Nothing is more exciting – at least to an Emmy watcher - than when a brand new series not only entertains our socks off and reinvigorates the medium, but sweeps the awards its first time out. And despite a perception that members of the TV Academy are lazy and vote for the same ol’ same ol’, this has happened a fair amount in recent years.
Its very first time up to bat, 30 Rock got six noms and won as outstanding comedy series – which I’ve just been reminded of because I’m reading Tina Fey’s funny memoir Bossypants.
Mad Men took the prize for outstanding drama in 2008, its first year out (and yes, every year since).
And just last summer, NBC’s Glee swept the awards with 19 nominations - only to be edged out as outstanding comedy by another first-time contender, ABC’s Modern Family.
That brings us to this year, when the chances, come September, that a brand new drama or comedy will be heralded as a major arrival in this manner are, to hazard a guess, roughly equivalent to the odds that Charlie Sheen will get his job back.
For seldom have the networks fielded such a roster of wipe-outs. Gone, in short order, were $#* My Dad Says, Chase, Detroit 1-8-7, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s The Whole Truth. It was two and through for Lone Star and My Generation. The toast popped early for Undercovers, Better With You, Outlaw and Nikita. The fat lady sang for No Ordinary Family and The Cape. And things weren’t all cushy on basic cable, where AMC fouled out for the first time ever with Rubicon, and on FX, it was the doghouse for Terriers and lights out for Lights Out. Not that all of these cancellations were deserved. Ask any Terriers fan.
Even some shows that looked like they had legs are now on the bubble: Blue Bloods, The Defenders, Outsourced, and others I won’t mention because the pendulum could swing in any direction, any day now.
What was new this year that worked, and that might also appeal to the TV academy? Mostly premium cable shows and a few short-order basic cable series. That’s right - life isn’t fair. They’ve got more time, more money, and can be as edgy as they #&@! well wanna be. They’ve got fewer episodes, and marquee movie names. In a fractured TV universe, they can hang on with a thimbleful of ratings compared to what’s required for a network show.
So be it. Here are some first season series eligible for 2011 awards that have renewals, critical acclaim and a shot at edging their way into the nominations.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO). The Big Dog. Ample budget, damn fine writing, and some great performances, not just from Steve Buscemi, as Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson, but from his Prohibition-era cohorts played by Michael Shannon, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Pitt and Dabney Coleman. One of the first new series out of the gate last September, this one dazzled Golden Globes voters, who named it best drama series, and Buscemi best actor. But the field of returning dramas it’ll be up against is formidable. Strong shot.
Shameless (Showtime). From John Wells (ER), a remake of a British series about a booze-addled lout of a father (William H. Macy) and his thieving, street-smart offspring (including stand-out Emmy Rossum). This one’s “rough,” as they say in the comedy world, to mean too raw and offensive for a lot of people, but it has avid admirers who swear it’s brilliant. I can’t get past the title sequence, which shows successive family members using the john. But the Chicago Sun-Times praises its “anarchy,” and New York Magazine likes its “rough and original charisma.” Long shot.
The Killing (AMC). I’ve been resisting this recent entry because let’s face it, it’s a crime procedural, and I grow tired of those, but I am alone. Avid fans and critical hosannas abound. This moody, cinematic remake of a hit Scandinavian series has a one-day-at-a-time format that lets its emotional landscape and buried secrets unfurl in a way that’s slow and deep. And the cast mesmerizes -- Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Brent Sexton -- any one of them could inspire votes. Clean shot.
The Walking Dead (AMC) What is it with the appetite for bleak post-apocalyptic visions? Last Halloween, AMC added zombies + gore to that popular landscape, and reaped ratings gold, critical respect, a speedy renewal and a Golden Globe nomination, all off only six episodes. Even so, the overall achievement of creator Frank Darabont outshines the work of anyone in the cast. Outside shot.
Game of Thrones (HBO) Ambitious, visually sumptuous, superbly told saga of swords, sex, power and intrigue. The same applies to Showtime’s The Borgias, but something in the zeitgeist tells me the George R.R. Martin fantasy series, rather than the Renaissance historic drama, will be the project with a more fresh and persuasive Emmy appeal. Above all, Peter Dinklage rocks as the knowing, plucky Tyrion. A shot over the castle wall.
Episodes (Showtime). The year’s standout new comedy. A wicked, delightful, inspired skewering of the TV development process, about a pair of married British writers who bring their hit show across the pond for a remake, from veteran comedy writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. Matt Le Blanc, in a game self-parody, has never been better. Did Emmy voters take enough notice during its brief, seven-episode first season? It’s decidedly in their ballpark. Rim shot.
[Pictures, top to bottom: Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones]