LOS ANGELES — If Emmy history is any guide, the ABC series “Lost” would stray as far off the radar of the industry’s pre-eminent television awards as its marooned cast of air-crash survivors.
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But somehow a genre-bending program that incorporates elements of science fiction is leading the pack this year in the drama categories — traditionally the bailiwick of episodic-friendly detectives, doctors or dysfunctional families.
Perhaps “Lost” is an appropriate front-runner in what has been a surreal year for ABC, which has seen its haul of nominations surge along with its ratings, as has Fox and CBS. Given the concomitant decreases registered by HBO and NBC, this year’s Emmy nominations could very well reflect the shifting fortunes roiling the television industry.
“Lost” executive producer Damon Lindelof was stunned by the series’ Emmy reception because so many of its unconventional trappings — nonlinear storytelling and unseen monsters, to name a few — contribute to its labeling as a “genre show,” an appellation he considers inaccurate.
“The genre show by its nature doesn’t get the same respect as what are perceived as character-oriented shows or ’issue’ dramas,” Lindelof said. “But just because we have things on our show that are outside the wheelhouse of reality doesn’t make it a (purely) genre show. At its heart, it’s a character show.”
However you pigeonhole it, “Lost” is undeniably an Emmy favorite, up for 12 awards including outstanding drama series (another sci-fi-ish drama, HBO’s “Carnivale,” got eight). Two members of its ensemble cast, Naveen Andrews and Terry O’Quinn, are vying for the supporting actor in a drama series statuette. “Lost” also collected nominations for writing, directing, casting, editing and music.
A breakthrough for genre television
With its spooky charms and adventurous streak, “Lost” actually runs counter to decades of Emmy tradition, which favors dramas rooted in well-worn genres. The earliest drama winners were anthology shows like “Studio One” and “Playhouse 90,” but it wasn’t long before sleuths and attorneys dominated, as indicated by multiple wins for “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” (four apiece). More recently, HBO has made headway in the category by tweaking the traditional family drama with existential brooding (“Six Feet Under”) and the Mafia (“The Sopranos”).
“Hollywood voters may work in the world capital of make-believe, but they like their award winners to be real and have gravitas,” said Tom O’Neil, an Emmy expert who runs award-prediction Web site http://www.GoldDerby.com.
In stark contrast, shows that play with fantasy rarely get broad-based Emmy recognition, usually technical awards as opposed to outstanding drama series or actor honors. Rod Serling managed to pick up two writing awards for “The Twilight Zone” in 1960 and ’61, but his classic spine-tingler didn’t do much else at the Emmys. In 1967 and ’68, “Star Trek” was up for outstanding drama but failed to win.
The same goes for two more recent series that flirted with the occult in the 1990s: “Twin Peaks” and “The X Files.” While both went into the Emmys in their peak years as dominant players — “X-Files” racked up 16 in 1998 — they rarely took home a major award, though “X Files” star Gillian Anderson did win outstanding actress in 1997.
“Science fiction has hard a hard time breaking through at the Emmys,” Orlando Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedeker said. “Is it even fair to call (‘Lost’) science fiction? That’s the smartest thing about the show: It keeps you guessing.”
But “Lost” — which has been credited with inspiring more than a few otherworldly new series being introduced in the fall — could find itself in better shape than its predecessors with no real favorite in the outstanding drama category. “Six Feet Under” and “The West Wing” are largely perceived as past their prime, while last year’s winner, “The Sopranos,” has the year off. Perhaps “Lost’s” biggest conceivable competition, fellow ABC hour “Desperate Housewives,” was carted off to the comedy category, where it is considered a favorite.
Together “Lost” and “Housewives” helped power ABC to 51 nominations, its highest tally since 2001. Fox (49) and CBS (59) also are up significantly, the latter network leading the broadcasters for the first time since 1994.
“It’s good to see broadcast recognized again for delivering great programming to audiences,” Touchstone TV president Mark Pedowitz said.
With 54 nominations, NBC has more than ABC, but has been on a steady decline in recent years, as high as 89 in 2002. The buzz at the peacock has not been what it once was nor has it at HBO, which leads all networks with 93 nominations but is down 25% from 2004.
HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht dismissed the notion that his competition is gaining on him, noting the 2006 return of “Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“I certainly knew last year was not going to be repeatable because it was such an extraordinary perfect storm,” he said. “But I am very pleased with the recognition that we’ve gotten.”
Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter