Gold Standard: Emmy bids by ‘True Detective’ and ‘Fargo’ bend categories

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in HBO's "True Detective."
(Lacey Terrell / HBO)

HBO’s “True Detective” and FX’s “Fargo” both premiered this year as closed-end crime dramas, series that wrap up the story line by season’s end and when they return next season they’ll have new casts, new settings and, in the case of “True Detective,” new crackpot theories (annotated with screenshots!) about the meaning of it all. But the anthology shows won’t face each other at the Emmys because their networks — with an eye toward brand-building or simply winning as many trophies as possible — are submitting them in different categories. The 10-episode “Fargo” lands in miniseries, while “True Detective,” with two fewer episodes, will compete for the prestigious honor of best drama series.

“I’ve got conflicted feelings about it, and they’re probably what you’d imagine,” “True Detective” creator and show runner Nic Pizzolatto says. “I probably just went from being a contender to a long shot, but it was a great vote of confidence in their belief in the show’s quality.”

FX President John Landgraf doesn’t quite see it that way, telling reporters at his network’s upfront advertisers presentation that it was “actually unfair for HBO to put ‘True Detective’ in the drama series category because essentially you can get certain actors to do a closed-ended series — à la Billy Bob Thornton in ‘Fargo’ or Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in ‘True Detective’ — who you can’t get to sign on for a seven-year [regular drama series] deal.” The thinking: It’s arbitrary to pit shows that are essentially eight- to 10-hour movies against open-ended programs that span several seasons.

But you know what? That’s TV today, a medium where format and narrative boundaries have been expanded and all but erased. So why shouldn’t the awards honoring television follow suit? HBO’s decision to submit the superb “True Detective” in the drama category might be the best thing to ever happen to the Emmys. Let’s be honest: Nobody remembers what program won for miniseries. But a drama race that pits “True Detective” against the final season of “Breaking Bad” is the television award season’s answer to Ali versus Frazier. Throw in “Game of Thrones” and “The Good Wife,” programs that might just be enjoying their best seasons, and you have an Emmy race worth debating, not to mention a reason to watch the show other than seeing whether voters give awards to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Claire Danes and “Modern Family” again.


Besides, it’s not as if this kind of higgledy-piggledy category placement hasn’t been all the rage recently. PBS submitted “Downton Abbey” as a miniseries after its first season, even though everyone knew seven episodes couldn’t possibly contain the sum total of the dowager’s cutting remarks or Lady Mary’s moping. When FX labeled “American Horror Story” a miniseries two years ago, most people saw it as a ploy to game the system (Jimmy Kimmel: “It’s not a miniseries — let’s be honest”), although, yes, its first season of 13 episodes did tell a close-ended story that, unlike “Downton,” wouldn’t be revisited in Season 2.

Really, from all appearances, it seems as if “True Detective” is the only series that wants to compete in the drama category. Netflix designated its women-behind-bars dramedy “Orange Is the New Black” as a comedy even though it features murder, drug overdoses, aggressive urination and Jason Biggs. That move, at least, has some precedent, what with dark-edged premium-cable programs like “Nurse Jackie” and “The Big C” challenging laugh-out-loud shows such as “Modern Family,” “30 Rock” and “The Big Bang Theory” for the comedy series Emmy. (And the designation also keeps “Orange” out of the way of Netflix’s returning drama series hopeful, “House of Cards.”)

Meanwhile, after three years of submitting “Shameless” as a drama (and picking up just three nominations, all for Joan Cusack’s supporting turn as an agoraphobic neighbor), Showtime has now decided that “Shameless” is, in fact, a comedy — just as the series finished a hard-edged season that’s inarguably its darkest on record. Again, there’s a certain logic here beyond the fact that the producers had grown tired of being ignored. But the same line of thinking could just as easily see “Breaking Bad” (a show that perfected the art of gallows humor) moving over to comedy too.

Of course, since “Breaking Bad” won the drama series Emmy last year (finally!), it probably won’t switch over in its final go-round with voters. But who’s to say if “Mad Men,” now completing the first half of its two-year farewell tour, doesn’t make the cut this summer that it won’t shuffle the deck and decide (based on, if nothing else, Roger Sterling’s quips and Pete Campbell’s sideburns) that it too is a comedy. And if “Game of Thrones” upped the body count just a notch, maybe it could sneak into the miniseries category, based on the shortage of continuing characters.


I jest. (Mostly.) But decry the current name-your-own-category state of affairs all you want, it beats the olden times (going all the way back to a decade ago) when the television academy more or less engraved the drama series Emmy the moment “The West Wing” was nominated. Yes, it’s a crazy situation. But, to borrow the words of our favorite detective, Rust Cohle, “If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

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