Serials are still creating Emmy buzz

Nets have grown wary of genre, but have voters?

Three heavily serialized programs — “The Sopranos,” “24” and “Lost” — have bagged outstanding drama Emmys in recent years. Nevertheless, broadcast networks mostly opted out of the can’t-miss-an-episode schematic last fall after too many serials the prior year (including “Kidnapped,” “Smith,” “Vanished” and “The Nine”) failed to ignite viewers immediately.

But a look at some of what’s generating Emmy buzz in 2008 reveals more shows with complex, evolving storylines and little single-episode closure: cable programs “Big Love,” “Breaking Bad,” “Damages,” “Mad Men” and “In Treatment” and even ABC’s “Lost,” enjoying a much-touted creative resurgence in its fourth season.

Do serialized shows have a built-in worthiness when it comes to Emmy consideration?

“An audience invests in characters in a serialized show differently than with a procedural,” says Glenn A. Kessler, an executive producer on “Damages,” the FX thriller whose seasonlong storyline nearly gave it the feel of a miniseries. “If 90% of the shows to get nominated are serialized, that might be a reason why.”

But according to Matthew Weiner, who wrote for Emmy favorite “The Sopranos” and is the creator-executive producer of AMC’s talked-about period drama “Mad Men,” procedurals are the ones with the advantage come Emmy time.

“I’ve heard that it’s harder (for serials to get Emmy support) because people have to have watched the show,” Weiner says. “I heard many times about ‘The Sopranos’ that they would put up a couple of episodes, and it was very hard because (voters) didn’t know what was behind it. There was an idea that procedurals were the only way to go and you had to be able to watch the shows out of order.”

But “The Sopranos” did generate enough year-to-year buzz as a must-see program that keeping up with the show, and even rewatching episodes, was something viewers and voters were willing to do, as its more than 20 Emmys — including two drama wins — attest. It’s been no such luck for the rabid fans of stratospherically praised shows “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica,” however, which have been routinely passed over for big Emmy nominations.

Chicago Tribune television critic Maureen Ryan believes serialized shows require dramatic skills that do make them more inherently Emmy worthy but conversely less likely to win them.

“What’s troubling to me is that the shows that really give a huge reward to fans who love highly serialized drama often get shut out,” Ryan says. “You just have to look at how many Emmys ‘Boston Legal’ has won versus how many ‘The Wire’ has won. I look at something like ‘The Wire’ as a 60-hour film, and the amount of pacing and level of detail is really intense. Yet at the end of the day, it’s easier to sit down and watch an episode of ‘Boston Legal’ and be done with it.”

Ryan sees a systemic problem for serialized series in the single-episode submission process for Emmy nominations. “I think it takes a lot of skill to write a really good stand-alone episode of TV, and I’m not knocking that,” she says. “But if you’re into novels, you’re into novels, and if you’re into short stories, you’re into short stories.

“I think as TV matures as a medium and as really ambitious stories unfold over three, four, five seasons, those shows are at a disadvantage,” Ryan suggests, “because people are only seeing one piece of the puzzle. I don’t think you could watch a third-season episode of ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ never having seen it, and have a whole lot of an idea what’s going on.”

Weiner concurs and indicates that a serial’s best shot at having an Emmy life is in its first season, and even then it’s a gamble. “You put in an episode,” he says, “and unless it’s the pilot, people don’t get the subtext of the scene.”

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