Big 4: A Big Deal

Critics bet HBO won't dominate Emmys, for a change

Broadcast TV is back. For the past several years, the prime time Emmys have grown more and more lopsided in favor of cable powerhouse HBO, which has routinely swept the ceremony with such series as Sex and the City and The Sopranos and made-for-TV movies or miniseries—an almost extinct category on the broadcast networks—such as Angels in America.

Last year, HBO copped 32 prime time Emmys, leaving the broadcast networks in the dust. Fox came in a very distant second with 10 statues. Combined, the Big Four won 27 awards, five fewer than the premium-cable giant.

It should be a better night for broadcasters this year when the Emmy Awards are telecast Sept. 18 on CBS. Nominations are announced July 14, and critics say series like ABC's Desperate Housewives and Lost and Fox's House should be contenders. “People are probably really happy to be able to vote for network shows again,” says Rick Kushman, TV critic for the Sacramento Bee.

But this year's Emmy Awards might be a quirky disappointment. ABC will enter Desperate Housewives and its cast in comedy categories and hope for a sweep. “It's such a phenomenon, how can you avoid it?” says Charlie McCollum, TV critic at the San Jose Mercury News. “There are a lot of talented people in the cast, and [executive producer] Marc Cherry is the feel-good story of the year. And you have to like a show that 30 million people watch.”

But Everybody Loves Raymond, the CBS hit that made its final bow last month, will also be in that category. And somebody has to lose.

Raymond won only one outstanding-comedy statue in its nine years on the air, but it finished on an uptick, so some say Emmy voters will give the show or its star Ray Romano their appreciation as a tribute.

Raymond has a tremendous final season,” says Orlando Sentinel's Hal Boedecker. “And the final episode of that show was one of the finest episodes I had ever seen. The show always operated at a really high level.”

So did television in this past season, some critics think. “It was a rock 'em sock 'em TV season, no doubt about it,” says Matt Roush, columnist for TV Guide and B&C. “When you've got strong new contenders, it's up to the Emmy voters to acknowledge that fact. If the new hits of this season are missing-in-action this year, it will make the Emmys look ridiculous—more than they normally do anyway.”

Besides the Desperate Housewives-Raymond match-up, the real rocking and socking in TV this year took place among the dramas. “I could make an argument for at least 20 series that are worthy of consideration,” says McCollum. Critics' top contender for the drama prize is ABC's Lost, a nail-biter (with a season finale that was the nail-bitingest episode of all) that follows 40 people stranded on a desert island.

In fact, “I think the Emmys this year should shape up as a really big night for ABC,” says Sentinel's Boedecker. “ABC took the chances. The industry should be saying, 'Look at what these people have done.'”

The little-cable-network-that-could, FX, alone has three series that critics consider top-notch: The Shield, Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck. While shock-fest Nip/Tuck gets the most press, The Shield is the show many critics consider to be of highest quality. Rescue Me also gets nods. “I almost want to say it's obvious writing,” Kushman says, about Rescue Me. “And I don't mean obvious as anything other than almost a compliment, but it doesn't surprise me quite as much as The Shield does.”

The Shield also has star power with the addition of film actor Glenn Close in a supporting role this season, possibly giving it extra heft for Emmy voters. Still, even with all its good work, FX isn't guaranteed a slot.

“The probability of FX getting three shows on the list, or even one, is slim,” McCollum says. “But if anything makes it, it's probably going to be Nip/Tuck.”

HBO should be on the list with two series, say critics: Deadwood and The Wire. But while David Milch's foul-mouthed but Shakespearean Deadwood is likely a lock, The Wire is a long shot that has never grabbed the broader public the way other HBO hits do.

The Wire is so mesmerizing, so real to life, so beautifully written,” Kushman says. “It's a great, great, great show.”

Newcomers House on Fox and Medium on NBC probably won't make the final five, but look for their stars—Hugh Laurie and Patricia Arquette—to show up on the outstanding-actor and -actress lists, respectively.

Fox real-time thriller 24 also should get a berth as a reward for getting better and better, critics say. And CBS' CSI, though typically ignored as an awards contender, will likely get nominated just for being TV's top show.

“There's a reason CSI is the highest-rated show on television,” Kushman says. “And that Quentin Tarantino directed the season finale didn't hurt.”


The Emmy Rewards

Studios and networks scramble for the DVD sales, good buzz and pink-slip-prevention benefits of winning a statuette. With nomination ballots in the mail this week, the race intensifies