July 22, 2008

The Mayor of Television Blog


Mad damage

It's about time.

The fact that "Mad Men" and "Damages" both copped Emmy nominations in the best drama series category -- and, in the process, became the first basic-cable shows to earn a nomination in the most prestigious category -- is significant, but equally significant is the fact that it took so long for basic cable to break through in this category.

There have long been deserving basic cable shows that never broke through to TV's highest honor -- think "Rescue Me" or "Battlestar Galactica." The fact that it took mountains of critical hype and a couple of Golden Globes in AMC's "Mad Men's" case and stars of the caliber of Glenn Close and Ted Danson and an ingenious storyline in the case of FX's "Damages" doesn't so much prove that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has finally absorbed a cutting-edge aesthetic sensibility as that it finally quit resisting the inevitable: Basic cable programming can be far superior to that on the broadcast networks.

Overall, the academy did what it has always done best: the same- old, same-old. Showtime's "Dexter" joined "Mad Men" and "Damages" in the best drama series category, but all the other nominees there and in best comedy series are veteran nominees. ("Boston Legal" was nominated, yet again, proving it to be the beast that simply cannot be killed.) Both ABC's "Pushing Daisies" and HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" -- a couple of the freshest, funniest shows currently on the air -- managed to earn nominations for both writing and directing, and yet somehow got snubbed in the comedy series category in favor of perennially nominated shows that seem to be phoning it in ("Two and a Half Men,""Entourage"). "Pushing Daisies" did manage a couple of acting nominations, for Lee Pace and Kristin Chenoweth.

Despite the "Wire" snub, HBO again dominated, with 85 nominations, 23 alone for its miniseries "John Adams." It got 22 of the 30 possible nominations in the movie/miniseries acting, writing and directing categories. You almost wonder why anyone else bothers in those categories.

NBC's "30 Rock" led all series with 17 nominations, including seven in the guest-actor categories, which apparently means no other show on TV can cast guest stars capably, or that "30 Rock's" stunt casting just works particularly well (and my favorite "30 Rock" guest -- Matthew Broderick as the nebbishy Washington crony -- didn't even get nominated). What does this show have to do to get people to watch it?

Still, perhaps this is the turning point for the Emmys. AMC won a total of 20 nominations, the most of any basic cable network, led by "Mad Men's" 16 (the most of any drama); its edgy "Breaking Bad" even managed four nominations, including Bryan Cranston for best actor in a drama. FX earned a total of 11 nominations, including seven for "Damages" and a couple apiece for "Rescue Me" and "Nip/Tuck."

Now that ATAS has finally recognized what a lot of people have been saying for years -- the quality shows have migrated to cable, both basic and premium -- the broadcast networks find themselves in even more of a quandary. They've been sliding in the ratings in recent years, losing ever more viewers to cable, but when they've tried to develop shows as quirky and distinctive as those on cable, they've discover that the cable-size ratings that accompany such shows don't really work for them. They've been able to find solace, such as it is, in the fact that they've still managed to dominate the major categories at the Emmys. Now, that, too, is changing.

How can the broadcast networks remain relevant with top-notch programming and still retain the levels of viewership they need to remain financially viable? Based on what we've seen of their 2008- 09 schedules, they have yet to figure that out.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638 [email protected]

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