Alex Gansa is executive producer of Showtime’s Emmy-winning series Homeland. This guest column appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
On Homeland, we break story as a collective. Which is another way of saying the writers sit in a room for hours and hours until we we’ve eaten so many pistachios there’s nothing left to do but pin some story beats to the wall. It takes a village to construct a thriller, and every writer has a hand in each episode. But for me, writer-producer Henry Bromell’s episode, “Q & A” is the heart of Season 2. The centerpiece of “Q & A” is Carrie’s (Claire Danes) 16-minute interrogation of Brody (Damian Lewis). In one way or another, Brody has been captive to terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) for eight years; Carrie has to turn him—deprogram him, if you will—in 20 minutes. If you don’t believe she does that, the episode (and the rest of the season) falls apart. Every step of their conversation had to build on the previous moment. Every turn had to be clear. The interrogation was originally three separate sequences, but Henry, the actors, and director Lesli Linka Glatter decided to shoot it as one continuous scene. The first take lasted 26 minutes. Henry turned a procedural into a play, a dance between two people who are lovers and enemies. Carrie wants to know if Nazir is planning an attack on America. The first thing she says? “You broke my heart, you know.” It’s a tactic, and the truth. I don’t think any of us could have written that scene with as much tenderness as Henry did. Henry could make even the smallest action evocative. One of my favorite scenes from Season 1 is Saul (Mandy Patinkin) alone at his desk. His wife has left him, so there’s no reason to go home for dinner. He’s trying to eat peanut butter and crackers, but he can’t find a knife, so he uses a ruler. He just sits there in the silence, chewing. We got a note from an executive asking, “Why is this scene in here? It’s not about anything.” Henry fought to keep it in. Later, another of our writers was at a security conference in Aspen, full of the people we try to write about. One of them said that peanut-butter scene perfectly captured the late-night loneliness of intelligence work. Henry’s own life was like something written by Graham Greene. As a kid, he ran into Charlton Heston on the set of Ben-Hur. He went to elementary school in Iran before the fall of the Shah. He hung with Fellini, interviewed Jackie Robinson, wrote for The New Yorker. He had one of those big, far-flung lives people dream about, but his greatest pleasures were simple: Morning coffee and The New York Times with his wife, Sarah; a dry martini; watching his younger son, Jake, happily wreck things. In our writers’ room, when we we’d get stuck in the mud, he would start in with: “Let’s see, what have we got? Once upon a time…” And he would proceed to spin whatever mess we had made into a narrative that we could listen to and make sense of, and by the end he’d often as not say, “That’s a pretty good story,” and we’d feel OK. Not just because he was a real writer and his approval meant everything. It was the way he did it. He would lovingly separate wheat from chaff, he would hand back to you something better than what he had been given. Two of our new writers this third season were cajoled by Henry into coming onto the show: Barbara Hall, from Henry’s days on I’ll Fly Away, and James Yoshimura, from his many years in Baltimore on Homicide, where he apparently broke up more than his share of bar fights. They share Henry’s bemused sense of the world. Henry had started writing Episode 303 when he passed away this spring. We asked his older son, William, who recently started writing for television, to finish the script. Like “Q & A,” the style of the episode is a departure for us. The point of view, pure Bromell.
Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.
The question of how publicists generate sufficient buzz and attention to land their lesser-known TV series performer clients Emmy nominations is one that has no single answer. It’s something of a combination of the right advertising, effective marketing, timely late-night talk show appearances, savvy social media campaigning—and luck. And then, of course, the actor or actress requires the necessary goods in terms of talent or no amount of effort will matter.
Jillian Roscoe, vp of talent at ID-PR in Los Angeles, includes among her client list a handful of series regulars who landed their first Emmy noms (and, in a few cases, wins) under her guidance. They include Max Greenfield (a surprise comedy supporting actor nominee last year for Fox’s New Girl), Ty Burrell (nominated the past three years and a comedy supporting winner in 2011 for ABC’s Modern Family), Jim Parsons (a lead comedy nominee since 2009 and winner in 2010 and ’11 for CBS’ Big Bang Theory) and four-time nominee John Slattery of AMC’s Mad Men.
