Pieces in place for 'Wing' to get clipped by 'The Sopranos'

All great dynasties must come to an end.

“The West Wing” has won Emmy’s drama series statuette four straight years — every year it has been on the air. But, if listening to TV insiders is any indication, a fifth straight win for President Bartlet would make for a greater comeback story than Truman over Dewey.

Come September, if Academy of Television Arts & Sciences prognosticators are reading their tea leaves correctly, HBO’s Cosa Nostra may finally break the back — figuratively, of course — of Emmy’s version of a political steamroller.

In its fifth season — and what many say is its best creatively –“The Sopranos” carries much of the Emmy buzz, even among producers who are touting their own shows. As in the Belmont Stakes, everyone is seemingly competing for second. Then again, there’s no such thing as a sure thing — just ask Smarty Jones.

“The quality has really been maintained,” says Neal Baer, executive producer of “Law & Order: SVU,” of “Sopranos.”

“That show is such a pathfinder and pioneer,” explains Ryan Murphy, exec producer of FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” who termed it “a great season for them. When we get in the writers’ room on Monday morning, it’s one of the first things we talk about.”

Echoes Lifetime’s exec VP of programming, Kelly Goode: “I’m hearing a lot of the same thing. As a viewer, this has been an incredible season for them. I would agree with the assessment that’s out there in the community right now.”

Paradoxically, beyond “The Sopranos,” everything else is seemingly up for grabs. The race for the four remaining spots is more wide open than it has been in years.

“West Wing” may be vulnerable at last. “It’s a year where ‘West Wing,’ for whatever reason — the political climate maybe — has lost a lot of viewers,” Baer says.

In the past three years, only eight shows have won any Emmy recognition at all in the drama category. The ballots in 2002 and 2003 looked almost identical with “Law & Order” slipping in two years ago when “Sopranos” was ineligible because of its quirky scheduling. For that same reason, HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” nominated the past two years, will not be up for consideration this run. (To be eligible, at least six episodes of a series must have aired between June 1, 2003, and May 31, 2004.) “CSI” and “24” are the other two series nommed in 2002 and 2003.

“There are so many great shows out there, it’s much more competitive. There are new drama series on FX, USA, HBO and Showtime,” Goode says, adding that any one of about 10 shows could be mentioned without surprise.

“This is one of those years when all things change,” says Dee Johnson, executive producer of NBC’s “ER,” which is looking for its first series mention since 2001.

With the ascent of cable in the dramatic genre, some voters believe a show such as FX’s “The Shield” or “Nip/Tuck” could gain basic cable’s first dramatic nom for best series.

While premium cable skeins have at least garnered nominations, if not awards, basic cable has broken through in the acting categories the past two years: Michael Chiklis for “The Shield” as dramatic actor and Tony Shalhoub for USA’s “Monk” for comedy.

“They are getting a lot of buzz,” Johnson says of the basic cable programs. “FX has done a lot of intense stuff. … They are pushing the envelope and are competing more closely with pay cable shows. The perception of those shows is changing.”

Murphy sure hopes so. “Basic cable is to the Emmys that rap is (to) the Grammys. It took a while for it to be recognized as its own art form and this year OutKast won for best album,” he points out.

Besides the FX shows, who could crash the party this year? Voters relish fresh faces, so CBS’ “Joan of Arcadia” and HBO’s “Deadwood” are prime dark horse candidates, Johnson and others believe.

Baer is pushing hard for his “Law & Order” spinoff, saying the show has hit its stride after five years on the air, often in the shadow of Dick Wolf’s flagship show. “It was a year that suddenly people took notice. Maybe moving from Friday night to Tuesday night makes you more of a player,” he says.

Lifetime’s Goode suggests that Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” could sneak into the top five as could CBS’ “Cold Case.” She’s rooting for Lifetime’s veteran drama series “Strong Medicine” or “The Division” to finally get recognized, but realizes it’s very competitive.

While voters tend to take longer-running shows that have been honored in the past for granted, Johnson hopes voters will take a new look at “ER” in its 10th season, one that opened with a location shoot in Africa as part of a two-episode storyline.

“It’s funny to be the dark horse,” she says. “At some point you get to be a household name and then people look for a fresh face.”

With “Sopranos” all the rage for so many years, why has it failed to take the top prize? Some suggest it has more to do with “West Wing’s” popularity in Hollywood than any prejudice against a premium cable series.

Others imply that lingering resentment is finally fading against a show that carries the dual advantages of facing little network censorship and a limited production schedule of 13 episodes a season.

Plus, the series’ high violence quotient didn’t play well with voters initially. “In the past two or three years people have gotten over that,” Moore says.

Despite the hype over “Sopranos,” producers are looking forward to see who lands drama series noms in an unpredictable year. “For four or five years you could have told a year in advance what would be nominated for the Emmys. That doesn’t feel like the case this year,” says Johnson.

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