Adam Buckman is a contributor to AwardsLine
The Emmy Awards is a game of winners and losers — in most categories, one winner, four losers. But for a whole swath of contenders in the highly competitive drama categories — hour-long dramas on basic cable channels — the challenge is as simple as just being allowed in the final competition. Because while some of TV’s most compelling one-hour dramas are now found on channels that lay between the broadcast and premium networks, these shows are consistently left out in the cold come Emmy time.
The attention in the drama categories still consistently goes to drama series on pay cable channels or broadcast networks. Never mind the actual awards — actual nominations for dramatic series on basic cable, though not unheard of, are still few and far between even as the ranks of quality dramas on basic cable have swelled in recent seasons.
Related: EMMYS: Drama Series Overview
This lack of love from the Emmys doesn’t go unnoticed by producers of some of basic cable’s most critically acclaimed shows. “I’m a little bit rankled at the Television Academy and the Emmys because Rescue Me received so little recognition,” says Peter Tolan, executive producer of the drama series about a group of New York City firefighters that he co-created with comedian Denis Leary. Rescue Me ended its seven-season run on FX last September. Over the years, it received eight Emmy nominations, winning one — a guest-actor Emmy for Michael J. Fox. Leary was nominated once in the best dramatic actor category and lost.
Rescue Me is one of several hour-long series on FX being pushed for Emmys this spring, along with Justified and Sons Of Anarchy. Another series, American Horror Story, which consisted of fewer episodes, is being entered as a miniseries.
Even with just four titles up for Emmy consideration, the FX stable of one-hour series would be impressive on any network. And basic cable these days seems awash with quality hours reflecting a wide variety of subjects and tastes. For example, USA Network has so many popular one-hour series that executives there made a conscious effort to boil down their Emmy hopes to a small group of shows and stars they felt would benefit most from Emmy consideration (if not actual awards): The lawyer series Suits and its two male co-stars, Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams; Callie Thorne of Necessary Roughness; and Matt Bomer, handsome leading man of White Collar.
Over at Turner, TNT is entering seven shows: three very different cop shows in The Closer, Southland and Rizzoli & Isles; the sci-fi series Falling Skies; the lighthearted lawyer-buddy dramedy Franklin & Bash; the Timothy Hutton con-artist drama Leverage; and comedian Ray Romano’s well-regarded but ultimately low-rated drama about men at 50, Men Of A Certain Age.
That show also ended its run last summer, after just two seasons. In fact, a portion of the show’s second season was already put up for Emmy consideration in 2011; the second and final half of the second season is what’s eligible this time around. Although Rescue Me lasted longer and enjoyed a healthier viewership, both shows combined drama and humor, making them difficult to categorize and therefore a tough sell to the TV Academy members who vote on drama nominations, their creators concede. In addition, both shows were headlined by well-established comedians — Leary and Romano — trying their hands at dramatic acting, a concept the average Emmy voter may have had a tough time accepting, the show’s principals say.
“I will never be nominated” for a best dramatic actor Emmy,” Romano told Awardsline. “I get it, that [to the average Emmy voter] I’m the TV funny guy, the sitcom guy. Me and drama … you have to beat it over their head. You have to beat the sitcom perception off of yourself and that takes more [seasons than Men Of A Certain Age had].” For the record, Men Of A Certain Age, which won a prestigious Peabody Award in 2010, has been nominated for just two Emmys previously — both times for co-star Andre Braugher in the best supporting actor category. He didn’t win.
So who is garnering nominations and winning Emmys in the drama category in recent seasons? Pay cable’s HBO and Showtime — with shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Dexter, respectively — and a handful of shows on the broadcast networks like House on Fox, The Good Wife on CBS and Lost on ABC. Notable exceptions to the basic cable drought include two series on AMC: the critically lauded Mad Men, winner of the best drama Emmy for the last four years, and Breaking Bad, for which star Bryan Cranston has won three best actor Emmys. And Kyra Sedgwick finally won a best actress Emmy in 2010 on her fifth nomination for the lead role in TNT’s The Closer.
But for most of basic cable’s drama shows and their overseers, a winning strategy for getting Emmy voters to pay more attention and watch their shows more closely remains elusive. Part of the problem, producers and execs say, is that some of basic cable’s one-hour shows don’t fit the mold of the dramas that have received multiple nominations and awards in recent years. Mad Men, for example, and, in the years before that show’s dominance, The Sopranos on HBO.
It’s a problem of perception that not only afflicts the cable dramas with comedians in starring roles, but some of the dramas on USA and TNT that traffic in lighter subjects and themes than the decidedly darker dramas typified by a show like Breaking Bad.
“I think there is a perception perhaps that we are a very escapist kind of channel and therefore everything’s happy and sunny and that sort of cuts against what I think people think of when they think of awards,” said Bill McGoldrick, EVP Scripted Original Programming at USA. “When it comes to awards, sometimes the first place you go is dark. And I think that’s a little bit unfair. I think that our balance of humor and drama is similar to the balance of humor and drama in some of the shows that have won, be it The Sopranos or Mad Men.”
Of course, the underlying reason why it’s been so difficult for some basic cable series to break through the pack and gain recognition is because drama on TV happens to be flourishing these days. “It’s an impossible category, drama,” concedes Mike Royce, co-creator, with Romano, of Men Of A Certain Age. “The talent is crazy. I mean, between cable and the networks, every year in that best actor category you can’t even believe the people who aren’t in it. That’s how good it is.”