“There isn’t any secret,” Roscoe maintains, ”except to have very talented clients. My job is simply to make sure that the right people—i.e. TV Academy voters—have my people on their radar. I don’t need to spin anything. It’s about strategically targeting, and I’m just a bridge.”
One longtime personal publicist with several high-profile TV clients who prefers to remain anonymous emphasizes that the cooperation and participation of a client in any campaign often makes the difference between earning a nomination and being overlooked. “You hope they’re together with you on it,” she explains. “And if they’re not pushing, you have to try everything: Late-night shows, daytime show appearances, special-issues interviews. The ultimate question is, do you do a mailing or buy ads yourself?”
Richard Licata, executive vp of communications at NBC and who has helped spearhead Emmy campaigns at HBO, Fox, Showtime and other networks, makes the point that sometimes getting attention for younger talent requires patience, and that often you need to first plant a seed and look for it to sprout a year or two later. ”That’s how it worked when we tried to get a supporting nom for Merritt Wever on Nurse Jackie back in 2010,” Licata recalls. “And then finally, Merritt was nominated in 2012.”
Paula Bernstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
“I’m not a betting woman,” says Sarah Barnett, president and general manager of Sundance Channel. But if she were, she would be wise to bet on Sundance Channel when the Emmy nominations are announced live from the Leonard H. Goldenson Theater on July 18.
Following in AMC’s footsteps, Sundance has broken out of the niche movie category and branched into original programming, including high-end original series like Rectify (from the producers of AMC’s Breaking Bad) and coproductions like Top of the Lake starring Elisabeth Moss (from AMC’s Mad Men), both of which have received critical raves and attracted dedicated fans.
As a result, this could be Sundance Channel’s year to shine at the Emmys—with Top of the Lake stars Moss and Holly Hunter, as well as director Jane Campion, having potential for nominations. (Incidentally, Hunter and Campion took home their first Oscars for collaborating on 1993’s The Piano.)
Plus, because the TV Academy reversed its previous decision and decided to break out lead and supporting acting awards in a miniseries, Hunter and Moss won’t have to go head-to-head if they are both nominated.
“It was lovely to see our show as the sort of poster child for why the separation or supporting actress and lead in a miniseries made sense,” says Barnett.
Sundance’s first wholly original series Rectify is eligible in various categories, including director (Keith Gordon), outstanding lead actor in a drama series (Aden Young), outstanding supporting actress in a drama series (Abigail Spencer), as well as outstanding drama series. The cable network is also hoping that the star-studded miniseries Restless and edgy reality series Push Girls have a shot come Emmy time.
The last time the network received a nomination was in 2011 for Carlos, but it has never won an Emmy.
“It would be extraordinary and big for us,” says Barnett. “I look at the pool of networks we aspire to swim in, networks like HBO and AMC. For those two networks in particular, awards have been such a big part of building excitement around their original content,” says Barnett.
Vlada Gelman is West Coast reporter of TVLine. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
Tatiana Maslany has many faces—and walks and personalities and ways of talking.
The versatile star of BBC America’s Orphan Black plays not one or even two characters on the clone thriller, but seven—and often all in the same episode. To differentiate the roles, the Canadian actress gives each of her “sisters” distinctive physical mannerisms and quirks.
For nervy American suburbanite Alison, who prances around in leggings and UGG boots with urgency, Maslany played with the idea that the mother of two was an aspiring ballerina who didn’t have what it takes to go pro. “But she’s maintained all of that posture and tightness and holding your butt (and) stomach in,” explains the actress, adding that Alison also “breathes up higher because she’s panicking a lot of the time.”
Maslany uses hand gestures “to paint pictures” with super-intelligent science nerd Cosima because “(her) brain is working 100,000 miles a minute faster than everybody else’s,” while tapping into “sexually masculine” attributes for the animalistic Russian doppelganger Helena. On top of all that, the clones frequently impersonate one another, meaning the actress must inhabit two roles at once so that viewers are clued in to the hijinks, but the fictional figures on the show are fooled.
