With new content providers blooming like tomato plants in June and more new shows than anyone can reasonably watch, the television awards season offers a brutal winnowing process. Only a handful of programs that premiered this qualifying year are likely to figure at the Emmys; not surprisingly, most are on cable channels. "The broadcast networks are already struggling with the reality that no one is going to get 30 million viewers ever again, and now they also have to face not winning Emmys," says Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara. Cable shows compete with as few as six or eight episodes, while broadcast networks have to grind out 22 to 24 — a schism that can unfairly tilt the board. That said, here are three new shows positioned to have a significant effect when Emmy voters cast their ballots, plus a handful of freshman series that are Emmy-eligible for the first time after premiering in the latter part of 2013.
TRUE DETECTIVE (HBO)
With Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson teaming up, this harrowing crime saga about detectives hunting a serial killer through a contaminated Louisiana landscape was greeted with near-religious fervor by many critics. But does it fully merit the hosannas? The whodunit here seems less important than grappling with the moral universe that permits these atrocities. Recognition is inevitable for the two leads and also likely for sole writer Nic Pizzolatto, whose work elevates the genre, director Cary Fukunaga, aboard for the full run, and the moody, so-bleak-it's-beautiful cinematography by Adam Arkapaw.
McNamara's take: "McConaughey got more attention because his role seemed more difficult and out there, but Harrelson's was actually harder to play because he was the one who had to tether the craziness to planet Earth. Still, if I had to guess, I'd say McConaughey is more likely to win."
Writer-producer Noah Hawley colonizes the snowbound, brutally hilarious world created by filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen with a new crime saga and characters. Billy Bob Thornton initiates the mayhem as a hit man who warns a local milquetoast (Martin Freeman) about the "red tide" of bullying and emasculation that will sweep him away if he doesn't stand up to it. So he does, unleashing a red tide that's all too real. Reviews, surprisingly, have been mostly stellar.
McNamara's take: "Billy Bob is the reason to watch; he brings a dark joy to his performance that sets the tone, even though it's coming from a place of evil. It's a crazy, crazy show, and much better than I expected." Since the TV academy has restored a separate miniseries category, with expanded slots for talent recognition, it's a good bet there'll be a warm spot by the fire for Thornton, the show, sole writer Hawley and perhaps even for standout supporting players Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks.
SILICON VALLEY (HBO)
Creator Mike Judge lampoons the current tech boom in this Palo Alto-set tale of a band of bros who grapple with big-time pressure to succeed after one of their hapless number stumbles onto a game-changing algorithm. Critics logged in enthusiastically, with TV Guide's Matt Roush praising its "deft, resonant satire," while Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter called the pilot "flat-out brilliant." Its ensemble cast of relative newcomers, though, may make it hard to single out a nominee.
McNamara's take: "It's fun to watch, and it captures an important time and place, but to me it seems surprisingly like something you could watch on any channel.
FIRST TIME AT BAT:
"Masters of Sex": This Showtime series scored a Golden Globe nomination for actor Michael Sheen and is likely to fare even better at the Emmys. As pioneering sex researcher Virginia Johnson, "Lizzy Caplan really makes that show — she exemplifies [its story of] the role sex played in the feminist revolution," says McNamara. Guest actress kudos are likely for Allison Janney as the neglected wife of a closeted homosexual. "She's so good and fearless in that role," says McNamara. "It's the bravest performance I've seen on TV in a long time."
"The Blacklist": Golden Globe-nominated James Spader in an outsized role as a criminal mastermind turned FBI informant makes this NBC series a contender.
"Sleepy Hollow": Female lead Nicole Beharie, nominated already for an NAACP Image Award, could help the Fox series at the Emmys. "The show is an over-the-top, crazy, cranked-up fantasy, but they completely pull it off," says McNamara. "I'd like to see Beharie become a huge star."
"Orange Is the New Black": The Netflix prison series will be submitted as a comedy. Lead actress Taylor Schilling got a Globe nomination; others in the ensemble may well get nods at the Emmys. "It should win best comedy; there's nothing else like it," says McNamara. "Taylor Schilling is like the maypole around which everybody else dances. They should all be nominated, like the cast of 'Modern Family.' They deserve every slot."