What’s Missing From the Emmy Roster: Bold Broadcast Dramas

The Good Wife Christine Baranski
Courtesy CBS

Going into the Emmy nominations, there was one overarching question: Would Emmy voters reward the risk-taking and the bold choices that can be found all over the television scene?

The answer was a resounding — and frankly joyful — yes.

When the nominations were unveiled on July 14, most Emmy observers shouted from the rooftops (or at least Twitter) with unbridled glee about the exciting array of series and performers being recognized. With series like “The Americans,” “Black-ish,” “Mr. Robot” and “Master of None” receiving multiple major nominations, it makes up for the occasional presence of a groan-inducing Emmy holdover whose best days have passed. 

You’d have to listen a lot harder to hear the next question embedded in this generally solid list: Where is the next “Good Wife”?

The CBS series isn’t fully out of contention — it earned a couple of guest actor nods and a writing nomination — but this query isn’t just about how the drama fared in its final season. The real head-scratcher is why the broadcast networks continue to be so timid with most of their one-hour shows.

When will we get another broadcast drama that is so willing to be risky, challenging and controversial? “The Good Wife” will be missed for the ways it embraced both ambiguity and boldness, but what’s frightening is that the broadcast networks don’t seem to have much interest in making shows like it anymore — despite the fact that they can be critical and commercial successes. “The Good Wife’s” retirement marks the last of the broadcast drama contenders — and judging by the current crop of pilots, I’m not sure there’s another waiting in the wings. 

Every year, broadcast complains that they get shut out of the Emmys — that the prizes go to their cable and now streaming counterparts. And true, it may well be easier to make a 12-episode series than a 22-episode one.

But the competition won’t be letting up anytime soon — and in order to stand out, what will make the difference isn’t the number of episodes, but what’s in them. Shows need to have a strongly defined point of view or take some kind of chance to earn viewers — and earn kudos. I wouldn’t argue that  “American Crime,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Empire” are perfect shows — but the buzz and nominations they’ve gotten are certainly deserved. All three are meaty, complicated programs with truly multi-cultural casts, and they’re unafraid of taking risks. Watching these shows is not a passive experience.

But when it comes to pilot season, TV seems determined not to learn the lesson that taking smart chances can really pay off. In the last few development cycles, the execution of most one-hours broadcast dramas has lacked any kind of notable conviction, not to mention originality and energy. Remakes, reboots and sequels aren’t going to win viewers, much less awards. 

Aliens, time travel, IP plays, unlikely law enforcement duos (“Sacco and Vanzetti, but they’re cops!”) — there’s no shortage of TV ideas that seem like they could be cool, given the right energy and execution. But most lack true style and swagger, and too few network dramas feature characters one-tenth as compelling as Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick or Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon. And most of these dramas with “out there” premises and undistinguished execution never live to see a second season.

It’s worth remembering that the set-up of “The Good Wife” is not exactly earth-shattering: A spouse stood by her philandering politician husband and tried to pick up the pieces of her career. “House” was about a cranky doctor, “Grey’s Anatomy” is about a group of driven doctors and surgeons, and “Lost” may have seemed risky but “stranded plane-crash survivors” is, at the end of the day, not an overly involved concept.

It’s the execution that made these series stand out — the bold creative moves that made viewers and voters take notice. Broadcast networks can still execute really well — when it comes to comedy. (Witness “Black-ish,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “Jane the Virgin.”) In the drama realm, year after year — not so much.

It could partially be a brain-drain issue: TV creators now have a lot of options, and they can go to work for a streaming platform or a cable network if they don’t want to do the bidding of the broadcast networks. Peak TV has led to a paucity of experienced showrunners, a fact very much in evidence on all networks. But ultimately, this is not a personnel problem, it’s an attitude problem. 

Of course, broadcast networks aren’t the only ones that struggle with how to approach drama in this day and age. There are any number of musty ideas and tired dynamics rattling around one-hour programs, even in TV’s most ambitious precincts.

But I refuse to believe that the broadcast network realm should concede total victory in the drama arena to its competitors. Marrying risk-taking, intelligent storytelling to commercially viable ideas is something broadcast has done for decades.

If ever there were a time to throw a few more Hail Mary passes, this is it. If nothing else, Emmy voters are willing to play catch.