“I don’t try to play the other character until I’ve settled into the character that I actually am,” says Maslany. “I really try to make them as strong as possible, and then let them play that other person.”
The end result is multiple truly individual performances from just one actress. So should each character get their own Emmy nomination? “I don’t know about that,” laughs Maslany. “What if three of them were nominated, but one of them wasn’t?”
Paula Bernstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine. Nathan Lane WHAT:The Good Wife WHY: “Why would I joke?” asks Nathan Lane’s Clarke Hayden, the trustee brought in to oversee Lockhart/Gardner and get the firm back on track. It’s a fitting question for Lane, who is better known for his comic delivery than for his dramatic chops. But, as the levelheaded Hayden, Lane forgoes the over-the-top theatrics and delivers a quiet performance that could earn him his first Emmy nom in a drama category (he’s been nominated previously for comedy guest roles on Frasier, Mad About You and Modern Family). ONE-LINER: “I don’t like people who quit.”
Ray Romano WHAT:Parenthood WHY: As Hank Rizzoli, the blunt, socially awkward wedding photographer who woos Sarah Braverman, Ray Romano creates a character that is both misanthropic and romantic—not an easy feat. His complex, restrained performance makes us root for Hank in spite of, or perhaps because of, his neuroses. Although Romano was nominated six times in the lead actor category for Everybody Loves Raymond and won once (in 2002), he has never been nominated in a drama category. ONE-LINER: “You’re pretty. You’re nice, and I like talking to you.”
Richard Thomas WHAT:The Americans WHY: Up until now, Richard Thomas has been best known for his lead role as John-Boy on The Waltons (for which he won in 1973), but that could change with the actor’s role as sturdy Agent Frank Gaad on The Americans, a performance that escalates in intensity as the season progresses. On a show where nobody is who he or she seems to be, Gaad is a straight shooter who, thanks to Thomas’ performance, we can believe. ONE-LINER: “They kill us, we kill them. It’s the world we live in. But even in this world, there are lines that can’t be crossed.”
Jane Fonda WHAT:The Newsroom WHY: Fonda has described her character on The Newsroom as “Rupert Murdoch marinated in a little Ted Turner.” Playing the steely CEO of Atlantis Media, Leona Lansing, the former Mrs. Ted Turner (who previously won an Emmy for The Dollmaker in 1984) gives a performance that is understated and scene-stealing. ONE-LINER: “What happened to human interest stories? Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones?”
Shirley MacLaine WHAT:Downton Abbey WHY: When Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson sweeps into Downton Abbey’s third season as Cora’s forward-thinking American mother, she provides the ideal foil for Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Her showstopping performance could earn the veteran actress her first guest drama Emmy (she was nominated for a lead actress Emmy in 2009, for her portrayal of the title character in Lifetime’s TV movie Coco Chanel). ONE-LINER: “It seems so strange to think of the English embracing change.”
Linda Cardellini WHAT:Mad Men WHY: When Cardellini appeared on Mad Men as Don Draper’s latest conquest, Twitter was abuzz. Could that really be fresh-faced Lindsay Weir from Freaks and Geeks? After we got over the initial surprise of seeing Lindsay/Linda all grown up, we marveled at her detailed portrayal of Sylvia Rosen, Don’s mystery neighbor-lover and Megan’s confidante. Cardellini’s coy performance added depth and intrigue to the role of the “other woman.” ONE-LINER: “What do you want for this year?”
Vlada Gelman is West Coast editor of TVLine. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
Michael Cudlitz doesn’t need a lot of words to get his point across.
As one of the stars of TNT’s canceled cop drama Southland, the actor was handed countless scenes last season in which his officer John Cooper barely spoke, and yet he says so much. During one of Cudlitz’s favorite moments, he shares the screen with longtime TV actor Gerald McRaney (Simon & Simon, Major Dad), playing John’s retired, alcoholic mentor. McRaney carries most of the dialogue as his character laments his empty life, but the heartbreaking confessional is just as much about John facing his own future.
“To me, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the talking,” Cudlitz explains. “You still have to be extremely present, extremely active, and you’ve got to know what’s going on.”
