This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.
Though campaigning and jockeying might be tough on talent, AwardsLine can’t resist the lure of the Emmys. Here are a few reasons we keep coming back for more.
Reason No. 1: Because politics isn’t reserved for behind-the-scenes drama.
Where once there were nothing but doctors, lawyers and cops, the primetime television landscape seems to have swung open its doors to welcome ruthless politicians, a Secretary of State, a Vice President, spies, CIA operatives, even (gasp) television journalists.
Yes, the politicizing of the dial is in full bloom during an Emmy season that doesn’t even fall during a national election. The contenders this year include the acclaimed Netflix freshman House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright; the FX Cold War spy drama The Americans; the ABC hour set in Washington D.C., Scandal; the USA Network spy hour Covert Affairs; the 2012 USA miniseries Political Animals; the HBO cable news drama from Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom; and the HBO comedy Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President of the United States. And that’s not even to mention the canceled Starz drama Boss featuring Kelsey Grammer (still eligible for Emmy consideration this year).
It might be notable that these series are finding audiences by covering issues more complex than how to catch bad guys. But we have certainly seen it before in Sorkin’s The West Wing and any number of David E. Kelley projects. The difference now is that this appears to have evolved into a genuine trend, with pilot season auguring more on the way.
Perhaps the answer is as simple as writers and producers finding political- and issues-oriented backdrops to be captivating canvases on which to paint compelling characters. So believes Joseph Weisberg, a former CIA agent who created and serves as head writer on The Americans. “The political explorations are simply allegorical extensions of the characters,” Weisberg emphasizes. “It’s always about the human dynamics and never really about just making a political point. In the real world, that’s what makes politics engaging and interesting. When policy intersects with real lives, it suddenly becomes very powerful.”
Political Animals exec producer Greg Berlanti agrees that the political setting itself is secondary to how compelling the people are who populate it. But he found in his miniseries that politics is rich with the kind of larger-than-life characters that rivet viewers.
“Our elected officials are kind of like rock stars, and America is fascinated with that world,” Berlanti says. “All of the shows seem somewhat circumspect of our people in office, which tends to match the vibe in the country right now. I think we’re endlessly fascinated by how the private and public lives of politicians contrast.”
Indeed, The Americans executive producer Joel Fields points out how shows like his have adroitly broken down the storytelling barrier between the political and the personal, keeping the action lively and the tone from growing mundane and distant. “When Jeff Daniels rants about the things he rants about on The Newsroom, we don’t feel like he’s raging about politics but about our lives and the things we all care about,” Fields says.
Reason No. 2: Because getting nominated can actually be better than winning. Just ask Bill Maher.
Reason No. 3: Because even a swan song doesn’t mean a show is gone forever. Welcome back, Arrested Development.
Reason No. 4: Because the writers’ room isn’t a boys’ club anymore.
Is Lucille Ball rolling her eyes that we’re still not quite done marveling at funny women making strides? While no one’s denying that the writers’ room, especially for comedies, has historically been a big ol’ boys’ club or that shows still exist (that shall remain nameless) that don’t claim a single female staff writer, these are—at long last—the minority. Sure, headlines have been informing us that Tina Fey and Lena Dunham are funny and can create and run shows—and Emmy certainly has concurred. Although the latest WGAW briefing acknowledges that, despite strides, female writers are still significantly underrepresented, there are definitely more funny women at the helm than at any other point in TV history.
“It would be nice if it just weren’t an issue,” says Eileen Heisler, cocreator of the ABC comedy The Middle with her former college roommate and longtime collaborator DeAnn Heline. “But it’s typical in our business, and in all business, that fewer women get to the top.” Heisler, whose writers’ room at The Middle is more than 50% women, remembers an incident when she was a staff writer. “All the women were saying, ‘A woman wouldn’t say that!’, and the executive producer turned to a guy and asked him if he agreed.”
Emily Kapnek, creator and showrunner of Suburgatory—whose writing staff is 60% female—bemoans that on every single show she’s worked on she will invariably get mistaken for a hair or makeup person. “I’m always hoping my show will get recognized for more than just me being a woman,” Kapnek says. “It’s not my favorite thing to be singled out for. I’d much rather the attention go to the show and what we’re doing.”
