Real Emmy drama

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One of the biggest cliffhangers at the upcoming Primetime Emmys is: Which new shows can break through to become a nominee for best drama series?

That category is already crowded with longtime faves such as last year's winner "24," trusty nominee "Grey's Anatomy" (today's equivalent to always-nominated "E.R." in its early days?) and "The Sopranos," a past champ that could benefit from sentimental support in its final season. Add to those 2005 winner "Lost," which many voters feel has an I.O.U. after being undeservedly snubbed last year, and things start looking crowded at the top.

But as "Lost" proved in 2006, no series is a lock and now many Emmywatchers believe these rookies stand a realistic chance: "Heroes," "Brothers and Sisters," "Friday Night Lights," "The Tudors," "The Riches," "Studio City on the Sunset Strip" and "Dexter."

Unfortunately, they must fend off challenges from continuing shows that could sneak in based upon past Emmy voting patterns: "The Shield," "Rescue Me," "House," "E.R.," "Deadwood," "The Closer," "Boston Legal" and "C.S.I."

So which new shows can really break through?

History reveals that voters like to add at least one or two newbies to the lineup. Because nominations are determined in large part upon a popular vote of TV academy members, Nielsen ratings often matter. "Heroes" and "Brothers and Sisters" were the highest-rated scripted new shows.

But buzz and snob appeal are also big factors, which could boost "The Tudors," since it's a sexy retelling of a royal story that's won many Emmys and Oscars in the past. Sometimes voters will forgive a series about blue-collar life, even if it's low-rated, as long as it has the elitist appeal of being backed enthusiastically by TV critics.

That scenario bolsters "Friday Night Lights" and, to some extent, "The Riches," because it's about trashy folk parading as the uppity kind.

No new drama series has had more buzz and better ratings than "Heroes," but it may be cursed because it's a fantasy thriller. Emmy voters, just like Oscar voters, tend to prefer more realistic fare with artsy pretension. However, the early success of "Lost" suggests that there's real Emmy hope for "Heroes."

"Brothers and Sisters" seems to be the most Emmy-friendly rookie, a sort of updated "Family," the 1970s series about a California clan that reaped three bids for best series, plus Emmy wins for stars Sada Thompson, Kristy McNichol and Gary Frank.

"Brothers and Sisters" took a while to catch on. Now it's a must-see series among a more mature TV crowd, which defines the bulk of academy membership. An added plus is that it's packed with familiar Emmy faces — past nominees and winners such as Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Calista Flockhart, Patricia Wettig and Rob Lowe.

But Ray Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter doesn't believe it'll be nominated for best series. "Calista Flockhart and Sally Field have genuine shots of cracking the Emmy acting field," he says. "Calista has never won but was nominated three times for 'Ally McBeal.' Field has won a few of them, most recently for 'ER.' Rachel Griffiths -- a two-time nominee for 'Six Feet Under' -- also has a smaller shot. The older TV academy voters will no doubt anoint at least one of the three ladies for acting consideration. If I were to guess, it would be Field (two-time Oscar winner that she is, deigning TV with her presence)."

Richmond believes "Tudors" and "Studio 60" "have the best shot" at nabbing a nom for best drama series, adding, "'Tudors' has great buzz and the veneer of class behind it. Even if voters don't watch it in full, they're going to want to vote for it because it makes them look smart -- historical epic that it is (even if it's steeped in rampant copulation).

"'Studio 60' has that whole 'Arrested Development' thing going for it: great quality, underappreciated in its time, destined to be something of an Emmy martyr (what with its likely cancellation before season's end)," he says. "It's also pretty much a mandate that Aaron Sorkin must be honored or the Earth stops spinning on its axis straightaway."

Marc Berman of MediaWeek disagrees, saying, "The demise of 'Studio 60' means Emmy is unlikely to take notice. 'Friday Night Lights' could stand the greatest chance because of a) the growing critical response and b) the potential of saving the series with the trophy."

Diane Werts of Newsday calls "Lights" "a beautifully rendered intimate, portrait of family and community life. But it's quietly told, it's small-town Texas, they've got down-home accents, and football figures into it -- not exactly angles one can imagine the 'sophisticated' denizens of glittery Hollywood identifying with."

"I'd love to see 'Heroes' get Emmy recognition," she adds. "It's such a smartly designed, compellingly sustained example of creative storytelling. It serves so many characters so well, and tells such a monumental story. But Emmy voters tend to be scared of what they consider 'genre' shows. Or the high human drama of 'Battlestar Galactica' would have been nominated by now.

"Ditto for 'Dexter,'" Werts says. "What an inventively told tale, pulling you deep inside such a fascinating character, combining suspense, drama and ironic wit. But, of course, he's a serial killer, and I can't see Emmy honoring that, even if he is Michael C. Hall."

Richmond believes that "the only shot for 'Dexter' is Michael C. Hall for lead actor, which would be a coup in itself (though hardly a shocker given his Globe nom). To date, HBO is the only cable network to earn a top drama series nomination ('The Sopranos,' 'Six Feet Under'), and it seems ATAS is still reticent to honor someone else in the category. 'The Tudors' would seem to have the best shot yet of busting down that wall.

"'Heroes' strikes me as a popular hit and a critical yawn," says Richmond. "'Friday Night Lights' is the opposite: a critical darling and a viewer flop. But both spell Emmy apathy, to my mind."

Berman says that "'The Riches' is a longshot because of the other FX dramas yet-to-be recognized." However, it benefits from the cache of A-List stars Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver and its message of what a sham wealth can be is a powerful one among BMW-driving Hollywooders who don fake tans, phony smiles and decide who wins gold-plated TV awards.

Those voters will whittle down nominees to a list of 10 finalists, who will submit a sample episode to judging panels that'll determine the five nominees to be unveiled on July 19.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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