In working with a legend like McRaney, “My job in that scene became to not screw up what he was doing,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s one of those wonderful moments (where) you are on the ride. It’s not a moment you have to create. It’s just there. You enjoy it as a performer.”
In the same episode, John wordlessly confronts his dying rapist-murderer father. He then caps the season with a brutal fight in which his fists do all the talking and that ends with him being shot by his colleagues in blue. “That’s awesome to go to that place of freedom,” says Cudlitz of playing the officer’s raw breakdown. But the magic of how he gets to those emotional points and what he was thinking during the silences will remain an envied secret.
“It’s hard to talk specifically about the work because it’s sort of intangible,” explains the actor. “You start to take away from the work if you talk about it too much.”
Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.
Last August, just a month after PBS had earned 58 Primetime Emmy nominations—including 16 for breakout hit Downton Abbey— presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Forbes magazine he would eliminate the $445 million federal subsidy for public broadcasting if elected president.
But while candidates and voters still remain divided on the political value of public broadcasting, the TV Academy is decidedly on PBS’ side. Last year, PBS was the third most-nominated network, and Downton Abbey earned the network its first nomination since 1977 in the best drama series category.
PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger says the attention was welcome, but insists PBS is doing nothing different. “We’ve stayed focused on our core, which is to create quality content that connects to people,” she says.
Kerger believes critics who say commercial networks would air these shows without a government subsidy might, in some cases, be right. But she argues that a show like Downton is successful in part because it is on PBS.
“We have on Sunday nights an audience that really loves this kind of programming, so we were able to build on an existing audience and add into it,” she says.
How long PBS can maintain its trendy status is unclear, but its place as an Emmy favorite is unlikely to change as long as it continues to air projects like Ken Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five.
“I am not sure that film would find the kind of home that it did on public broadcasting,” says Kerger. “(PBS) exists for people that are interested in work that is engaging but is also educational and inspiring, and that’s a different mandate than other cable organizations or broadcasters have.”
Mike Fleming Jr. is Deadline’s film editor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
After playing earnest blue-collar characters in 26 feature films, Noah Emmerich took his first real regular TV job with the FX series The Americans, and it has been a career-changing performance. Having played enough lawmen, he initially turned down the role of Stan Beeman, who began as the married, faithful, decorated FBI agent who is turned loose to catch Soviet spies in the Cold War-era 1980s. Convinced to join by pilot director and frequent collaborator Gavin O’Connor, Emmerich has watched his character become anything but boring. Since the pilot, Beeman has leveraged a Soviet embassy worker to become an informant and then began bedding the gorgeous Russian, plus executed a low-level Soviet worker to avenge the death of his partner.
“I’ve had more reaction off of this than anything else I’ve done, which has shocked me,” says Emmerich, who also had a two-episode arc on The Walking Dead. “It’s not even close.”
Although features allow far more prep time, he’s getting used to the pace of TV. “I’d call it pencil versus oil, and TV is sketching,” he says. “I’ve discovered there is a freedom and joy to having to trust your instinct.”
Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
Cinematography that stands out from the TV crowd is now about more than looking better than most other shows—it’s about getting a look that meets the high standards once reserved only for feature films.
But with television schedules and budgets typically only a fraction of their big-screen counterparts, cinematographers on shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife and Vikings use every lighting and camera tool or trick at their disposal to deliver the goods.
Digital technology and the popularity of cameras like the Alexa, which operates well in low-light conditions, have helped immensely, but it still takes creativity to find camera moves and lighting techniques that truly stand out.
Going back to basics has paid off for AMC’s Mad Men. Cinematographer Christopher Manley likes, whenever possible, to drop the second camera typically used to ensure closeups and coverage of every scene. “We set up A shots, and if the B shot can work without compromising either shot, then we’ll use it. Otherwise, we don’t,” he explains.
The result is more medium shots, giving the closeups more impact and evoking a classic big-screen style. “Doing closeups a lot of the time in television is more about a holdover style from when TVs were much smaller and people were sitting in their living room looking at a 20-inch screen 8 feet away,” says Manley. “Nowadays, everybody has a large 16:9 television that dominates their living room, so I think it’s OK to go back to a more old-fashioned scale of using wider shots.”
