On Television's Biggest Night, It's Antiheroes And Maggie Smith

Sep 23, 2012
Originally published on September 23, 2012 12:43 pm

Just as you're trying to figure out what to watch during the new television season, they come at you with the Emmy Awards, ready to bestow the big prizes from the last television season. There are some big questions about this year's slate: What happens to Downton Abbey, the swooning British import whose distaste for antiheroes and gore sets it apart from its Outstanding Drama Series rivals? How big a splash will the thriller Homeland make in its first year of eligibility? Can anything shake loose the hold that Modern Family seems to have on Emmy voters' hearts and minds?

It's a big year for women in comedy, too, especially on HBO. Veep and Girls both have multiple nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series and nods for the lead actresses, Lena Dunham and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. There are a beefed-up seven nominees in the Lead Actress in a Comedy Series race — those two, plus Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Edie Falco, and last year's winner, Melissa McCarthy.

On Sunday's Weekend Edition, I talk to Linda Wertheimer about the state of high-end television as it heads for its biggest night. We chat about the shrinking broadcast drama, the role of blood and guts, and the question of whether there's anything left that's comfortable for families to watch together.

Then Sunday night, starting at 7:30 p.m. ET, I'll be live-blogging the ceremony right back here with my Pop Culture Happy Hour co-conspirator Stephen Thompson, and I encourage you to come and watch with us. The show will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and would seem to stand a more than reasonable chance of honoring Maggie Smith (Downton's Dowager Countess), so there's a lot to look forward to.

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It's television big night tonight. The Emmy Awards will be given out in Los Angeles. And among the nominees are perennials like "30 Rock" and "The Daily Show." But there are some new players too, like PBS's "Downton Abbey" led by the great Dame Maggie Smith.


WERTHEIMER: We're joined by NPR's Linda Holmes. She runs the pop culture blog, Monkey See. Linda, welcome.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what is the big story with the Emmys tonight? What are the big shows?

HOLMES: I think one of the big stories n is that the Outstanding Drama Series category, which has been tilting more and more toward cable, is entirely cable and PBS's this year. PBS had "Downton Abbey," there are then some cable shows. Nothing from commercial broadcast television at all drama among the drama series nominees, which is a blow for them.

WERTHEIMER: So does this mean that TV is finished, over, broadcast TV gone?

HOLMES: I don't think so. Broadcast TV is still pretty strong in comedy. And broadcast TV is still strong in reality. But they have definitely seen some big losses in drama, whereas they used to be dominated by network shows, the big NBC shows - the "E.R" and "Hill Street Blues" and things like that - that whole era. But "The Good Wife," which would have been the broadcast show maybe most likely to get in this year, did not get in this year.

WERTHEIMER: What does this big shift mean for content, do you think? Does it mean that the broadcast networks will have to work harder and catch up?

HOLMES: I think what they're trying to do right now is find a different space for themselves, 'cause a lot of the cable prestige television has a certain niche that it fits into. You get a lot of shows that are centered around sort of middle-aged male antiheroes. And I think one of the things that the broadcast networks are trying to do, they've got shows like "The Good Wife" and "Parenthood," that's where some of their more well-respected stuff is.

So I think they are trying to find another place where maybe there's a little more focus on shows that are about women. There's a little more focus on shows that have perhaps a family focus, something like that.

WERTHEIMER: Relationships. Oh, what do you think about commercial breaks? I mean, speaking personally and for myself, I like watching shows that are not sliced into itty-bitty little pieces.

HOLMES: That's always going to be a big challenge for broadcast network. As long as they're paying for their content with commercial breaks, they're competing with people who aren't. Now, obviously some of the basic cable networks also show commercials; AMC which has "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." But certainly the networks, like HBO and Showtime, you know, have the benefit of having no commercial breaks.

And I think it definitely allows you to do different things structurally with episodes. And TV writers will tell you it's different to write an episode when you're not having to write to act breaks that lead into commercials.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking of slicing and dicing, it's interesting to consider the kinds of cable shows that do get a lot of attention; as you said, antiheroes, but that's kind of a subtle way of putting it. I mean there's blood all over the floor in these programs.

HOLMES: There really is, and some of them are fairly well known for it; "Game Of Thrones" and "Breaking Bad" and shows like that, "Boardwalk Empire." But even on a show like "Mad Men," even Mad Men" has a history of running over a foot with a lawnmower. You know, it is a very bloody atmosphere when you're trying to find the really high-end shows. If your taste is not for gore, you're a little challenged in kind of navigating that landscape, if it doesn't happen to be your taste.

WERTHEIMER: Are you telling me that the notion that the family would gather around the television sets, and watch something together, that is also gone? I mean, what do you watch with kids?

HOLMES: You know, it is a little challenging. I think as television has gotten a little more hospitable to adult shows, good shows for adults, it's gotten a little tougher to find things that are good for families. In fact, I think that's one of the things that has driven the popularity of things like "American Idol" and "The Voice," is even though show like that may be very silly, people feel like that's something you can watch with your kids, that's something your family can all watch.

So I think family viewing in some ways has run more towards variety shows and things like that, where people feel a little bit better about sharing the content with kids.

WERTHEIMER: Linda Holmes will be live blogging the Emmys tonight at npr.org. Thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.