Can a Comic Book Series Break into the Emmy Race?

Superhero TV Emmy Contenders
Courtesy of CW/Netflix/AMC

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.”

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  1. catchacluepeople says:

    I still cannot fathom how Break Bad ever got that many Emmy awards. It’s just a TERRIBLE show and impossible to watch. Madmen was watchable the first 2 maybe 3 seasons but after that it wasn’t very good. Game of Thrones had some good seasons and off seasons but not getting the nod on any of those good seasons is ridiculous. the fact that Daredevil got snubbed now shows that the Emmy’s are a complete sham.

  2. sell says:

    It seems to me that ‘Heroes’ yes received an award for the performance of the actor Nasi Oka. So why D’Onofrio could not be nominated and win? I thought that the main requirement for these thing were the actor’s performance. Santa ignorance, Batman!

  3. JoeR says:

    Have to disagree with Jacques (below). We look forward to GOTHAM, even though it was a bumpy first season. And Robin Lord Taylor should at least be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor nod. And D’Onofrio definitely deserves an award for his nuanced performance (a career best) in DAREDEVIL

  4. Jacques Strappe says:

    Comic book inspired television and the fantasy genre in general probably deserves in it’s own Emmy category but that same argument can be made for lots of television programming that doesn’t fit the conventional drama and comedy labels. As a consumer of the genre, I’m fine with none of it even being nominated. As well done as The Flash is for a CW show, it is not worthy of being nominated for a best of series in any genre. It’s an entertaining fantasy show that holds mostly appeal for a juvenile audience, although I am amazed at the adult critics who have gushed about the show. Daredevil, on the other hand, has plumbed new complexity and depth in the comic book genre and stands out as the best of the best of the fantasy genre, in my opinion. Gotham is probably the biggest disappointment and by far, the least watchable of any of the comic book inspired shows. It went off the rails early on. Relying far too much, if not entirely, on the brooding and depressing atmospherics of the location, Gotham, while giving short shrift to interesting characters that viewers could root just makes Gotham a mess of a show that feels more like a funeral unfolding each week. Marvels Agents of SHIELD is the most appealing network comic book show this year, in particular, ( and greatly improved from its first season) loaded with interesting and compelling characters to get behind and tons of fast paced action. There really are no superheroes in SHIELD, however as it hews more toward super spy genre than super hero. The Whedon brothers really have a knack in writing snappy dialogue and never taking their fantasy shows so seriously to the point of making them an unintentional parody of the genre.

    • Donald Taylor says:

      This 51 year old Flash fan disagrees strongly with your characterization of the “Flash” of being for a Juvenile audience. Maybe you should listen to those adult critics. Special effects, story line, actors, writers and directors all should be worthy of nominations.

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