Sister AMC show Breaking Bad goes for the opposite effect, giving itself over to experimentation in shooting. That freedom allows cinematographer Michael Slovis, who joined the show in its second season, to stage all kinds of shots from a one-shot 5-minute teaser and vantage points as diverse as toilet bowls and wine glasses, to shots using macro and periscope lenses.
“The mandate was to tell the story any way that you could, organically, and that expanded our brush strokes,” he says. “We expanded our skill set to a more traditional film approach rather than television.”
The intelligent way the show was set up allowed Slovis to eschew traditional coverage and keep the show on its 12-hour-a-day, eight-day-per-episode shooting schedule.
Another advantage that Breaking Bad had, especially in its early years, was shooting on film—a practical decision that had immense creative payoff. “The autonomy of the camera when we started was really important,” Slovis says. “At the time, you still had to tether digital cameras to a recorder, and it would have slowed us down tremendously.”
Veteran TV cinematographer John Bartley says having most of the scripts for History’s Vikings in hand early on was key to prepping the series shoot in Ireland. Using digital Alexa cameras and soft Panavision Primo lenses, Bartley used cranes, remote cameras and lifts. “We kept it moving all the time,” he says.
Quick lighting solutions are another way to get a cinema-quality look on TV. On CBS’ The Good Wife, cinematographer Fred Murphy uses large-scale lighting and self-lit sets to limit or eliminate the need to relight every shot. “You could move in and shoot the closeup, and the camera could move through the set and there wouldn’t be any relighting,” he says.
On Mad Men, Manley says the lighting has evolved from a studio style to a more naturalistic look, aided by a switch from film to the Alexa in Season 5. “The Alexa allows you to work with less light, and it’s very exciting,” says Manley.
Bartley tapped into the special-effects department to create and manage fires and candles for Vikings as practical light sources, supplemented by fluorescent lights. “I kept saying we could never have enough candles, and they got very good at being able to make them brighter and darker,” says Bartley.
Of course, working on a series has the benefit of standing sets that very quickly become a known quantity for cinematographers and their crews.
“It’s always faster onstage, particularly when you’re working on sets you know inside and out and have worked on many times before,” says Manley. “The danger is that you start repeating yourself, and it can get stale, so I’m always looking for ways to try to keep it fresh.”
When House of Cards debuted on the streaming service Netflix in February, the series’ awards-laden cast and crew, high production values, and cinematic storylines worked awards prognosticators into a frenzy. Could the 13-episode series be the first nonbroadcast, noncable series to break through at the Emmys?
If House of Cards, its exec producer-director David Fincher, or its stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are nominated for an Emmy in a major category, it will represent a watershed moment for the television industry and a sign of things to come—when digital shows go head-to-head with broadcast and cable programs for Emmy Awards.
But while House of Cards represents a revolution in terms of how viewers consume programming, one indisputable fact remains: Emmy voters watch eligible series on DVD. In some ways, the old-media format of “For Your Consideration” DVD screeners might be the great equalizer for new streaming media.
As far as audiences are concerned—especially younger ones weaned on the Internet—there is no difference between shows that are streamed and cable and broadcast programs. A good show is a good show, whether it’s on broadcast, cable or the Internet. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn’t see a distinction either—at least not since 2008 when a rule change expanded the Emmy eligibility requirements to include broadband programs. (However, no digital program has ever been nominated, aside from a handful of nominations and wins in the short-form and interactive categories.)
“For the TV Academy, the platform origination is secondary to the content in terms of our competition. They might be coming in the room through different doors, but once they come into the room, they’re all in the same category,” says John Leverence, the TV Academy’s senior vp of awards. “The content, rather than the delivery mode, is what counts.”
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, has said that he doesn’t operate within the traditional Hollywood system—he doesn’t release ratings, doesn’t always require pilots, launches all episodes of a season at the same time, and allots movie-size budgets for television series. But when it comes to the Emmys, even Netflix has to send out screeners. Which begs the question: Even though streaming services are changing the rules of the game when it comes to creating quality programming, does it matter when voters generally view all of the shows—broadcast, cable and streaming—on DVD?
