells says.

As great as this Starz gladiator drama was, it might have been shrewder to submit it in the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category, rather
than Drama Series. There, it would have been a shoo-in; here, a wildcard.

This popular FX series has never been nominated for an Emmy. Perhaps the cable network needs a new strategy to sell its biker-clan concept to voters, without just Katey Sagal representing it. Paris Barclay, who recently joined as executive producer and principal director, says this season’s scripts are “Deadwood–esque — and yet, it hasn’t gotten the love.”

Dumped by NBC, the Warner Bros. police drama not only survived but thrived after being picked up by TNT. Its scripts became edgier, for one
thing. However, with even the basic cable network’s flagship drama The Closer yet to secure an Outstanding Drama Series nod, it’s unlikely
Southland will find enough attention.

HBO’s supernatural serial was a surprising 2010 nominee. But with such a crowded category this time around, it may be hard for Emmy voters to take HBO’s vampires and werewolves seriously when Boardwalk Empire is competing as well. And the fourth season premiere opens after ballots are returned.

This thriller’s much-talked-about first season should assure it a nomination. But AMC is in competition with itself for Mad Men and The Killing as
well. Could it really nab three slots — especially when the third is zombie-driven? Very possible, given that it already earned WGA and DGA nods
this year. “It’s awesome to be part of the awards chatter,” showrunner Frank Darabont admits, “but it’s also true that, too often, the horror genre gets short shrift.”

USA is pushing this third-year personality procedural, which remains the #1 scripted drama on cable with both adults 18-49 and 25-54, year to date. But the TV Academy may be right to think the USA hourlong that stars Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay in FBI/con man capers belongs in a Drama-Lite category. USA’s under-appreciated Burn Notice deserves a closer look by Emmy than this show.

  1. Please stop acting like Fringe is in consideration…

    It’s only being considered for cancellation after next season.

    1. Right. Fringe do have a loud fanbase who are very busy working the Internet, but the overall quality of the show isn’t near the top shows in the race. If Fringe really was to be taken serious, shows like Chuck, Smallville and Startgate would also be in the race, and that’s never gonna happen.

      1. Why are you lumping the much superior Fringe with the likes of Chuck, Smallville, or Stargate. It’s like saying that Justified is the same type of show as Chase.

      2. Absolutely not true. The writing is unique and always unpredictable, while John Noble and Anna Torv are two of the best actors currently on the air. Many of the other shows up above are completely over-rated (The Good Wife, Mad Men). Comparing Fringe to Smallville simply because both deal with fantasy elements just shows off your small-minded personality. Some of us actually enjoy a TV show for its story, not because it’s “cool” to watch something that our neighbours do not.

        1. While I have truly enjoyed Fringe this season… It has been somewhat unique, though if you’ve watched Doctor Who over the years not quite as unique as you’re making it out to be. But calling The Good Wife and Mad Men completely overrated? Those shows have done things that have been unique and unpredictable themselves… IMHO — and those shows are grounded in reality. Maybe you should stop sneaking hits from Walter’s LSD stash.

  2. I though The Killing could get nominated, but there’s no way after that season ending. The season finale really exposed how poorly the writing was throughout the entire series and the serious lack of character depth.

    1. Depending on the ep they select, the finale shouldn’t matter, right? They nominate based on a portion of the season, not the whole show. Regardless, I loved the finale. Great cliffhanger for next year.

    2. By episode 6 it was clear that this show was a complete lost cause. If it gets nominated it will be just as embarrassing as The Tourist being nominated for awards at the Globes this year

  3. I still feel Private Practice should be considered if only for the storyline of Charlottes rape.

  4. Yeah KILLING had chances to be nominated before they ruined whole show with those awful last two minutes of finale. Those two minuted destroyed whole series. I can’t believe that there weren’t smart executives at the room who sad: “No. Let’s not air those minutes. Leave it like that with that suppose killer”.

    And show will never recover itself. Because no matter how much intriguing or interesting premise they will create for Season 2, even if it will look good in trailers – people already got cheated once. And many-many just will not buy it and will not watch it. Because no one wants to watch another 13 episodes to be cheated again. One a liar – always a liar.

    I watched BOARDWALK EMPIRE for 5 episodes but then got so bored that I never returned. I just didn’t care about any of those characters. They are all bad and annoying. It doesn’t deserve to win.

    Same with DEXTER. I watched 4 Seasons. But then I watched some 15-20 minutes of next and figure it out that there is only one interesting character – Dexter. And then there are bunch of lame characters no one cares about. And always half of the episode we have to watch them and their boring problems we don’t care about. And when they showed again Dexter’s sister with another her problem I just turned off and never returned.

    WALKING DEAD should be nominated for the pilot. But then it was downgrade in every episode.

    FRINGE could be nominated. It was very good season. And I hated the show after first season. But then in the middle of the second season it become interesting. That parallel universe saved the show.

    I don’t care

  5. Starz tried to submit “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” for the movie/miniseries competition, but the Academy vetoed that. Too bad. It had a better shot there.

  6. Boardwalk Empire jumped the shark in episode 6 and continued to be terrible the second half of the first season. First half was great. It had depth and style to the storytelling and then sadly it turned into a freak show that wasn’t about the characters anymore.

  7. Boardwalk Empire didn’t hold its audience. It peaked around episode 5 and then never recovered.
    I watched all the episodes in hope of more. The last two episodes were very disappointing. Mad Men and The Good Wife had a standard of excellence that held through the entire season and so did Justified.

    1. The actual ratings for the first season of Boardwalk contradict statement about the audience.

  8. “Though not in that league” for ‘Friday Night Lights’ seriously? It should win that’s why. (Ok maybe Mad Men had an amazing season and also deserves to win) But putting Blue Bloods & Parenthood in the same sentence as FNL is insulting. And it blows The Good Wife out of the water. Really.
    Oh, I so hope I didn’t “bore you” with my comment. Please.

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