When Gillian Anderson won a lead actress Emmy in 1997 for “The X-Files,” it amounted to sci-fi knocking on the door of the TV Academy and finally being let in. Despite the show’s status as a cult hit that had spread into the mainstream, Emmy voters took five years and a brilliant season for Anderson’s Dana Scully character to finally acknowledge what viewers had long known: Rich dramatic possibilities are as ripe with FBI agents chasing ghouls as they are with lawyers defying the odds in the courtroom or doctors breaking the rules.
More than a decade later, genres are swarming cable and networks like an alien attack, and possibly one of the most intriguing games-within-the-game of Emmy watchers is how the Academy is going to deal with the plethora of first-class sci-fi and fantasy shows on the air. Fox’s “Fringe,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” are among the class acts in a growing field of shows from genres that the Emmys have routinely ignored.
“There’s always been this weirdness with these genres and every mainstream award telecast, not just the Emmys,” says IMDB television editor Melanie McFarland. “On one hand, an awards show like the Emmys wants to appear hip and aware of the latest trends, but there’s also a reticence to embrace such shows and go the distance.”
AOL television critic Mo Ryan says, “If you were to say five years ago that most major networks would have been producing horror, zombie and alien shows, you would have been laughed at. If the Emmys don’t begin to recognize the top shows in these areas, they’re going to look out of date.”
In the cases of “Walking Dead,” “Thrones” and “Fringe,” all new or newish shows with potent critical support, there are various hints of whether they can break through with the Emmys in the major categories. (As “The X-Files” showed many times, these genres have no problem scoring in the technical categories ignored in the awards headlines.)
“For me, the litmus test is a supporting actor nomination for Peter Dinklage in ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” says Ryan. “Emmy voters respond to names, especially names from the film world. The cast of ‘The Walking Dead’ is largely unknown, but if you look at the cast of ‘Game of Thrones,’ with a name like Dinklage, then you overcome a hurdle.”
He’s clearly overcome that with critics; each one interviewed for this report mentioned Dinklage, unprompted. Like McFarland, though with some hesitation:
” ‘Game of Thrones’ is very splashy right now, adored by critics,” she says. “And because it’s on HBO, which has a way of wooing Emmy voters, it has a real chance even in its first season. I love Dinklage, who may have a shot, but I wonder if it has to do with the overall excellence of his work as a whole, the way he owns every single role and brings this brash humanity. Still, I’d be utterly surprised if he won.”
More surprising, perhaps, but still a contender is “Fringe,” whose double-sided structure of single “monster” episodes and a grander, overarching epic narrative mixed with FBI realism and science radicalism makes it the “X-Files” of this era. Ryan’s point about name actors works against the show, in her view, despite a season in which star Anna Torv (working her inner Leonard Nimoy during several episodes) and supporting thesp John Noble delivered frequently stunning performances that set a new bar for acting on network shows.
“They gave sensational performances,” she says, “but there also has to be comfort for the voters with the names. They know Anna Paquin (in “True Blood”). If you’re on magazine covers, on the red carpet circuit, you’re just better known with Emmy voters.”
As for the hot “The Walking Dead,” would its Globe drama nom signal a potential breakthrough with the TV Academy? “I wasn’t surprised that it did well with the Globes,” says McFarland, “since (the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.) likes to acknowledge zeitgeist shows, but I’m not sure that Academy voters have caught up with it.”
Ryan speculates that exec producer Frank Darabont may be nommed for writing, “but as far as acting and best drama awards, I don’t know.”
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