Basic Cable Is Proving a Strong Contender for HBO's Emmy Throne

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, July 18, 2008

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif., July 17 "Mad Men," AMC's stylish new '60s-set drama about Madison Avenue, and FX's legal thriller "Damages" made Primetime Emmy history Thursday when they became the first basic-cable shows to be nominated in a best-series competition.

NBC's critically adored but ratings-starved "30 Rock" clocked 17 nominations -- the biggest haul ever for a comedy series.

HBO once again racked up the most nominations -- 85 -- but all the talk was about AMC's 20 nominations: 16 for "Mad Men" and four for the drug drama "Breaking Bad." No HBO series earned more than five nominations. "Entourage" nabbed that handful, including a nom for best comedy series.

But for the first time since 1998, HBO does not have a contender for best drama series. Critically heralded "The Wire" was snubbed again by Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, missing its last chance for a best-series Emmy. The gritty Baltimore-set drama received a single nomination for David Simon and Ed Burns's writing in the series finale. Most irksome to TV critics attending the Thank God We're Still Working Summer TV Press Tour 2008, it's only the second nomination ever for their darling "Wire."

"Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Flight of the Conchords" and "In Treatment" each received four nominations and accounted for the rest of HBO's series nominations. The pay-cable network, which has struggled to stay ahead of basic-cable nets in the race for big-ticket series, recently replaced its head of series development.

Acclaimed miniseries "John Adams" bolstered HBO's tally with 23 nominations -- the most for any TV movie or miniseries since "Roots" grabbed 37 way back in 1977.

But "Mad Men" snagged most of the headlines for its 16 noms, including the best-series nod, a first-time acting nom for Jon Hamm, another for John Slattery, two for art direction, two for writing and recognition for cinematography, costumes and direction, among others.

ABC's freshman series "Pushing Daisies" got a much-needed shot in the arm, logging an impressive 12 nominations, though a nom for best comedy series eluded the show about a piemaker who can bring things back from the dead. "Daisies" is among the series that lost momentum this past TV season during the 100-day writers' strike and will be relaunched in the fall. Noms include one for lead actor Lee Pace and another for supporting actress Kristin Chenoweth.

Chenoweth, with Neil Patrick Harris, star of the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," announced the nominations in the so-called glamour categories in a pre-dawn ceremony at TV academy headquarters. Harris received a nomination for best supporting actor in a comedy series, one of two for "HIMYM."

Cable continued to chip away at broadcast TV's hold on the Emmys. And most of the momentum in the glam categories came from basic-cable networks, which also stole some ground previously gained by premium cable.

In the running for best-drama series are basic-cable shows "Mad Men" and "Damages" plus Showtime's "Dexter." Those three are the first non-HBO cable series ever nominated in a best-series race.

Joining their cable competitors: ABC's "Boston Legal," Fox's "House" and ABC's "Lost." Last year's best-drama winner, HBO's "The Sopranos," was not eligible, having ended its run. While basic-cable series got props from the academy, some of the most watched drama series, all on broadcast networks, failed to make the grade, including ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" and, as usual, any of CBS's "CSIs."

Four of this year's six nominees for best lead actor in a drama series are on cable: Bryan Cranston of AMC's "Breaking Bad"; Hamm, "Mad Men"; Gabriel Byrne, "In Treatment"; and Michael C. Hall, "Dexter." Their broadcast competitors are Hugh Laurie of "House" and James Spader of "Boston Legal," who has taken this particular trophy home three times since 2004.

Cable also copped three of five noms in the category for best drama series actress: Glenn Close ("Damages"), Holly Hunter (TNT's "Saving Grace") and Kyra Sedgwick (TNT's "The Closer") join broadcast actresses Mariska Hargitay (NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") and last year's winner, Sally Field (ABC's "Brothers & Sisters").

Broadcast fared better in the comedy categories with best-comedy-series nominees "30 Rock" (last year's winner), NBC's "The Office" and CBS's "Two and a Half Men." They are joined by HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage."

And all but one of the contenders for best actor in a comedy series work for over-the-air networks: Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock"; Steve Carell, "The Office"; first-time nominee Pace, "Pushing Daisies"; and Charlie Sheen, "Two and a Half Men." Tony Shalhoub of USA's "Monk" represented cable TV.

Likewise, in the race for best comedy series actress, Mary-Louise Parker of Showtime's "Weeds" is the only cable contender, joining Christina Applegate, ABC's "Samantha Who?"; America Ferrera, ABC's "Ugly Betty"; Tina Fey, "30 Rock"; and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

For the first time, the television academy decided to fete reality series hosts. Nominees are Tom Bergeron, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars"; Heidi Klum, Bravo's "Project Runway"; Howie Mandel, NBC's "Deal or No Deal"; Jeff Probst, CBS's "Survivor"; and Ryan Seacrest, Fox's "American Idol."

Kathy Griffin's "My Life on the D-List" is up again for best reality series, battling, weirdly, PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," A&E's "Intervention" and Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs."

In the reality competition series race, CBS's perennial trophy winner "Amazing Race" faces viewer favorites "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" and Bravo's "Project Runway" and "Top Chef." This past season's most controversial reality series, CBS's "Kid Nation," did not make the cut; it's up only for best original main title theme music. You remember the show's theme music, right?

This year's nominations made news weeks before they were announced when Katherine Heigl, last year's surprise winner for best supporting actress in a drama series, issued the following statement: "I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention."

Her "Grey's Anatomy" colleagues Chandra Wilson and Sandra Oh apparently did not share her concern; both put themselves into consideration in that category and were nominated.

During a press tour Q&A session with show runners of some of ABC's most popular drama series, "Grey's" creator Shonda Rhimes insisted "things are going fine" on the show since Heigl's comment, and they're all "very excited about" the coming season's new big story involving Heigl's character.

"You really like to give it up, don't you?" one critic snapped back.

"I would have put her in a coma" on the show, "Ugly Betty" show runner Silvio Horta turned and told Rhimes.

Rhimes insisted she has a "wonderful working relationship" with the "outspoken" Heigl. She also hinted it was the press's fault because it only "reports one side of the story."

"What don't we know about the Heigl thing?" one TV critic then asked Rhimes.

"She was drunk," offered "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry while Rhimes mulled how to dodge that question. But she didn't have to; some perky blogger jumped in with a softball fanzine question for another show runner before Rhimes could take a whack at it.

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