The reason AMC executives were willing to lock horns long enough with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner to push the Season 5 premiere back a year is about to become very clear: AMC is flush with quality programming, flush enough to have three horses in the Emmy race. Which is good news for AMC, and viewers, and bad news for the networks.
Sometimes a lucky strike is more than just a lucky strike, and when it premiered, “Mad Men” was more than just a great show. It was AMC’s announcement that it was not only getting into the original content business, it was also getting into the pay cable-style original content business: 13-episode series from serious writers with serious casts and ratings that ranged from hard PG-13 to R.
“Breaking Bad,” which premiered six months after “Mad Men,” drew accolades for its cast (Bryan Cranston has won three consecutive lead actor Emmys, though the series is ineligible this year), but its dark themes of death and the drug world kept its audience, and magazine cover potential, more naturally confined (no Vanity Fair features on “what to pair with home-made crystal meth”). Its critical success, combined with solid ratings and good reviews for “The Walking Dead” and “The Killing,” apparently made AMC execs comfortable enough to risk the wrath of both Weiner, arguably still the network’s hottest commodity, and “Mad Men” viewers, who now have to wait until March to find out if Don Draper is really going to marry his secretary.
On top of AMC’s contenders, HBO has “Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood,” F/X has “Justified,” Showtime the Julia Stiles season of “Dexter” and “The Borgias,” and even DirecTV (with NBC) has “Friday Night Lights.” All showcase casts whose diversity is equaled only by their excellence.
While a bounty of terrific basic cable shows is always good news for viewers (and TV critics), it only exacerbates a chronic Emmy season issue — although networks still draw millions more viewers, even their best and most popular shows have a tough time at the Emmys.
Sure, “The Good Wife” should be able to find a place at the best drama table (are you listening, members of the television academy?), but among such company, what chances do envelope-pushers like “Fringe,” or workhorses like “House,” or popular procedurals like “The Mentalist” or “Castle” have?
Slim to none.
Now, as someone who is professionally obligated to watch the Emmys each and every year, I am certainly not advocating making it a longer show. As the recent merging of the miniseries and made-for-TV movie categories indicates, most folks are looking for fewer, not more, awards. But an argument can be made that a show made up of 13 episodes by writers who celebrate when their numbers scrape the 3 million mark should not be competing against a 23-episode show with writers who might lose their jobs if their audience falls below 10 million.
Before “Mad Men” became the first basic cable show to win the Emmy for outstanding drama series, HBO was the 300-pound gorilla in the green room; now the room is filled with so many gorillas there aren’t even enough seats for them all, never mind the zebra and the elk hanging in the doorway. In too many ways, cable and network shows are different species and deserve to be judged by their own separate merits, if not in the acting or writing categories, which are judged by specific episodes, then certainly as best drama series.
The trouble, of course, is that division creates hierarchy, and no one wants to win an award especially created for them. Certainly, the television academy could expand the nomination list — heck, if the Oscars can, with a straight face, pick 10 nominees for best picture, so can the Emmys. In the end, I suppose, it’s up to the voters to keep in mind that “outstanding” is a very elastic term, that “outstanding” has as much to do with context as content, and being popular doesn’t mean you aren’t smart.