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Freshman Shows Find Favor in Critics’ Choice Awards Race

When it comes to picking favorites in the increasingly frenetic Emmy Awards race, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as relief. In truth, prognosticating the Emmy results has become a predictable affair, as the TV Academy’s annual soiree often salutes the same clutch of series year after year.

Not so with the Broadcast Television Journalists Assn. — the nominating body behind the Critics’ Choice TV Awards.

“I think it’s important to have an organization like this that helps focus attention in a universe that’s so broad,” says BTJA president Joey Berlin. “No one Emmy voter could possibly be knowledgeable about everything that’s on television.”

The glut of high-quality programming brought about by TV’s current “golden age” is a double-edged sword for the makers and consumers of entertainment. Audiences have more choices than ever before, but the raft of options means many deserving shows get lost in the shuffle or relegated to the depths of the DVR — and that’s true of Academy members as much as regular viewers.

“The natural dynamic for the Emmys is that people vote for things that they’re familiar with, so you have shows like ‘Modern Family’ win five years in a row,” Berlin notes. But for TV critics, who are required to focus on the old and new with equal attention, orange really is the new black.

“Our folks are more excited about new, different and fresh shows and performances than on very successful, long-running shows that are continuing to do what they’ve done well in the past,” Berlin says, noting that there’s a general air of “let’s shine a light on something that hasn’t been celebrated over and over.”

That’s good news for shows like The CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” FX’s “You’re the Worst,” Amazon’s “Transparent” and Fox’s “Empire,” which all earned Critics’ Choice noms for their inaugural seasons.

“It’s honestly overwhelming,” says “Jane” creator Jennie Snyder Urman. “It’s all these people that I read anyway — I like their opinions on TV and they’re engaged as a community. You read their analyses after ‘Mad Men’ and then you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, they know and like our show?’ … We’re also in the company of all these shows that I look up to, and people that are doing amazing work, so I’m so glad we got invited to that party.”

As the only freshman nominee in the drama category, facing off against heavyweights like “Homeland” and “The Good Wife,” “Empire” showrunner Ilene Chaiken says, “it means a great deal” for the show to be recognized. She attributes the runaway success of “Empire” — the highest-rated scripted broadcast series of last season — to a combination of factors: “It’s wildly entertaining; the music is excellent; and at the same time, it also touches on a lot of very real things that audiences haven’t necessarily seen on television, starting with representation of an underrepresented and significant population, and a true telling of the stories of people whose stories don’t often get told. I believe that television audiences really long for that.”

Frosh series aren’t the only newcomers to the CCTA race: FX’s “Justified,” which recently completed its sixth and final season, earned a drama nod for the first time since 2011, when the Critics’ Choice TV Awards were launched. In fact, it leads the CCTA pack with five noms, tied with HBO’s limited series “Olive Kitteridge.”

“It means a lot. The reality is, we worked incredibly hard on every season; we knew that there would be a lot of focus on the final season — I wouldn’t say we worked any harder, but we were conscious of that,” showrunner Graham Yost says. “When we started to hear the critical drumbeat that this was a good strong season, we were very appreciative of that.”

Supporting actress Joelle Carter also earned her first nom, for which she’s incredibly grateful.
“It’s such an honor to get a nomination for the show, for the family, for the team effort, and then the individual ones are just cherries on top of the cake,” Carter says. “I came in with blind faith and the desire to play this character from day one because of the wonderful rich life, flavor and identity that Elmore Leonard gave her in the short story. To see her honored throughout the years and for it to really pay off in this last season is a very fulfilling moment in my career.”

Whether the trailblazing lineup of Critics’ Choice nominees translates to Emmy glory remains to be seen, but Berlin is cautiously optimistic. “It’s impossible for Emmy voters to see everything, so when a significant organization like this weighs in, you have to pay attention,” he says. “I think the truth is that the Television Academy, having this overwhelming array of choices, is probably going to be a lagging indicator and continue to be saluting the most familiar things. But I’m proud that our organization is out there, trying to help nudge them into sampling some of the exciting new shows.”

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