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For Your Consideration: Impending Emmy Nominations and the Case For “Quality” Dramas Not on Cable
Brittany Shelton / FLOW Co-Marketing Editor

Outstanding Drama Series Nominations

2010 Outstanding Drama Series Nominations

I have been following Michael Ausiello on Twitter since he was still a writer for Entertainment Weekly. I find Ausiello’s fandom-fueled journalistic style refreshing and relatable, especially when he posts excited Twitpics from the set of Friday Night Lights or all-caps in-seat reviews for new films (his latest and most awesome 140 character review for Super 8 read something like “OMG. WOW. OMG. WOW. OMG. WOW. GO. SEE. IT.”). Ausiello has now transitioned to the position of Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TVLine.com, a television-focused entertainment news site, and I have recently found myself drawn to certain @MichaelAusiello tweets that feature links to TVLine articles about drama series on both major networks and cable. It must be stated that I am, first and foremost, a television comedy fan. I’ll stream old episodes of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation on Netflix before tuning in for new episodes of Justified or The Good Wife. However, a recent TVLine post about the forthcoming 2011 Emmy nominations caught my eye by succinctly underlining the current state of the hour-long drama on television and the growing divide between cable and network programming in the genre.

In a piece entitled “Emmys 2011: Analyzing the Best Drama Series Race – Including Our 6 Dream Nominees,” TVLine immediately posits that this year’s category “might as well be called Outstanding cable Drama Series.” Of course, this statement is no great revelation. Cable dramas have dominated dramatic categories at award shows such as the Primetime Emmys and the Golden Globes for years, even going so far as to seep over into the comedic categories (Please stop stealing Tina Fey’s awards, Edie Falco!). According to analysis by the TVLine Team in the article, broadcast networks will be lucky if they get just one show in the final running for Best Drama Series at the Emmys, and everyone’s money is on CBS’ The Good Wife. Being nominated in its first season last year bodes well for the series this time around, and the show has managed to maintain its “quality” status by still garnering critical acclaim for its acting, writing and political timeliness while also maintaining high enough ratings to survive on network TV.

The Good Wife

The Good Wife

While there are a handful of network dramas beyond The Good Wife not likely to receive nominations despite being quite deserving (Friday Night Lights and Fringe to name just two), I am more puzzled by the relative lack of Emmy buzz for NBC’s ensemble “dramedy” Parenthood. For me, Parenthood is somewhat of a network television anomaly, managing to hold its own on Tuesday nights despite airing opposite The Good Wife. First, the show maintains an enduring paratextual connotation with “quality TV” due to the creative influence of former Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims. The series is also shot in a similarly cinematic fashion, with multiple handheld cameras shooting at once and helping promote more open, naturalistic acting. Finally, the hour-long drama features a number of well-known “quality TV” actors such as Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause and Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham as well as a multitude of FNL cast alums. Ultimately, many of Parenthood’s more cinematic aesthetic features help formally situate the show in the category of “quality TV,” but the series’ narrative also reads successfully modern and fresh. This relevance is due to the series’ careful consideration of trendy topics like parenting a child with Asperger’s and teen pre-marital sex, all while the show largely operates within the confines of a very conventional patriarchal drama led by the head of the Braverman family, Zeek (Craig T. Nelson). It would appear, therefore, that with Parenthood showrunner Katims has managed to helm a series that combines the best of both televisual worlds, fusing critical acclaim and conventionality in a way that makes “quality TV,” with all of its narrative complexities, intertextuality and cinematic lineage, accessible for a broadcast network audience.

Parenthood

Parenthood

In the current TV landscape, this alone seems like an award-worthy feat. When full-blown network attempts at “quality TV” like FOX’s Kyle Killen-penned Lone Star get cancelled after only two episodes due to low Nielsen ratings, it drives home the reality that new network series are under extreme pressure to deliver large, satisfied audiences from day one. In cable, however, the opposite seems to be truer than ever. The Killing, the newest addition to the category of almost unbearably slow cable dramas, received a second season pick-up last week based largely, some would say solely, on its early critical acclaim. Because The Killing airs on AMC (where story matters), it has the luxury of narrative breathability and relative freedom from ratings scrutiny. It’s no wonder then that cable dramas are dominating the award shows today – they are free to offer viewers more calculated and complex narratives that allow characters to realistically develop in seemingly real time. How then can Emmy voters compare an episode of The Killing to an episode of Parenthood that, by comparison, seems wildly frenetic and disjointed? And how can any network drama compete with shows like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men or Game of Thrones when expectations for cable and network dramas are so vastly different, especially when it comes to time and narrative pace?

