Swan song for Emmy hopefuls

'Friday Night Lights,' 'Big Love' among series bidding farewell

Between them, they have logged more than 300 episodes, won 25 Emmy nominations and produced some of the best television of the past five years.

“Friday Night Lights,” “Big Love” and “In Treatment” had an impact that transcended their relatively small audiences. And the recently cancelled “Brothers and Sisters,” though never a critical darling in the same way, nevertheless returned the family drama to prominence at a time when the genre had all but disappeared.

“Not all shows will be remembered 25 years from their airdate,” says “Big Love” co-creator Will Scheffer. “We wanted to make something popular, something important that would stand the test of time.”

“Big Love” won strong reviews and its fair share of controversy from the moment it premiered on HBO in 2006. The drama about a polygamous Utah family had its share of ups and downs over its five seasons (cast member Chloe Sevigny famously called the fourth season “awful”), but it managed to finish with a season that satisfied numerous fans and critics in the way it resolved its core family’s story.

“It was one of the few series to portray religion in a way that wasn’t condescending,” says Todd VanDerWerff, TV editor for the Onion’s A.V. Club. “And with the subject matter and it being HBO, there probably was the temptation to be a little condescending. And it was also one of the few shows primarily driven by well-drawn female characters.”

Says “Big Love” co-creator Mark V. Olsen: “We wanted to deliver a visceral experience, but tackle some big themes as well. And with the show’s elevated tone, that wasn’t always easy to do. But it was important for us to have something to say about the human soul and what’s valid in marriage and family.”

Marriage and family were significant themes in “Friday Night Lights,” a smallscale drama about life (and football) in a Texas town. The show’s audience wasn’t big, but those who watched were passionate enough to keep the program alive with several “Save ‘Friday Night Lights’ ” campaigns. Its final three seasons were shown on DirectTV before being rebroadcast on NBC.

“It’s so rare to have a show focus on people leading ordinary lives,” VanDerWerff says. “It also had one of the great portraits of marriage on television, showing that it’s possible to do stories about marriage without always threatening divorce.”

In addition to that portrait of decency and the fine acting of Emmy-nominated leads Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, “Friday Night Lights” also made its mark with its unique shooting style. The show used three handheld cameras, aiming to capture unrehearsed, spontaneous moments that revealed the heart of the characters.

“It was an exciting way to make television,” says Jason Katims, the show’s head writer and executive producer. “We got a lot of real things happening from the actors that couldn’t have been thought of ahead of time.”

“Friday Night Lights” shot in Austin, moving quickly from location to location. HBO’s “In Treatment,” by contrast, was largely contained, its action focusing on the relationship between Gabriel Byrne’s psychotherapist and his patients, as well as between Byrne’s character and his own therapist, played by Dianne Wiest for two seasons before he switched to one played by Amy Ryan.

“In Treatment” had a unique format, particularly in its debut season. That year, the half-hour drama aired Monday through Friday, with each episode focusing on one particular patient’s session, culminating weekly with Byrne’s own meeting with Wiest. Over the course of its three seasons, the cast included the likes of Debra Winger, John Mahoney and Hope Davis. For their stellar work, Wiest won an Emmy, Byrne a Golden Globe.

HBO says the show may return in a different format in the future.

“It really did feel like therapy,” says MSN senior producer Dave McCoy, who covers television and film for the site. “And it certainly reinforced what everybody knows — that therapists are as messed up as their patients. They just have the training.”

“It was also the meatiest role Gabriel Byrne had been given since ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ ” McCoy adds. “He had to sit there and listen and convey so much with his face. Then once a week he got to explode.”

ABC had toyed with the idea of bringing “Brothers and Sisters” back for an abbreviated sixth season. But in the end, the saga of the Walker family wrapped after 109 episodes and an Emmy win for Sally Field, who played the clan’s matriarch.

“When it began, it was such a nice sprawling story about this family,” VanDerWerff says. “But where ‘Friday Night Lights’ got smaller and smaller, ‘Brothers and Sisters’ got crazier and soapier. Watching it fall apart proved just how hard it is to come up with stories about people simply living their lives. In that respect, it offers further proof of ‘Friday Night Lights’ ” brilliance.”

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