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Emmy Comedy Contenders Chase the Triple Crown

Shows like 'Modern Family' grab ratings, critical acclaim and awards

Eleven thoroughbreds have won horse racing’s Triple Crown, but none since 1978. Primetime comedy also has its version of the trifecta — high ratings, critical acclaim and Emmy notice — and the same horse has won it three years in a row.

Somehow, even as popularity and kudos have hit a fork in the road with drama series, ABC comedy “Modern Family” has been able to triumph on all fronts. At once, the show seems to be bucking a trend while offering hope that others might follow in its path. (“The Big Bang Theory,” take note.)

“Unlike ratings, which are literally a popularity contest, the Academy is peer-based, wherein the membership aspires to recognize work that is progressive and challenging regardless of audience size,” says David Miner, an exec producer on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock.” “So, when we talk about correlating popularity with the idea of challenging viewers’ expectations, we know they can’t always line up.”

The equation has been complicated by the increased number of players doing quality work in the scripted series arena — an area that is still evolving. Future Emmy nominees won’t be limited to cable channels.

Says IMDB.com TV editor Melanie McFarland: “Five years ago, if you told me that Amazon, Netflix and Hulu would be presenting their own content, I would have said, ‘What’s a Hulu?’ ”

Besides an increase in their numbers, cable comedies often air via non-traditional scheduling strategies, such as limited seasons. Creators can turn each episode of a short run into a better experience, while also being easier for viewers to enjoy the shows at a time that’s convenient for them.

What it means for this year’s Emmys — which will have several low-audience contenders in such shows as NBC’s “30 Rock”  and “Parks and Recreation,” HBO’s “Girls” and “Veep” and FX’s “Louie” — will have to wait until the nominations are announced July 18, but one person who is not surprised to see the shift is Richard Clayman, who produced several Norman Lear sitcoms, including “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “The Jeffersons.”

“When you’re talking about primal relationships, cable networks are the perfect place because they’ve got bigger budgets, fewer restrictions in terms of what they can put on the air, and the people who turn to those networks are searching for what they perceive to be higher quality work — and they will usually find it there,” he says. “Some of the best creators are going to keep gravitating that way.”

Even Christopher Lloyd, co-creator with Steven Levitan of “Modern Family,” says pleasing viewers and critics simultaneously is no easy task.

“Sometimes when people want to broaden the appeal of their show they not intentionally but effectively dumb down the show a little bit,” he says. “They make it more appealing to everyone — old and young, across demographics, across cultures — but it loses a little bit of its specialness, and it’s usually the specialness that the critics are interested in and most excited by.”

That has not been a problem for “Modern,” the three-time Emmy comedy series champ that remains a ratings winner for ABC and a critical fave. And while Lloyd admits he doesn’t know the exact formula for the show’s success, he says the ingredients include talented individuals, the right chemistry between the actors and a brilliant script.

“I really do think you have to do about 20 things just right, and then you have to get lucky seven ways — and we got lucky at least seven ways.”

And that luck needs to continue as the shows grow older. The fourth season of “Modern” and the sixth of “Big Bang” are now in the books, having faced new sets of challenges.

“For any long-running series, the problem is that you need to change and grow without changing,” says USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco. “People get bored of the same thing, but they also don’t want you to change into something else.” Both shows remain on top of their game, he adds.

So, will it be possible for more series to score TV’s triple crown? Absolutely, and some of those shows may already be on the fall schedule, says McFarland.

“We could conceivably see a tremendous piece of storytelling made in 22 episodes that hits all three of those areas,” she says. “The thing about these great shows that aren’t attracting that many viewers, some of those viewers are studying them and will learn from them. There’s a future generation of showrunners growing up on all of this great stuff, and ultimately that will benefit storytelling in the medium as a whole.”

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