The Killing

The Killing

Of course, these kinds of questions plague award shows and award show viewers every year, and part of the problem with championing a show like Parenthood is its inherent, network driven inability to fully embrace its “quality” elements and status (Jonathan Gray revealed what happened to FNL when it became “more than a football drama” in “The Reviews are In”)1. As Krause told Entertainment Weekly in an interview last September, Katims’ major emphasis when crafting Parenthood for a network audience is having the actors creating authentic, just right “moments” within the narrative that all viewers can relate to. Can you imagine a cable show like Breaking Bad ever citing such a philosophy, especially in public? In a perfect world, every moment of a series no matter its network origin should strive to resonate with viewers as a whole in an authentic and “quality” way. Is the problem, therefore, that we have come to expect that network dramas can only offer brief moments of cable-like “quality” due to the structural confines of mass entertainment? That would certainly explain why the Emmys, and seemingly everyone else, privilege cable dramas.

Overall, NBC appears to be the network most wholly committed to “quality” shows such as Community, Parks and Recreation and Parenthood that straddle the line between cult critical darling and (relatively) popular series. But will the Emmys recognize complex network balancing acts like these when cable offerings not only have bigger production budgets and more money for award show campaigns, but also less rigid guidelines for what constitutes the success of a series and room for more than mere moments of “quality”? I guess we’ll have to wait until July 14th to see if network dramas get any Emmy recognition in the form of series or actor nominations.

Image Credits:

Images:
1. 2010 Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Drama Series
2. The Good Wife
3. Parenthood
4. The Killing

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Gray, Jonathan. “The Reviews are In: TV Critics and the (Pre)Creation of Meaning.” Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence. Michael Kackman et al, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2010). 114-127. Print. []

Comments

  • Taylor Cole Miller (Author) said:

    Rereading this, I was surprised to see that THE GOOD WIFE was on CBS. I wonder if there is a marker of “quality TV” within one network’s own lineup of programs, and if that can be projected onto its own labeling as “quality.” What I mean is, while NBC might churn out program after program of what it calls “quality television” – I don’t believe CBS has ever made such a push, as its programs have always been targeted toward the older, “mass audience” crowd, while NBC programs seem to me to be attempting to target younger audiences.

    I can’t think of another show on CBS that has been branded as “quality” – so it might not even be so much that something like THE GOOD WIFE is necessarily more deserving than something like PARENTHOOD. Instead, it might be more like, “Hey, wow, CBS made a good one, for a change.”

    Having said all that, I totally never miss an episode of THE MENTALIST. Though, I’m told that the liveliest discussions of that particular program are at my grandmother’s weekly BINGO game.

    BTW – I think you should totally write something on the photography trends for “quality programming” – I have always thoroughly enjoyed seeing the most recent studio publicity shots for these shows – which are always shot with cold colors and serious/stoic faces (see THE GOOD WIFE above). I think where PARENTHOOD got it wrong (above) is that they used a warm inviting tone, and a couple of them are smiling. Maybe next time! :)

  • Kailey Godoy said:

    This article delves into the subject of what “quality tv” is. As we all know by now, “quality tv” is that kind of television HBO and Showtime strive for, or what “cable” shows strive for. They want to keep up the buzz about their programs to people will tune in each week and they can partake in the witty and pithy dialogue that is so highly acclaimed by critics. However, this article brings up how the Emmys has brought in some network television talent that is competing with the daunting super cable shows.
    It makes people like me hopeful that networks are really pulling their weight in the Outstanding Drama Series category since those awards typically go to HBO and Showtime series. These shows that typically monopolize to Emmys are shows like my own, Boardwalk Empire. This article is the perfect example of how HBO wants Boardwalk Empire to reach people and be seen, like a powerhouse of cable television.

  • Matthew Seukunian said:

    First of all, I too am a huge Michael Ausiello fan and I also appreciate the work he and his people do at TVline.com. I also just loved the topic of this article. I am a TV junkie/obsessee and could talk, read, and write about it for hours on end.

