Road to the Emmys 2012: Preview

Television in 2011-12 brought more than its fair share of pleasant and unpleasant surprises, including new shows that exceeded critical and/or popular expectations, and shows that fared quite a bit less well. Here, Variety Road to the Emmys editors Stuart Levine and Jon Weisman reflect on the past year in television and look ahead toward this year’s awards season.

JW: I’m not sure whether to take the half-empty or half-full approach to the past TV season. There were several nice series launches on both broadcast and cable, ensuring that my DVR would once again be overflowing, but I’m starting to feel scarred by how many new projects, particularly on broadcast, appeared dead or mostly dead on arrival.

SL: Broadcast gets a bad rap, because it often has to play so, well, broad, but dramas like “The Good Wife” prove that it can be done well. I was just re-watching some past scenes of “Lost” this week, which ended two years ago, and that series was brilliant, and on broadcast, so it certainly can be done. If you’re in the broadcast game, it’s a Catch-22 because you need to cast a wide net, but you don’t want to be generic and look like every other show. I haven’t watched the new pilots yet, but I’m hoping there’s something that will speak to me in a unique way.

JW: One broadcast show that lived up to its potential — though not in the way I expected — was “New Girl.” I thought it had a strong pilot, but soon came the fear that Zooey Deschanel would be too quirky to make you want to watch long-term. But just at the right time, the ensemble cast blossomed, taking the pressure off her. You could see everyone starting to feed off each other, and the show evolved accordingly. In fact, I’d argue the key to that show’s creative success was the unfolding of the relationship between Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Cece (Hannah Simone). They were both sharp and sweet.

SL: I completely agree. Deschanel’s “adorkableness” — and let’s hope that will be the last time we use that word — was a great way to bring you into the pilot, but the show could never have succeeded based on that concept alone. Like any great show, a strong supporting cast is essential for continued viewing. While “New Girl” was probably the only new broadcast show that I stuck with through the year, my plate was full with continuing broadcast series. “Parks and Recreation,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” made me laugh week after week, and, as well as “The Good Wife,” I don’t think “Parenthood” gets enough respect when talking about solid dramas.

JW: The drama race, of course, will be crazy competitive this year. You have 2011 nominees in “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Dexter,” “Game of Thrones” and “Good Wife,” plus the return from its Emmy hiatus of “Breaking Bad,” plus last year’s miniseries winner-turned-drama contender, “Downton Abbey.” That’s before you get to top-notch dramas such as “Justified” and perhaps the most talked-about newcomer, “Homeland.” Some very deserving shows are going to get left by the wayside again, and yet I’m not sure how much anyone will be able to claim it’s unjust.

SL: It really is an abundance of riches. And I would add into the mix such quality dramas as “Southland” and even “Luck,” which clearly didn’t have much of that in its first and, ultimately, only season. My problem, like Emmy, is that there just isn’t enough time in the day to watch everything, and I have to be selective. And, in a way, that bothers me because I often end up missing something that I know I’d enjoy or intended to watch. What’s helped, slightly, in that scenario is that I’ve cut most reality watching out of my TV diet. For the first time since season one, I stopped watching “American Idol,” as well as non-sports reality shows.

JW: I’m also going to take this opportunity to mention the best show that flew completely under the radar in 2011-12: “Bent.” Despite protests to the contrary, NBC clearly didn’t realize what it had here, putting it on in April and burning it off on three weeks — not even giving it the same chance that another solid debut, “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23″ got from ABC with an extended run. The chemistry and easygoing humor that “Bent” generated doesn’t come along that often. While NBC’s ongoing audience issues make it hard to launch a show — and heaven knows the ratings for “Bent” were broken — the Peacock has to know when to give something a longer leash.

SL: Having just finished the Warren Littlefield book on the glory days at NBC, it reminded me that networks execs today need to stick with a show they believe in. Granted, that can be hard to do when ratings are poor and everyone is calling for a cancellation, but network toppers aren’t accountants nor research analysts, and are supposed to be passionate about programming. While we may never see a comedy rise through the ranks like one-time ratings bottom-dwellers such as “Seinfeld” and “Cheers,” at least take a swing with show to be proud of, be it “Bent” rather than trying to defend “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” or “How to Be a Gentleman.”

JW: Before we wrap this up, what individual performances stuck out for you this year? I’m curious to see whether Michelle Dockery can emerge from Maggie Smith’s shadow and earn some Emmy recognition for her wondrous work on “Downton.” And, as much as I love “Modern Family,” I wouldn’t mind seeing some other names break its stranglehold in the supporting acting categories, such as the folks from “Parks and Recreation,” which is worthy of several in its own right.

SL: Sometimes it’s the supporting performances that really stick with me. I’m sure they will get overlooked, but both Kevin Dunn’s and Jason Gedrick’s work as degenerate gamblers in “Luck” was mesmerizing, and the testosterone-fueled gents on “Sons of Anarchy” aren’t always given enough credit as deserved. Finally, in a lead role that Emmy will clearly have its eye on, Claire Danes was spectacular as a CIA agent on the edge of self-destruction in “Homeland.”

JW: No argument there. There’s too much good stuff out there for the Emmys to recognize. The glass really is half-full — more than half-full, to be sure.

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