“Content is content. You don’t judge a show differently if you watch it on a 13-inch TV or 32-inch TV. It’s just a different way of getting it. When screeners go out, people watch it on DVD,” says House of Cards executive producer Dana Brunetti. “You’re supposed to be judging the content, not the way you view it.”
Intent on showing the industry that it didn’t have to play by the same rules, Netflix was, at one point, unsure of whether or not it would send DVDs to voters. Wouldn’t that be sending mixed messages to the industry?
Nevertheless, when the streaming company eventually chose to send out mailers to Emmy voters, they gave TV Academy members two methods in which to watch and consider House of Cards and Arrested Development. In the House of Cards mailer, they provided a unique code that allows ATAS members to access Netflix and stream the series through the voting period. But, realizing that not all members are comfortable with technology, they also sent out the old-fashioned DVD screeners. “Leading up to nominations, we felt it was important to give viewers and voters different ways in which to watch—so they could pick what they preferred,” says Sarandos.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the question of how to reach voters with a new technology has arisen. Not so long ago, cable was the new kid on the block at the Emmys. Back in 1988, when the TV Academy first allowed cable networks to compete in the Primetime Emmy Awards, broadcast networks griped about the new edgier competition, which didn’t have to follow the same guidelines as network television—there were fewer content restrictions and fewer hours of programming to produce.
It took another five years for a cable network to win its first major award (HBO’s Stalin and Barbarians at the Gate tied for outstanding made-for-television movie).
In recent years, cable networks have largely dominated the major Emmy categories—particularly drama series—with critically acclaimed shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Homeland, among many others. What was once considered edgy fare is now mainstream.
Now cable networks are the ones facing upstart competition in the form of digital programmers, such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other online companies investing in original series—and some cable execs are leveling the same complaints against streaming services that the broadcasters lobbed at them: They’re playing by a different set of rules.
But whether or not it takes streaming series as long as it took cable to break through at the Emmys is anyone’s guess. “Internet became eligible in 2008,” Leverence says. “Five years later, we have House of Cards. The rampup period could be similar.”
In addition to House of Cards and Arrested Development, Netflix has a full slate of programs in production and development, including the horror-thriller Hemlock Grove; Orange Is the New Black, based on the book of the same name; Derek from Ricky Gervais; and Lilyhammer, which will return for its second season in the fall.
Amazon let viewers decide which of its 14 pilots would be picked up, ultimately settling on six that were announced in May, and Hulu is producing original series, the first of which is set to debut this summer. YouTube is also a potential contender.
“In the future, I think a large portion of the nominees will come from different methods of distribution, simply because there will be more content distributed,” says Brunetti. “It’s simple math.”
Some broadcast and cable executives grouse about the fact that the press gives undue attention to digital shows like House of Cards because they’re a novelty. “When you hear people talking about it, they are talking about the platform and the mode of delivery rather than the quality,” says one veteran cable executive.
Interestingly, Sarandos points out that most of the people who watched House of Cards watched on their TVs, rather than their mobile devices or laptops. “I hope our content is judged at the same high level as anything on television, regardless of how it gets to the television,” he says.
And not all executives see the digital influx as a threat. “It took a long time for cable shows to get the recognition from the TV Academy. It would be a little bit disingenuous to complain about allowing these streaming guys to allow their best programming to be considered,” says Robert DeBitetto, president of brand strategy and business development at A&E Studios.
The nomination process still slightly favors broadcast and cable over streaming because those shows are more easily accessible to viewers—you just turn on the TV to see it.
“We tell people to vote for those shows you have seen and feel are worthy of nominations. So with a show that has 18 to 20 million people watching a week, there’s a statistical advantage since you may have a larger pool of potential voters,” explains Leverence.
But when screeners go out to members of the TV Academy, everyone judges the shows on the DVD they receive in the mail.