    That being said, I don’t think that you gave comedies enough credit in your piece. Sure the differences between network dramas and premium cable dramas seem to multiplying with the seasons but the same can be said for comedy as well. If you take a look at the networks as a whole, CBS struck gold years ago with Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. As popular and successful as both of those shows seem to be, I and many people I know, seem to have little to no interest in either. The “HIMYM” of ABC is of course Modern Family, which has been all you can ask a show to be. For NBC, 30 Rock was successful, and long lasting and is unfortunately, ending tonight. Other than those select few shows, the networks don’t seem to have much going for them. Myself, and countless others, obsess over Parks and Recreation and I personally, love few things more than “Troy and Abed in the morning” on Community. However NBC doesn’t seem to love either show nearly as much as small underground clusters of us do. Big picture, comedy on the networks is not what it used to be nor what it could be. Shows like Go On, The Mindy Project, and even New Girl are not what they could be. Across the pond however, on premium cable one doesn’t have to look very far to find shows like Louie, Girls, House of Lies, and even the unkillable Californication. Why is there such a solid selection of quality comedies on premium cable yet a drought on the networks? Nobody knows for sure, but if you ask me, I think it is simple control and freedom. Shows like Louie and Girls are run by outside the box, innovative artists and the executives above them recognize that and let them do as they see fit. On the networks, that simply isn’t an option. The proof is in the pudding, just ask Dan Harmon.

    The same analysis and explanation can be applied to network dramas and premium cable dramas as well. Shawn Ryan, formerly a showrunning phenom, saw Last Resort last just 13 episodes while last year Kyle Killen saw Awake come and go faster than you could say “Awake”. Hits are few and far between when it comes to network dramas and with each passing season of TV the drought seems to worsen. I love me some Kevin Bacon, but FOX’s The Following is almost so bad, it’s good. But just across the white picket fence where the grass is so much greener AMC, FX, HBO, and even Showtime (Netflix wants to be included on this list but we haven’t actually seen House of Cards yet) are churning out inventive, intriguing, unique dramas. Why? The answer to this is even easier than the answer to the “why?” of comedy. 22 episodes is far too many (Kevin Bacon thinks 15 is a good number). Ratings crunches are too hectic. Freedom isn’t something easily found in a network executives mind. The great shows of our time, shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and even new hits like Game of Thrones and Homeland are great because they are risky. Risk is something networks don’t believe in.

    So while we would all love for a new great show to appear next fall on ABC (S.H.I.E.L.D. I am counting on you) it is becoming less and less likely. As the network model and approach continues to fail, and premium cable networks cache of success continues to rise, why would anyone want anything to change. We have a situation, we have an environment, we have adapted. Reality television and procedurals have their place in this world, and meth labs, fire breathing dragons, and domestic terrorists have theirs.

  • Kara U said:

    I really appreciate this article because I have always found it both ridiculous and elitist to suggest that only premium cable can provide quality television. Just the term “quality television” has always seemed ridiculous because who decides what is and is not quality? If quality means authentic, then who defines authentic? Again these terms have always struck me as ridiculous because they are so arbitrary and subjective. People mock and degrade broadcast shows because they say they are too base and care more about appealing to the lowest common denominator to get more advertising. But are these same people so blind they can’t see that premium cable has its own less-than-integrity-filled ways to attract clients? Premium cable survives off subscribers, and in order to entice and keep those subscribers, they emphasize coarse language, violence, sex, and nudity. Most of that nudity being female, and the sex scenes primarily shot through the male gaze. Yet these programs aren’t appealing to a lower common denominator? I agree that because of advertising, it is so much more difficult for broadcast networks to find a voice and an audience while fighting to stay on air; meanwhile, cable shows can slowly find their footing. This just makes me think the writers of broadcast shows deserve all the more applause that they can survive while producing under such constraints on making “quality” television.

    When there are dramas like Scandal, The Good Wife, Parenthood, The Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow Elementary, etc. on air, it’s completely ridiculous to act as though broadcast cannot compete with cable or to act as though broadcast cannot produce that intelligent “quality” programming because they have to appeal to the masses, and the masses are apparently too dumb to realize they are receiving sub-par programming. If looking at quality in terms of something being authentic and relatable, I think a fair majority of broadcast network dramas can compete with, if not outdo, premium cable. Sure there are extremely successful formulaic dramas, such as the CSI and Law and Order franchises, but we shouldn’t look at all broadcast dramas through this lens. The Good Wife and Scandal are both high stakes and highly political, but neither treat their audience like idiots. They delve into moral gray areas; on The Good Wife Alicia frequently defends murderers and drug King Pins, without lecturing the audience on how to feel about it. Whereas, some cable shows like the Newsroom, have no problem treating their audience like morons, having the uber white liberal anchor lecture a gay African American man on why he’s self-hating.

    Tl;dr I agree and would further say that it seems to me like the Emmy committee has no foundation for snubbing broadcast dramas except for falling into the elitist jargon and marketing of cable stations.

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