In its seven seasons on the air, Fox’s crime procedural “Bones” has thrived in several different time-slots and earned praise for its unusual blend of dark humor, strong characters and inventive storytelling.
The only place the show hasn’t flourished is the Emmys. “Bones” has but one nomination (art direction) to show for its lengthy run.
“I think it’s a matter of acceptability,” says “Bones” creator Hart Hanson. “Procedurals and light-hearted shows look like the standard-issue offerings of television. And you don’t award that, no matter how well it’s done.”
As the Emmys moved into a new decade, the divide between ratings and laurels has grown wider. Network hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI” and “House” have been cast aside for cable serial dramas like “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter” and four-time drama winner “Mad Men,” shows with loyal but comparatively small followings.
The current either-or proposition raises a question for showrunners: Would you rather have the eyeballs or the Emmys?
“I’m greedy, so I’d like to have both,” laughs “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, whose heart-in-the-throat drama has been an awards goldmine for lead Bryan Cranston. “But I wouldn’t trade the unlikeability of our main characters for a network slot, because that’s the first thing we’d have to jettison to make the show more palatable to a broader swath of viewers.”
Of course, showrunners know almost from inception what type of program they’ve created and whether (fingers crossed) it will win favor with audiences or Emmy voters.
“You have an idea for a show, and it fits in one box or the other,” says John Shiban, who has worked on “The X-Files” and “Breaking Bad” and serves as an exec producer and writer on AMC’s western railroad skein “Hell on Wheels.” “You know that cable shows that push the envelope are more likely to be nominated for Emmys and that a network show will probably be seen by more people. Both scenarios can be equally satisfying because both mean that people are paying attention.”
“Justified” creator Graham Yost remembers trying to bridge the gap between awards and ratings a decade ago with his well-regarded NBC action-drama “Boomtown.” It did not turn out well.
“The show was going to get the ratings it got, and any effort to pump them up by being more salacious or this or that was a mistake on my part,” Yost says. “You feel the pressure, but changing direction isn’t the answer.”
Those working on broader network comedies and high-rated procedurals would naturally like a little bit of love from the awards circuit. Though careful not to complain about their lot, some do believe there are certain biases working against them.
“Critics have a very specific aversion to multicamera comedies, and it baffles me,” says Whitney Cummings, who had a hand in creating two such shows this past season, “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney.”
“Viewers love multicamera shows. That is proven,” Cummings says. “So, given the choice and being a comedian, I’ve got to go where the audience is. Sue me. I like the sound of laughter.”
Because procedurals tend to focus on close-ended stories, the cases often taken precedence over the characters. That can diminish the actors’ chances with Emmy voters, though a case could be made for their work, too, says USA Network exec Bill McGoldrick.
“The actors who have to move a story along have less time to project those very emotional moments, so, in some respects, they have a harder job,” says McGoldrick, exec VP of original scripted programming.
Where there’s agreement between the two camps: They feel lucky to be paid to create work they love.
“In an alternate universe, ‘Justified’ is getting 50 million viewers a week and people are wearing Raylan Givens hats,” Yost says. “But who cares? We get to do it.”
Adds Hanson: “Everybody on the show goes on vacation knowing they’re coming back to work. Sometimes you forget what that’s like. But when you remember, it makes your bowels run loose because that used to be awful.”