When Mindy Kaling, creator and star of the Fox comedy The Mindy Project, got her start writing on The Office at age 24, it appeared as if she were the token female in an all-male writing room. “On The Office, yes, I was working with a lot of guys,” Kaling stresses, “but these were very sensitive, sweet, feminist guys, and they were very open to hearing what I had to say and were encouraging of it.”
On the flip side, when Michael Patrick King of Sex and the City fame wanted to develop the CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls, he sought out a female partner in what he calls a “Scarlett O’Hara search.” He eventually teamed up with comedian Whitney Cummings. “I wanted that unique thing that (Cummings) brought, partly because she’s a woman and partly because she’s really funny and has an interesting life perspective,” King says. “It would be a tragedy to hire someone just because of their sex. Listen, comedy is a tough realm for writers, and that doesn’t have anything to do with genitalia.”
But what each showrunner circles back to is having a diverse viewpoint. Kapnek describes the Suburgatory writers’ room as a mix of scribes from reality TV, one-hour drama and stage. She prefers to choose her writing staffs based not on spec scripts, but from other types of writing, including essays.
Still, all things being equal, there’s something to be said for a woman’s touch in running the writers’ room. “We are organized, and we don’t thrive on chaos,” Heisler believes. “On our show, the women go home to their kids’ school functions, and the guys go home to their kids’ school functions.” Now that’s what we call progress.
Reason No. 5: Because after the rigors of Oscar season, everyone on the Emmy campaign trail looks a little more relaxed, relatively speaking.
Reason No. 6: Because DVRs and streaming delivery mean high-quality series don’t just appear in primetime anymore. Timeslot? What timeslot?
Reason No. 7: Because TV is still living in a Sopranos state of mind.
Whether it’s Don Draper bedding his neighbor’s wife on AMC’s Mad Men, Emily Thorne on ABC’s Revenge setting a house afire or South Carolina House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) suffocating an injured dog while speaking to the camera about his intolerance for weakness on Netflix’s House of Cards, viewers can’t resist being an accessory to the crimes of dramatic antiheroes these days—no matter the foible or sin.
In fact, the last decade’s resurgence of flawed protagonists can be blamed on Tony Soprano, who helped usher in a whole new generation of TV antiheroes. After 20-plus years of good guys like Andy Sipowicz (ABC’s NYPD Blue), Bobby Donnell (ABC’s The Practice) and Jessica Fletcher (CBS’ Murder, She Wrote), Tony ultimately broke down a door that J.R. Ewing on Dallas cracked open.
“Prior to The Sopranos, there was a resistance toward painting people in all their colors,” says Terence Winter, creator of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire and a producer on The Sopranos. “The characters had to be all one good thing, or have a moral compass or if they did something bad, they had to balance out the good. J.R. Ewing might have been bad, but a lot of people around him had to be balanced out in a good way.
“There was a huge resistance (by networks) to having an unlikable protagonist, but that’s changed completely.”
So what is it about our love affair with homegrown meth kingpins and sociopathic Hamptons socialites? Does evil truly lurk in the hearts of the TV-viewing nation? Not really, says House of Cards creator Beau Willimon. Our obsession with the despicability of man has been going on since the days when Oedipus murdered his father and wed his mother.
“What’s attractive about these characters is that they allow us to access part of ourselves, the part we don’t have the liberty or courage to display in our own lives,” says Willimon. “What’s complex about all of these characters is that they show their human side, which is the curveball for the viewer.”
In creating the facets of their lead characters, these critically acclaimed showrunners say the obvious truth is that their bad guys don’t walk around in everyday life thinking, well, that they’re bad. Guys like Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk and Walter White of AMC’s Breaking Bad simply have a to-do list, and they go about crossing them off each day.
“Viewers will take out stuff that’s disturbing and only focus on the stuff they think is cool. It’s interesting to see how audiences interpret these characters,” says Winter. “Tony Soprano changed the game: Part of the fun of writing that character and all these characters is that they can be despicable, and you find yourself liking them and hating them. And that is what’s fun about taking that ride.”
