On July 24, when the 51st Emmy nominees are announced, 10 sets of producers will have approximately two weeks to play poker — Emmy poker.
Each show nominated for Best Comedy or Best Dramatic Series must submit eight episodes to represent its season. Not just eight high cards, but four pair: four sets of two episodes, each pair to be viewed by a different panel of judges. It is a game of chance and skill — part judgment, part faith.
“Very often we can pick the (best) one or two,” says Marta Kauffman, one of the executive producers of “Friends,” a two-time nominee. “The other seven are tough.”
Bill D’Elia, an executive producer of three-time nominee “Chicago Hope,” agrees: “If all the producers sit in the room, we’d probably quickly agree on which were our two best, or four best. When it gets to eight — those remaining three to four — everyone has their favorite.”
And then there’s the pairing. “If we put our two very best episodes in one room, we will win that room. Do we split the two up?,” says D’Elia. “I wouldn’t mind it if everyone saw the eight. You get a strong idea of what the show is if everyone sees the eight.”
It wasn’t always this way. Until the 1995 awards, each nominated show was represented by only one or two episodes. Then ATAS decided in favor of more representation per series. The result is a trickier, but ultimately more satisfying, competition, says Kauffman. “If you’re voting on best show, it’s not just best episode from that show. It’s what is the best show in general? It makes it more exciting, more competitive and, probably, more telling. Everybody can do one (good show). Can you do it all season long?”
John Wells, an executive producer of last year’s Emmy-winning “ER,” also supports the change: “I think it’s doing exactly what it was meant to do: honor those shows that have put together a strong set of episodes and a really strong year, which is what best show should mean.”
So, you’re going to bet the season on eight episodes. How do you draw those top eight shows from a deck of 22 or 26?
Like many a veteran gambler, Wells has a system. Since it’s hard to remember a whole season, he keeps a piece of paper under the desk mat in his office and writes down each show that turns out well. Then he puts together a list of all 22 episodes.
“I go down to the set and have the cast and crew members select their favorites,” he says. “It’s instructive: the ones they remember.” Once the list is narrowed down to 10 or 12, the writing and producing staff debate which episodes are strongest and why.
Memory is the method at “Chicago Hope” as well: What episodes do they remember? Of those, which did they like? Then the real whittling begins. “When it comes to Emmy submissions, you begin to look at everything really critically, from the guest cast right through to the editing, the music,” says D’Elia. “You want everything to be as perfect as it can be. You try to remove yourself and look at it with no knowledge.”
“We pick our favorite eight,” says Kauffman. “We’re very hard on our show. We’ll cross off the shows we thought weren’t successful. Of what is left, we look at what made us laugh the most, what is representative of the show, what moved us. Rarely do we use how other people responded.”
Nor, she says, do they try to stack the deck with “Emmy episodes” during the season: “I don’t think we’ve ever used the word Emmy when we were coming up with a story, not unless we were making a joke. I don’t think we’ve ever said there’s our Emmy winner. It would be kind of stupid: You’re doing an episode for the wrong reason.”
D’Elia agrees: “We never sat around and said, ‘This will be our Emmy show.’ We have — after the fact, in the middle — said this is the Emmy show, but not ahead of time.” It would be, says Wells, a fool’s errand. “With the Emmys, you look back over what you’ve done and try to figure out what was best. You can’t predict in advance if you’re going to write one that will be good.”
What they do look for is consistency of style and storytelling, a range of emotional experience, balance — particularly as they pick their pairs — and shows that support the cast and crew. Most individual categories (best actor, best writer) are still limited to single submissions.
In fact, if Wells keeps anything Emmy-related in mind while creating “ER,” it is the actors. Considering the ensemble format of “ER,” “it is infrequent that one of the actors will have a show that’s all about them,” he explains. “A big show for an actor may have only six to eight scenes. We try to make sure that everybody has good material, not spread out over too many episodes. You can only do that to the extent that the story material will work that way; you can’t force it in.”
Actors play a big role in the selection process of “Party of Five,” as well. Although the series has yet to be nominated, executive producer Chris Keyser always has his hand ready. With only four leads, he looks to the dramatic peaks of each storyline. “We realize that when our show works, it works because the audience is really moved,” says Keyser. “We’re always looking for the most dramatic (episodes), the biggest stakes.”
Kauffman has one more criteria, she says. “To look and say ‘I’m so proud of every moment in the show. There is nothing in there that I would find embarrassing.’ It’s not even that (it be) the most representative for me, as much as it’s the best work that we’ve done.”
The crew of “Ellen” managed to earn another season with the help of its blockbuster “coming out” episode. Years ago, that episode would have been the single shoo-in program for submission, now the process is more difficult. Still, the draw of one controversial show, according to its director, Gil Junjer, can only help bring voters’ eyes to the series, as well as the actors’ performances.
“I think that what this particular episode can do is draw enough attention to the series that people will sit up and finally take notice, even though the rest of the season was still strong,” he says. “Now we are favorites because the subject matter is so important. Funny is great, but to actually produce a show that will change people’s lives with the amount of emotional depth is extraordinary.”
After all, when the chips are down and the winner is announced, what does an Emmy mean? “It entitles you to bragging rights for one year,” says D’Elia. “One year only.”
And, as with every game, perspective is important. “That one night (the Emmys) is very important,” says Kauffman. “Then, one hour later, it’s not anymore. It’s not important 364 days of the year. The next day, you get up and you’re back in production.”