These days, you can’t swing a mythical hammer without hitting a comic book property being adapted for the screen, with every major TV network and movie studio seeking the next pre-established franchise in the pages of DC, Marvel and Image.
But while “The Walking Dead” remains TV’s No. 1 scripted show and series like CW’s “The Flash” and Netflix’s “Daredevil” rake in critical acclaim, one question looms large over awards season: Can a comic book drama crack the Emmy race?
“When you sign on for genre, you definitely accept that fact that you are playing at a disadvantage when it comes to awards season,” says “Daredevil” showrunner Steven DeKnight, who cut his teeth writing for genre maestro Joss Whedon on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” — two critically beloved shows that failed to earn major Emmy recognition during their runs. “I think once you get to the Academy level, there is an inherent snobbery against genre shows, and we recently saw it with (Alejandro) Inarritu’s comments about comic book movies.”
The Oscar-winning director of “Birdman,” which skewers — among other things — superhero movies and the sell-out mentality of blockbusters, recently described the flourishing comic book genre as “cultural genocide,” declaring, “There’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up.”
“That comment speaks to that misunderstanding of the material,” DeKnight notes. “Comic books haven’t been kids’ stuff for decades. And the same thing with fantasy — (‘Game of Thrones’ author) George R. R. Martin’s books are not for kids, obviously.”
He adds, “I’m a member of the Academy. I vote every year. Once you get to that level of handing out awards, there’s a reluctance to award the highest honor to something steeped in genre. Your sense — and even I suffer from it at times — is, ‘Well, this award is so important, the show has to have a certain air of importance itself.’”
“Maybe it’s because people are afraid to say, ‘That’s the show I like the most’ or (think) ‘Well, if it made me that happy, it couldn’t be that good,’” says “The Flash” showrunner Andrew Kreisberg, conceding that he suffers from the same hesitation as DeKnight for awards voting — despite writing comics and producing four superhero shows, including CBS’ upcoming “Supergirl” and the CW’s “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow.” “There’s a feeling that you can give the award only to something that’s civic-minded or socially relevant, or something that’s making a very bold or daring commentary on the way we live.”
Exec producer Danny Cannon (Fox’s “Gotham”), a three-time Emmy nominee for “CSI,” believes broadcast shows can’t compete against the excesses of prestige cable programming — although that rationale fails to explain the TV Academy’s reluctance to recognize AMC’s “Walking Dead.”
“Unfortunately, I think there are so many great shows on cable right now, and they have the luxury of a lot more freedom — and I’m not putting network down; I love network, it’s been great to me, but it’s just a different kettle of fish,” Cannon says. “I would imagine that voters will go towards the edgier, more adult content. I think when your peers are voting, we’re just automatically going to vote for shows that are allowed to push boundaries. It’s not entertainment value we’re voting for; I think we’re attempting to vote for people who are taking the medium a tad further — that’s not what happens on network.”
Some suspect that the demographic makeup of Academy voters could be a factor in their tastes. “In the Television Academy, much like the (film) Academy, the voting members tend to be much older,” DeKnight points out. “I love the older Academy members and what they’ve done, but my feeling is that eventually people who grew up with genre — where genre wasn’t treated purely as kids’ stuff — we will become the older generation and perhaps will look at it differently.”
And sometimes all it takes is one to break in, according to Kreisberg: “There was a time when Westerns were considered silly, and then ‘Unforgiven’ brought them back; and on TV there was a time when cop shows were silly, and then ‘Hill Street Blues’ came and changed it.”
Indeed, fantastical shows such as “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones” and “Heroes” have all been nominated for best drama series (even if they’ve never won), while AMPAS famously expanded the number of nominees in the best picture category. “Things might be changing,” Kreisberg says. “It was certainly ‘Dark Knight’ not being nominated that made for the Oscars rule change.”
The TV Academy has followed suit this year, expanding its drama and comedy series categories to include seven nominees. Could that make a difference for shows like “The Walking Dead”? The zombie smash has won several Emmys in technical categories, but never managed to follow in the footsteps of fellow AMC series “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” to earn consideration in the top drama or acting fields.
“I would’ve thought ‘The Walking Dead’ would’ve garnered more awards talk given the quality of the work and beyond that, the incredible ratings,” Kreisberg admits.
Linda Schupack, AMC’s exec VP of marketing, attributes “The Walking Dead’s” above-the-line shutout to the strength of the competition. “I think there is so much really terrific television out there, but the most important thing for us is that we are representing this show as a character drama,” she says. “That’s what we want to put first and foremost out to people — highlighting the terrific storytelling, highlighting these emotionally affecting performances and really showcasing them to viewers so this is the stuff that gets under people’s skin.”
Kreisberg, DeKnight and Cannon share a mutual cynicism about their Emmy chances, although all three are hopeful that their below-the-line talent will be recognized. “We have the best stunts on television on ‘Arrow’ and the best visual effects on ‘Flash,’ and I certainly think they should win, but it would be a crime if our stunt team and our visual effects team were not nominated,” Kreisberg says. “Those are the kinds of awards that genre stuff tends to win.”
“I’d love for voters to recognize that we’ve created an entire world and every inch of it is purposefully designed,” Cannon says of “Gotham’s” Emmy hopes. “I would love just for the talented people we work with, one or two of them to be recognized, but our competition on uncensored cable is enormous, and rightly so.”
“With ‘Daredevil,’ I don’t expect to be nominated for any of the major awards, and that’s absolutely fine – my hope is for some of the other categories; there’s some actors that I’d love to see nominated, especially Vincent D’Onofrio, who I thought did a phenomenal job; I hope the stunt team gets recognized; I hope our director of photography gets recognized,” DeKnight says. “When we approached ‘Daredevil,’ there were mutterings, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll get nominated for an Emmy. My feeling is, you can’t even think about that, you just have to tell a good story that you want to tell. I’m not gonna lie, I’d love an Emmy sitting on my shelf, but more than (that), I would like people to enjoy and respond to the show that I’m working on.”