Reason No. 8: Because L.A. doesn’t know what to do when there’s no awards campaigning going on, anyway.
Reason No. 9: Because there’s still room for surprises.
When the first-night ratings came in for the 10-part History miniseries The Bible March 3, there were eyes bugging out of heads all over Hollywood. It drew a massive 13.1 million viewers, second only to the network record-shattering audience of 14.3 million that flocked to last summer’s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries debut. By the time The Bible concluded on Easter Sunday, it had averaged more than 10 million viewers each week, including 11.7 million for its finale.
No one expected these kinds of numbers. No one, that is, except perhaps executive producer Mark Burnett and his wife and fellow exec producer, Roma Downey. Burnett saw it as a huge wakeup call for a Hollywood community that Burnett believes consistently underestimates the power of projects with spiritual themes.
“You wouldn’t have believed the number of people rolling their eyes when we began this,” Burnett recalls. “What people didn’t take into account was the fact that my wife and I live this. We walk the walk. It was just a matter of having the support of people who felt as we did.”
Burnett and Downey got that support from A&E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc. “It took courage for Nancy to decide, ‘OK, go make The Bible,’” Burnett adds. “They could have taken massive heat had this been made badly. I think they were relieved that it was so beloved by so many people.”
Dirk Hoogstra, History’s executive vp of development and programming, notes that the network was thrilled with both the production and the numbers it generated and is proudly submitting The Bible for longform Emmy consideration. “We knew it could be big, and it was,” he stresses. “This is a sort of go-to subject for us, so we felt pretty good about its chances, given the execution.”
For her part, Downey—the Touched by an Angel star—attributes the fact that nearly 100 million people watched all or part of the mini to “a perfect storm coming together. It happened at the same time as the Pope stepping down and waiting on a new one. It was nearing Easter. All of the stars aligned. But in general, people are hungry for God, and this series allowed them an entry point.”
“The thing is, I’m not surprised by any of this; I prayed for it to happen, and it has,” Burnett emphasizes. “We gave permission for millions of people to say they love God, and they showed us just how much they do.”
Reason No. 10: Because avant-garde comedic voices have a place at the Emmy table. Thanks, Louis C.K!
Reason No. 11: Because who can resist a little controversy?
No Oscar race goes by without scandal, but the Emmys, for whatever reason, seem to power through season after season relatively unscathed. Most hiccups never make their way to full-blown scandal, which gives the Emmys a much breezier feel than their film-industry counterpart.
Reasons for this could include the fact that there are 99 categories to deal with, and the Emmys just don’t carry the cachet or pressures of the Oscars. Another reason is that when potentially controversial problems do arise in the labyrinthine process of awarding Emmys, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences finds a way to make them go away.
For instance, last year some thought Ashley Judd’s entry into the movie/mini lead actress category was completely ridiculous because her nomination came for an ABC procedural series called Missing that was canceled after just a few episodes. If it belonged anywhere, it was in the more competitive drama series category, but the TV Academy let it slide with an obscure rule that made Missing eligible. End of scandal. (By the way, they simply go in and change the rules for the next year whenever problems like this come up.)
Also last year, creator Ryan Murphy came to the TV Academy with a proposal to classify his latest series, FX’s weekly anthology American Horror Story, in the movie and mini category even though it had a pilot and was billed as a regular series. Murphy reasoned that because the cast would be playing completely different characters each season, it doesn’t fall in line with competing drama series contenders. Though the vote was divided right down the line, the decision was forwarded to the board, and Murphy got his wish. He now gets to compete every year with the show classified as a miniseries. In its first season, it tied drama juggernaut Mad Men to lead all Emmy nominees with 17, a number it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near had it been forced to compete in the drama series contest.
Before this year’s Emmy race even began, controversy reared its head again when the board decided to abolish the supporting acting categories for movies and miniseries, unfairly making them compete against the leading actors in those projects. The board cited diminishing entries in movies and minis as a reason for the downsizing, but this became a thorny issue for some performer members of the TV Academy. Suddenly, media reports surfaced about a resurgence in the genre, and in April the Board of Governors completely reversed themselves.
And Reason No. 12: Because the TV Academy isn’t afraid to change its mind about rules.