Writers and Directors Make TV’s ‘Vast Wasteland’ Bloom

Emmy Awards: On today's smallscreen, story -- not the individual storyteller -- is king

In 1963, Emmy nominations for writing and helming went to lawyer and doctor shows; a Western about a crooked poker game; a bittersweet romance; and a stage play starring Trevor Howard as Disraeli. Series and one-offs were lumped together, so there’d be enough to fill the slates.

Those weren’t even among the faves. Double winner “The Defenders” ranked No. 18 on the year, with nominee “Ben Casey” leading its field at No. 7. Only six dramas broke into a top 20 dominated by sitcoms and reality shows.

Fast forward to 2013, and its quantum leap forward in ambition and scope. Quality TV was once seen as the writer’s medium (’63 winner Reginald Rose), and a place for young filmmakers to start out (’63 nominee Sydney Pollack). But today’s marquee helmers embrace longform for its freedom and speed, and the story rather than the individual storyteller is king.

Production values have exploded. Trevor Howard’s jaw would drop at the elegant cavalcade wandering the halls and grounds of “Downton Abbey.” Or the erotically charged Midway of “Boardwalk Empire.” Or the Armageddons of myth and violence in “Game of Thrones.”

Writing, if less personal, has never been smarter or sharper. A post-9/11 America finds its mirror reflection in the emotional pain and moral ambiguities of “Homeland.” Dr. Kildare would fall apart reading the case file of Walter White, cancer survivor and meth king of “Breaking Bad,” while the bluffing at a Laredo poker table was nothing compared with the double-dealing going on back East in “House of Cards.”

Fifty years ago, TV drama was “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke,” genre stuff grownups sat in front of when there were no hot, intelligent movies around. But the wheel has fully turned. Now the bigscreen caters to kids and action junkies, while drama series offer adults a damn good justification for never leaving the house.

Drama Series Writing and Directing By the Numbers:

23 – Most drama series directing Emmys for a network (NBC)

20 – Most drama series writing Emmys for a network (tie, CBS & NBC)

1985 – First year a woman won a directing Emmy (Karen Arthur, “Cagney & Lacey”)

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