Road to the Emmys: Emmy Commemorative

Hitchcock never won an Oscar. (No, honorary awards do not count.) The Grammys never thought enough of the Beatles to give the band record of the year.

By that yardstick, Emmy voters can hold their heads reasonably high for the way they’ve recognized groundbreaking television over the years.

“All in the Family,” “Cheers” and “30 Rock” won for top comedy series in their first year of eligibility, while over on the drama side, “Mad Men,” “Lost” and “Hill Street Blues” won series Emmys for their freshman season. “Saturday Night Live” took top variety honors on its first try.

In fact, the majority of television’s most acclaimed shows took home plenty of Emmy gold in their heyday, some, admittedly, sooner than others.

“Groundbreaking shows are, by their nature, such departures that often they are overlooked initially,” says three-time Emmy-winning producer Paul Junger Witt (“The Golden Girls,” “Brian’s Song”). “But the Television Academy has always been good at playing catch-up. They inevitably recognize quality.”

In some cases, that recognition might be a bit muted compared to the amount of critical acclaim showered upon a series. “Seinfeld” won the Emmy for comedy series in 1993, but lost to the more traditionally minded sitcom “Frasier” over the following five years. Larry David’s post-“Seinfeld” HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” has yet to win the top comedy award, losing to network shows such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Office” and “30 Rock.”

“The Sopranos,” one of the most influential dramas in modern television history for the way it ushered in a wave of complex, dark-themed shows, won top honors just twice in its six seasons, losing to “The West Wing” in its other four tries.

“Some people just couldn’t get around the violence in that show,” says screenwriter Richard Walter, a professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. “The brutality was too much. If you can’t watch a show, you can’t give it any recognition.”

Judging from the ratings, few people watched another HBO drama, “The Wire.” Because David Simon’s critically acclaimed series aired on the same network as “The Sopranos” during roughly the same time period, advocates enjoy debating the merits of each. Yet “The Wire” scored just two Emmy nominations — both for writing — during its five-year run.

“That’s just criminal,” says Josef Adalian, West Coast editor for New York magazine’s Vulture.com and a former Variety staffer. “It was a dense, dark show that probably didn’t play out as well if you just watch an episode by itself via a screener. You’d like to think all Emmy voters were passionate TV fans who watched everything good, but people have lives.”

Historically, there’s also been a certain prejudice against the fantasy genre. Emmy voters ignored critical and fan favorites such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Battlestar Galactica,” though this year’s nomination of HBO’s medieval fantasy series “Game of Thrones” for best drama may indicate a shift in that line of thinking.

“As television has become more daring, voters have, too,” Witt says. “I think any self-imposed limitations have gone by the wayside. It’s an exciting time for creativity.”

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