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Producers struggle to pick Emmy episodes

Show creators must balance characters, humor, drama when choosing the episodes that may result in an Emmy win
/ Source: Reuters

Arguably, the greatest stress in a TV producer's life comes after the season has wrapped, when he or she must select the best episode from the past 20-odd to send to the Emmy judges.

In the case of comedy and drama series, just one episode has to stand in the nomination process (though once the series is nominated, the producer can submit six total episodes for final balloting).

What follows is a brief look at the episodes five shows selected for the pre-nomination process, and some of the behind-the-scenes agonizing that ultimately got them shortlisted in their outstanding series categories. Nominees will have to wait until Sept. 21 to see if they chose wisely.


Episode: "The Court Supreme"

In this episode, the lawyers try to overturn a death sentence and end up arguing before the Supreme Court. The setup created its own particular obstacles, explains exec producer Bill D'Elia. "Since we were dealing with real people in portraying the Supreme Court judges, we were attempting to cast not only the best actors but actors that bore some reasonable resemblance to the actual court. James Spader's closing was perhaps his longest of the season, and on a set that was new to us, so the physical production of the Supreme Court scenes was challenging. To produce an episode of this magnitude and maintain our episodic budget was also challenging. That said, over the course of a full season there are many episodes that present these challenges. The trick is to balance these episodes with those that take place without a large guest cast and on our standing sets."


Episode: "Frozen"

Executive producer Katie Jacobs and creator/executive producer David Shore are in charge of making the decision for the medical drama, and Jacobs says the real challenge is to find a quality episode that doesn't feature a lot of backstory. "It has to be a good and compelling hour for both the fans and those who aren't all that familiar with 'House,"' she explains. "This year, we went with an episode that both David and I saw as quintessentially what our show is about. It was strong and very much classic and traditional in terms of what we are. We'd considered going in a different direction and submitting 'House's Head,' which was wildly ambitious and imaginative and unformulaic. But while that's a fun piece of TV for our viewers, we're not sure it would have been embraced by the academy. You've got to take those factors of familiarity into consideration."


Episode: "The Constant"

As with "House," backstory is one of the major obstacles a show like "Lost" has to overcome. "We can't make stand-alone episodes," explain writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, answering questions jointly via e-mail. "So we went with the one we felt was our best work and decided we would live or die by it. Fortunately, the panel seemed to respond well to it. 'The Constant' was a very complex episode that involved consciousness traveling. Instead of our normal two-week story break, it took us five weeks to break the episode. The challenge was to do something that involved a lot of trippy mythology, but not lose the viewer in a morass of exposition. We worked very hard at finding an emotional through-line for the story, and at keeping the story at all times pointed toward our emotional ending — the reunion of Penny and Desmond."


Episode: "Local Ad"

Deciding what episode to send over brings up a host of questions, says executive producer Greg Daniels. "There is really no hard and fast rule for how we conclude which episode to submit. It all depends on our mood and the direction we believe the wind to be blowing. When it's just one episode, we try to send over what we think to be, simply, the best. It may not be the funniest, but the most powerful, the one that pays off with heart as opposed to pure episodic comedy. That's the old debate. With 'Local Ad,' we opted to go with straight-out laughs. But next year, that may not be the case. The process keeps changing in our minds in part because the TV academy procedures keep changing."


Episode: "Rough Night in Hump Junction"

For "Men" producers, the decision over what episode to send revolves not as much on the funny elements as it does characters. Says creator/executive producer Chuck Lorre, "It's got to be about funny, of course. (But) we give special emphasis to the episodes where Jon (Cryer) and Charlie (Sheen) get to shine ... Sometimes it's really clear from the audience that something ain't working, so we'll rewrite while we're shooting the episode. It's exciting and unnerving and stressful but ultimately very rewarding. I wish we could do that with the Emmy judges. You know, step in while they're watching it and say, 'Hey, no worries, we can punch it up right here in the room. We're here to make the show work for ya!' That's one rule change I'd support."