“It’s the great leveler of the screeners,” Leverence explains. “We tell people to respond to what they receive in the package.”
Regardless, streaming content is changing the Emmys, says Chris Long, senior vp of entertainment at DirecTV. “If you create content that is compelling, it should be allowed in,” says Long. “More content means more competition, which raises the quality of content. The more, the merrier!”
Besides, broadcast and cable networks are streaming more and more content as well, so the distinction between broadcast, cable and digital will continue to blur. “I think we are past segmenting shows by the way in which they are delivered to the TV,” says Sarandos. “If we are fortunate enough to have a show nominated or—knock on wood—win, it would be a great symbol of relevance for the distribution model,” says Sarandos.
In the first episode of History’s Vikings, lead character Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) can barely contain his excitement as he tries to persuade brother Rollo (Clive Standen) that Viking ships might venture West to discover what new cities and new gods might be found in uncharted territory. How, wonders Rollo, can a ship stay true to its course with no land in sight?
Ragnar shows Rollo the sunboard, a disc that floats on water and charts direction by the location of the noon shadow. Rollo remains skeptical: What happens when clouds obscure the sun? Ragnar then unwraps the precious sunstone, a crystal whose reflective properties can pinpoint the sun’s position even in blinding fog.
The sunstone had long been part of Viking legend when Justin Pollard, historical consultant and associate producer of Vikings (History’s first scripted series), suggested to series creator-writer Michael Hirst that the sunstone (actually a calcite crystal called Icelandic spar) be woven in the story.
But it came as a surprise when, less than two weeks after the series’ March 3 premiere, news reports broke that a piece of the crystal had been discovered in a shipwreck from the later Elizabethan period, suggesting that the “magic gem” of Viking legend was not only real, but the navigational tool was borrowed by other cultures and used for centuries after the Vikings sailed the seas.
“Justin is my anchor,” Hirst says. “It’s his input which anchors my stories in the real and the true. I needed to give Ragnar, my hero, some piece of knowledge so useful and special that it both marked him out from other men and also pushed the story forward.” Finding hard evidence of the sunstone after the fact, Hirst says, was the icing on the historical cake.
In a telephone interview from his home in Dorset, England, Pollard—historical consultant for film and TV productions including Les Misérables,numerous Working Title films including Atonement and Elizabeth and Showtime’s series The Tudors, also created by Hirst—says it’s all about using concrete clues to create what might have been.
“As a writer, you can imagine a more primitive world, but it’s very hard to imagine what’s now missing, what they used to have that’s gone,” Pollard says. “That’s what I try to do.”
Pollard feels a particular obligation to illuminate the truth about Viking culture, defined in the mind of the general public by horned helmets (they didn’t wear those) or Bugs Bunny’s animated romp through Wagnerian opera in What’s Opera, Doc?
“It’s about making a bigger world. Not every Viking was a warrior,” Pollard says. He is particularly proud of bringing to light the role of women, who were more independent and powerful than in much later periods of European history.
Pollard acknowledges that History draws an unusually well-read audience. “We did have one instance where Athelstan (George Blagden) is speaking Anglo-Saxon, and someone said his Anglo-Saxon didn’t have enough of a Northumbrian accent,” he recalls. Pollard was less annoyed than awed that a viewer knew Anglo-Saxon well enough to discern the regional accent.
Pollard says his biggest challenge is speed. Being able to locate an expert on Latvian hats at, well, the drop of a hat—or getting “the call at 3 in the morning saying, ‘We could do with a bit of Norse swearing. Can I have it in an hour?’”
But speed can have its advantages. The creative team can access the most recent academic research and bring it to a general audience far more quickly than the classroom can. “That’s the best thing about comparing an academic historian’s role to doing this—I get to wander through these places, and live in these times,” Pollard says. “You see characters brought to life on the screen more quickly than you do in academia.”
Pollard said re-creating a real historic period can be more rewarding than inventing a fantasy past for a series such as Game of Thrones. “It’s beautiful, it’s strange, but nothing is particularly surprising in a fantasy world,” he says. “The beauty of historical drama is you can find the beautiful and the strange in things that really did happen.”
