The Emmy for drama series is the final award of the night for a reason.
With all due respect to comedy, it truly is the kingmaker of the television industry -- just ask the folks at AMC, whose network will never be the same thanks to its back-to-back wins for "Mad Men."
But the shows that get nominated reveal a different theme each year.
This time, it's clear: A show should be young and complicated if it wants a berth in the top six. The eldest in this year's drama series lineup, "Lost," is also the only show that won't be back next year, and it's hardly old at six seasons. Not one of the other nominated drama series ("Men," "Breaking Bad," "Dexter," "True Blood" and "The Good Wife") has more than four seasons under its belt.
"After a show gets into its third or fourth year, it runs the risk of being yesterday's news," says Tim Brooks, former network executive and co-author (with Earle Marsh) of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present." "Even if a show maintains its (quality), the chances of winning become more remote each year. Emmy moves on to the next new thing."
With two wins in the past two years, "Mad Men" has everything going for it. The last time any series had consecutive wins was "The West Wing's" four-year blowout from 2000-03, though "The Sopranos" did have two nonconsecutive wins in 2004 and 2007.
What's more, the AMC drama is beginning to field more actor nominations and its retro-Zeitgeist appeal with viewers continues to be strong. It also has the bonus of airing its new season during the judging period, which allows voters to parse the resonance of Season 3 (which they are judging) while Season 4 unspools.
"I have no idea if that gives us an advantage," says "Mad Men" creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner. "Sometimes I think we're at a disadvantage."
A further reason for that, he fears, is that "people might say, 'You've won already,' as if they want the awards spread around."
AMC's other critically acclaimed drama, "Breaking Bad," doesn't have as much of a leg up on the competition, but Bryan Cranston is on his own two-for-two roll in the lead actor category; he's favored for a third win. The show is also fielding a supporting actor candidate in Aaron Paul for a second time, and there's a strong sense of goodwill for its unflinching acting and storytelling. Still, as a drama, "Bad" lives in the shadow of "Men," which is more digestible and an easier sell to a wider audience.
Can premium cable compete?
So far, basic cable has been showing up the premium network series in the win department. "Dexter" (Showtime) and "True Blood" (HBO) hope to change that, but neither has caught on the way AMC's fare has.
"True Blood" and to a certain degree "Dexter" are both based on books, and no show based on a book series has picked up a drama Emmy in at least 10 years. Of the two, "Dexter" had the more newsy season, with attention directed both off-camera at star Michael C. Hall's cancer treatment and on-camera at John Lithgow's killer Emmy-nominated guest role.
"True Blood," meanwhile, has seen its success grow cumulatively thanks to its campy cult following, but it is largely seen more as a guilty pleasure than a serious drama.
The glut of vampire films and books may also be chipping away at its uniqueness, leaving HBO -- which routinely scoops up record nominations and dominates other categories at the Emmys -- a little antsy following its lack of drama wins in the past few years. ("Big Love," a drama nominee last year, is virtually nowhere to be seen in the 2010 race.) Of the two premium cable networks, Showtime has the most to gain from a "Dexter" win, but neither the show nor the network has ever won a series Emmy.
Between this year's nominees and those in 2009, the broadcast networks have held only two berths in the drama category. "Lost" has been a nominee for three years now, but perennial Fox bridesmaid "House" disappeared this go-around, replaced by CBS' "The Good Wife." If HBO is antsy, CBS must be chomping at the bit for "Wife's" success; the last time the network fielded a nominee in this category was 2004, with "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Joan of Arcadia," and it hasn't had a win since 1994's "Picket Fences."
'Good Wife' more traditional
CBS might have a real shot with "Wife," which earned nine nominations in its first year, solid ratings and positive critical opinion.
Additionally, insiders, who tend to be the most regular voters, are more likely to side with the traditional -- and "Wife" has that in spades, with a more straightforward narrative story and a comeback story in lead actress Julianna Margulies, also nominated for her work. (Every series in this category can be paired with a lead acting nomination except for "Blood.") Add in a twist on the legal-drama genre and freshness of the series, and "Wife" is the latest to try and break the network-drama mold.
"We're trying not to let a concept lead us," says Robert King, who executive produces and co-writes the show with wife Michelle. "We're trying to provide writing that doesn't explain itself to the viewers; (rather) let them find the story."
Finally, there's "Lost," which gave ABC its first series win in six years in 2005 -- and stands as the category's only nominated show that ended last season.
Television probably should be as intriguing and twisty as "Lost," but that would be exhausting. The fact that the show's complexity after the first two seasons locked out some new viewers may explain why it never earned the honor again, despite multiple nominations.
Still, as one of the most pored-over, highly debated television shows ever created, there may be some big love for "Lost" left over come Emmy night.