Quick, call Dexter Morgan. The Emmy drama race is a bloody mess.
There’s the story of America’s favorite serial killer on “Dexter,” the artery-rending “True Blood” and the high impact gross-out moments of “Breaking Bad.”
Even “Mad Men,” usually as clean as the lines of a mid-century Knoll credenza, featured a John Deere lawn tractor accident that sprayed blood on the walls of Sterling Cooper. That ep, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” earned noms for both writing and directing, suggesting a certain blood lust this Emmy season.
“We have had our fair share of blood — there’s no denying,” says Vince Gilligan, creator of “Breaking Bad,” which has featured shockers like a severed head delivered on a turtle’s back, and this season a double amputee dragging himself across a hospital room, trailing twin streams of blood.
While gore isn’t the primary source of the series’ Emmy love, Gilligan concedes that blood is an attention-grabbing device.
“I love the word Stanley Kubrick used: ‘showmanship,?” Gilligan says. “You want those moments in a television show or movie which people cannot get out of their heads.”
“We don’t go gory for gory’s sake; we try to have moments of showmanship that don’t involve people dying or blood flowing.”
It’s those moments that are really driving the Emmy noms, Gilligan insists, saying that “first and foremost, ‘True Blood’ and ‘Dexter’ start with great writing, are directed wonderfully (and) acted impeccably.”
Says Clyde Phillips, executive producer of “Dexter” for its first four seasons: “It’s more subject matter that makes our show groundbreaking — the serial killer you root for. He is out there, letting us know what he needs to do, why he needs to do it, and then shows us as he does it. That is what is different about the show.”
It’s true, other programs feature gallons of blood, but with more conventional characters and situations.
“Network shows are very gory,” says Phillips. “I watched ‘Survivor’ with my daughter, and the promo at 8 o’clock family hour is ‘Don’t miss “CSI” tonight where the prostitute is found in pieces all over the city.’?”
“CSI” has had three drama noms, most recently in 2004, but today’s contenders push the limits beyond crime scenes — so far that even “True Blood” head makeup artist Brigette Ellis, nominated for a prosthetics device that showed deep, oozing gashes, says, “The little pustules — I never usually get grossed out by my job but that was a little … ew.”
But the prosthetic was not designed to be gratuitous; it was there to support the scene’s emotional intensity. “You needed to see how messed up she was,” Ellis says of the character’s wounds. “It made us feel Vampire Bill (her rescuer) was just so helpless in that moment.”
Focusing on characters first has even made Phillips pull back on blood. “You know how we take the blood samples from the victim’s cheek?” he says. “Sometimes the cut would be too bloody, (so) we would edit around it. It became distracting to the conversation. We want to listen to what Dexter and the victim say.”
So blood is just another element in a show already finessed to a higher level through writing, acting, and directing. Gore may get you noticed, but it alone won’t get you nominated.
“The blood is the cherry on top,” says Gilligan.
Bloody good shows | Drama showrunners keep a tight grip | Drama nominees