Megan Masters is West Coast editor at TVLine. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
Monica Potter has a secret. Contrary to what the Parenthood actress’ drama-centric résumé—which includes big-screen offerings like Patch Adams and Along Came a Spider, and TV’s Boston Legal—might suggest, she’s actually quite funny. (“I am funny, thanks,” she insists with a laugh.) It’s that fact that makes her performance throughout the NBC drama’s fourth season all the more impressive. With ease and humility, Potter portrayed the highs and lows that come with battling breast cancer. After three seasons as a Parenthood standout, will Potter’s memorable turn (and her recent win at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards) garner her some Emmy love?
You’ve joked in the past about not being as classically trained as some of your costars—yet here we are.
(Laughs.) I’m just being tongue-in-cheek. I’ve been learning since I was in my teens, but I never went somewhere like NYU. Peter (Krause) and I joke that he went to all of these colleges and is so ‘theater,’ and I’m jealous because I’m not. (Laughs.) I’ve learned from life experiences. If you go through certain things, you’re able to pull from them.
Parenthood is no doubt an ensemble series, but Kristina’s breast cancer storyline really propelled you to the forefront.
I think the biggest reason for that is because (Parenthood executive producer) Jason Katims’ wife actually went through this. A lot of the stuff that (Peter and I) do in the show mirrors (Katims’) family; his son has Asperger’s, and his wife had breast cancer. I don’t know if this was an intentional thing, but it just took on a life of its own. It was a challenge—but I was so happy Jason gave me the work to do.
How did you prepare for this arc?
When I found out we were going to (tell this story), I wanted to ask my husband everything because he’s a cancer surgeon—but I didn’t. I didn’t ask him anything because I wanted to experience this first-hand with Kristina. Every woman’s experience is different. I’ve had close friends who had this disease and I (witnessed) what it did to their self-esteem, their family—I learned so much from just looking at it through their life and how they lived it.
Cancer storylines aren’t new to TV, but Parenthood was able to make it feel fresh—and you were able to humanize Kristina’s journey this season.
I worried about that a little bit. Women still, when they have breast cancer, go to work; they still lead their lives. They have to. But that (freshness) had a lot to do with the writing. I just did what I was supposed to do. I didn’t want to exploit it or be too “actory” about it, if that makes any sense. That’s also why I didn’t shave my head; I feel like you have to earn that. I applaud other actors who do that and I am not ripping on them, but to me, that’s a badge of honor if you’re fighting this disease.
How important was it to infuse humor into what could have been a mostly somber performance?
The women I know who have gone through breast cancer still laugh a lot. They’re not crying all day—even though Kristina did plenty of that this season. In moments throughout, we were able to make things lighter and change the tone because that’s life.
A lot of actors develop a real affinity for the characters they portray onscreen. Was it difficult for you to “watch” Kristina go through this?
Kristina actually bugged me the first couple of seasons. (Laughs.) I would think, “You need to freaking let loose!” But now I have grown to love her. This year, I really was pulling for her and just wanting her to be OK. It was one of those things where going through this with her (helped me) really love her. But the first two seasons, I was like, “Oh, boy.” (Laughs.)
Are there any moments from the past season that really stand out in your mind?
Every single moment of every single scene that I had to do was so special for me. Nothing was ever glossed over. It was like going to the Super Bowl every day and putting your best foot forward. These little moments would just unfold and happen in the best ways because they were unplanned. With some of the stuff, we were not on script and that’s when all of this really great stuff would happen. I relied so heavily on Peter, who is the most awesome actor I have ever worked with. He’s just very calming when I’m not. Same thing with Max (Burkholder) and Sarah Ramos (who plays Haddie Braverman), my little TV family. I don’t even know how to explain this last season. It was messy, it was magical, it was honest, it was grounded, it was spiritual and it was profound. I really didn’t have anything to do with it—it just happened.
You had something to do with it.
(Laughs.) I would just light my candles in my trailer before I’d shoot—I’m surprised it didn’t burn down this year! I’d say a little prayer and go to work. I was trying to not control anything and just let go. When I did that, it was great.