We know too well the ins and outs of how Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club barely made it to the big screen. These rags-to-riches backstory tales are used by film marketing execs to curry Oscar votes, but the strategy isn’t always such a deliberate part of an Emmy campaign.
Arrested Development’s resurgence on Netflix after Fox canceled it was last year’s underdog story that nabbed the show three Emmy nominations. This year, Marc Cherry’s Devious Maids could use a similar boost. The show was developed by ABC, rejected after a series order and then saved by Lifetime. Next year, NBC’s Emmy-less Parks and Recreation, which will end its series run at the end of next season, will have its own sob story to use against the competition.
But Emmy voters are moved by more than mere backstory. “Everyone knows the travails (of movies) because of their big stars. What TV Academy voters like are programs that arrest the status quo,” says TV historian Tim Brooks. “Any show where the political system is being torn down, or anything that aligns with ideological beliefs, that’s ripe. With dramas, voters are drawn to anti-heroes.”
This thinking benefited Modern Family (for its groundbreaking advocacy of gay marriage) and 30 Rock (for depicting network executives as buffoons). Yet despite voters’ general obliviousness to a show’s genesis story, “the sympathy, rah-rah vote exists,” observes Brooks. When Candice Bergen and Murphy Brown were the butt of then-Vice President Dan Quayle’s family values speech in 1992, both the show and Bergen nabbed Emmys. When Jon Cryer collected his surprise lead actor trophy for Two and a Half Men in 2012, many pundits attributed it to the good-guy actor enduring the on-set melodrama of the Chuck Lorre-Charlie Sheen feud.
But an Emmy campaign’s biggest challenge could be the fact that TV folk can barely keep track of their own show, let alone others. “(I’m) so busy working in (TV), I’m only vaguely aware of what other people have gone through to get their shows on the air,” says Cherry.