So much for stability

Why does Emmy seem to avoid the dynamic stalwarts on long-running shows?

For a new series, especially one teetering on the ratings bubble, an Emmy nomination can bring much-needed attention to the show. As a result, networks often spend a lion’s share of marketing dollars promoting worthy performances in their emerging series. But the spotlight doesn’t always shine as brightly on established, long-running shows, leaving some of the best dramatic work of television overlooked come award season.

For instance, Maura Tierney has served as the grounding force on “ER” in recent years, but hasn’t been nominated since her first season on the show.

“After 12 years on the air, the show itself stops being even thought about in those terms,” says the actress, whose onscreen pregnancy was threatened by a hostage situation in the season finale. “‘ER’ had its moment, and now there are new shows that deserve to be recognized. So unfortunately, if you got on a show when that moment has passed, maybe your work is not as recognized as it could be in that particular way. But it doesn’t mean it’s still not satisfying.”

Another series regular unrecognized for years of solid work is S. Epatha Merkerson, who won her first Emmy in 2005 for her role in HBO’s “Lackawanna Blues.” In her 13 seasons on “Law & Order,” she has never been nominated for her contributions as Lt. Anita Van Buren.

According to “Law & Order” exec producer Nicholas Wootton, “The lieutenant job in any copshow is always the toughest position.” Those actors have to work as a sounding board and don’t typically get the scenery-chewing scenes the detectives do. “Every season with Epatha, we always try to give her a show or two episodes because she is so good,” he says, but when it comes to awards, “I think there’s sort of a natural tendency to want to look towards the fresher, newer person on the scene.”

After six seasons, “Gilmore Girls” star Lauren Graham takes a pragmatic approach to the awards process. “People vote for what they like,” she says. “All of these things are to some degree about popularity. It’s not like we’re the most popular show in the world. We’re in a tough position — we’re still on a network (the WB), but it’s a network that isn’t as watched.”

The primary driving force for staying focused and growing in a role isn’t the specter of possible Emmy consideration but in finding those moments of personal growth and satisfaction. “To keep interesting and fresh and not repeat yourself is a challenge,” Tierney says. “When we can pull that off and still do a relevant show, that’s really satisfying in and of itself.”

Graham’s “Gilmore Girls” co-star Alex Bledel agrees. “The great thing is to work on a show with good writing, to have material that is challenging. I certainly don’t have any expectations. An award is just a wonderful extra.”

Character growth and nuanced performances rarely get rewarded with Emmy nominations, a fact “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” star Kathryn Erbe readily accepts.

“While I appreciate the value of awards, I have gotten used to not being nominated,” she laughs. “I’ve gotten used to having a not-so-flashy career. I con sider myself a blue-collar actor. I have done other things on television that might have been more appropriate for Emmy consideration, like ‘Oz,’ where I got to flex my emotional acting muscles more than playing Detective Eames, where those emotional moments are few and far between.

“For the most part, in terms of awards and in terms of the job — because I am so grateful and so lucky to have it — I have resigned myself to finding what I can to feel good about and stretch my own muscles as much as I can within what I am given, because it is what it is.”

Erbe says that the biggest rewards come from the audience. “Almost everywhere I go now, there is someone who will say something to me, and it is incredibly gratifying. I am not the kind of person who is going to go to the luncheons or go socialize because I don’t have time. I cannot really compete in the way that maybe some other people can. I’m a single mother of two just trying to live my life and do good work that I can be proud of. So every time the work is recognized, I am so deeply grateful. That alone means a lot to me, forget about the actual award.”

Leslie Siebert, senior managing partner of the Gersh Agency, believes that in the big picture of a career, the importance of an Emmy nomination or win is overstated. “We’d all love our clients to get nominated for Emmys,” she says. “We are fortunate enough to have Patricia Arquette as a client, and she won last year for ‘Medium.’ And it was fantastic for her, but did it change her life? Probably not. Did it help her get movie roles more easily? Not necessarily. In a renegotiation, it can be very, very helpful if you can say your client has won an Emmy, but other than that, I honestly don’t really see where it has any lasting impact.”

Tierney echoes that sentiment: “My Emmy experience is very weird personally because the year I was nominated, 9/11 happened. So the Emmys were canceled. Then we bombed Afghanistan, and they were canceled again. There was so much going on in the world that was horrifying and impactful that it completely put awards in perspective — they’re a nice perk, but you don’t really think about them.”

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