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First-time Emmy drama contenders

Freshmen trying to break through for series noms

FRINGE
Fox
Fox’s “Fringe” could have easily frayed from all the hype. Instead, the drama — co-created by the unstoppable J.J. Abrams — shook off the early “X-Files” comparisons and emerged as the season’s top-rated new show, thanks to its addictive mix of weird science and compelling characters (and we don’t just mean that eerie bald Observer guy).

Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), the FBI agent charged with solving the trippy “Fringe” cases, is a worthy addition to Abrams’ oeuvre of smart, tail-kicking chicks, while the tenuous reconciliation between wiseguy Peter (Joshua Jackson) and his brilliant (though mentally unstable) father Walter (John Noble) has infused the series with a surprising poignancy.

Such attention to character is a priority for the producers.

“If there aren’t real human emotions at the core,” says showrunner Jeff Pinkner, “then we feel we’ve failed as storytellers.”

Still, any sci-fi drama worth its chills demands jaw-dropping twists, and “Fringe” delivered with its season finale, which found Walter visiting a gravestone with his son’s name on it and Olivia dropping in on Leonard Nimoy in an alternate reality where the Twin Towers still stand. According to Pinkner, producers are just getting started.

“Internally, we’re all viewing season one as the prologue,” he says. “Season two is when our storytelling really kicks into gear.”
— Shawna Malcom

THE MENTALIST
CBS
Looking back, perhaps this season’s biggest surprise for Bruno Heller, executive producer of “The Mentalist,” was the rookie show’s immediate success.

“You’re always prepared for failure in this business, because most shows don’t work for one reason or another,” Heller says. “But this one kind of did.”

The show was hurried into production immediately after the Writers Guild of America strike, leaving little time to second-guess creative decisions. Heller believes this gave the show a distinctive “handmade” quality, mixed with a showcase for star Simon Baker.

“The idea was to create the space for a great actor to give a great performance,” Heller says. “Those great detective roles are great performance roles — they’re like magicians producing the villain out of the hat. There should be surprise and an element of stagecraft.”

Heller credits Baker and his co-stars for pulling it off with flair.

“One of the endearing things about the show is the performances are loose,” Heller says. “There’s an improvisational feel. Life is improvised, and the more like life you are, the better you are. The less-conscious thought helped give it that kind of texture, which I like.”
— Paula Hendrickson

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY
HBO
The most challenging aspect of filming the first season of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” was shooting on location in Botswana, according to series showrunner Tim Bricknell. It was also the most rewarding.

“Botswana has no history of film production, so that was tricky — but also really exciting,” Bricknell says. “We exposed a whole new group of (local) people to the filmmaking process. Through the pilot and series, many grew into very responsible positions and learned a lot.”

The showrunner and production crew attempted to involve as many Batswana as possible. They needed the extra labor, for one thing. Bricknell also knew that local participation would add authenticity to the story of a fierce female detective whose deep sense of place motivates her work.

Production hired one music supervisor locally, Solomon B. Monyame, and a second in the U.K., Mike Gillespie, and enlisted area musicians to record the score. A team of locals was trained on the spot to run video equipment.

Batswana provided 52 speaking roles in the six episodes after the pilot.

“Many had never acted before, and they were very good at it,” Bricknell says.

In addition, Bricknell handpicked several locals to serve as official story consultants.

“When we set out to make (‘No. 1 Ladies’), we were very nervous about going to a country we didn’t know and making a show where the country is a big character,” Bricknell says. “We needed local people to be with us in every decision, with costumes, with set decoration, and also in terms of the stories we were telling.

“Once we made it clear we wanted people’s opinions,” Bricknell adds, “there was no shortage of feedback from every department, which was wonderful.”
— Betsy Boyd

SONS OF ANARCHY
FX
With viewership holding steady throughout its first season, biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” has become a bright spot for FX.

“The amazing thing for us is, once people started watching, nobody left,” says creator and showrunner Kurt Sutter. What makes the show work, he adds, is that “at its core, it’s a family drama.”

It also touches on themes of working-class struggle and the lengths to which people will go to protect their domains.

Women are among the show’s fans, too.

“One could argue that the female characters were as prevalent and as powerful as some of our club members,” comments Sutter, whose wife Katey Sagal scored acclaim as calculating matriarch Gemma. “All her vengeance and violence comes from a maternal place. She’s more Vic Mackey than Carmela Soprano.”

One story element Sutter says played out differently than planned was Ryan Hurst’s Opie, whose popularity saved him from a one-season fate.

“The network got very nervous about extracting him,” says Sutter, “and Ryan brought so much more to the role that we shifted the storyline.”

Opie’s half-in/half-out status also helped Sutter draw a finer distinction between ideological opposites Jax and Clay: “It pushed me to the place where I needed to go with them.”
— Robert Abele

SOUTHLAND
NBC
If Chris Chulack thought he was going to get some sanity into his life by leaving the halls of County General for the streets of L.A., he was sadly mistaken.

“‘ER’ was a very intense show to direct, produce and write, but the physical expenditure on ‘Southland’ is 100-fold,” says the exec producer of the NBC cop drama that fared well enough in seven episodes during the spring to earn a spot on the Peacock’s fall sked. “You’re in and out of the van 50 times a day.”

To make scenes feel as authentic as possible, Chulack and John Wells knew shooting primarily in a soundstage wasn’t going to cut it. As the best real estate agents would say, “Location, location, location.”

And whereas “ER” excelled in showing that doctors were as fallible as anyone else, so does “Southland” reveal that those who serve and protect in the City of Angels aren’t all exactly, er, angelic.

“We wanted to do a show about cops and how they cope with their co-workers, their domestic life and how they act as citizens in L.A.,” Chulack explains. “This isn’t a plot-driven show, it’s more about the human condition.”
— Stuart Levine

TRUE BLOOD
HBO
As he went to work on the first season of “True Blood,” showrunner-creator Alan Ball had one thing in mind.

“You hope when you start a project with many contributors that it takes on a life of its own,” says Ball. “And when it does, you get out of the way and let it be what it wants to be.”

In this case, “True Blood” didn’t just want to be a story about out-of-the-casket vampires and the mortals who love them.

“In the first season, you see the show is about the danger of intimacy, danger of sexuality, the primal nature of ourselves that we project onto sex,” says Ball, who wasn’t so interested in vampires before coming to work on this show. “And it’s very funny about all of that in a dark way.”

Ball also felt the “supernatural” qualities of the vampires and their story should be as rooted in nature and reality as possible to keep viewers connected to the experiences of the characters.

“We worked a lot on the physiology of the vampire fangs,” says Ball. “We decided to make them like rattlesnake fangs — they’d come
down whenever a vampire was sexually aroused or was about to get into a fight.”

More than the fangs, the synthetic blood or the immortals, Ball believes audiences are responding to the characters and their layered dilemmas and dramas.

“I’m not interested in stereotypical heroes and villains,” Ball says. “It’s much more compelling if you have a hero who can also be narcissistic and dark and a villain who can be good and kind, and these characters have that kind of complexity.”
— Karen Idelson

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