If I had an Emmy ballot 2011: Outstanding Drama Series

Senior Television Writer
06.30.11 53 Comments

As I mentioned last time, the deadline to submit Emmy ballots came at the end of last week. Still, that’s not going to stop Fienberg and I from finishing out our whole nomination prognostication thing, since any overlap between our suggestions and the actual Emmy nominations (which will be announced on July 14) would have to be considered purely coincidental, anyway.

We’re down to our final two categories, staring with Outstanding Drama Series, and we’re continuing to approach it two ways, with me as the optimist and Dan as the pragmatist. So while Dan has published his usual exhaustive photo gallery of potential nominees (starting with the most likely and moving on down to longshots he wishes had a shot), I’m going to pretend that I was given an actual ballot to fill out in this category, and narrow it down to the six shows I’d most like to see make the cut.

Even with “Breaking Bad” – which would have been my pick to win this category a year ago – not airing an episode within the eligibility period, this was an extremely strong year in the category. Our presumptive winner had one of its best seasons yet, an all-time classic that finally popped up on Emmy’s radar last year finished strong, a young show took the leap from good to great, and we had a bunch of promising newcomers – including at least two that have a realistic shot at making the actual nominations list.

At this point, though, “Mad Men” continues to own this category, and understandably so. If season 4 had just been “The Suitcase” and a lot of flotsam and jetsam, it still would be in discussion for the top of the category. But in addition to Don and Peggy’s all-nighter, we got Sally’s heartbreak in “The Beautiful Girls,” Lane Pryce running afoul of his cane-wielding old man, Joan and Roger rekindling their old flame, Peggy’s triumphant rise, Don’s embarrassing fall, and a whole lot more. A standout year from a standout show.

Through the first few episodes of the fifth and final season of “Friday Night Lights,” I shrugged and said, “Well, this isn’t anything special, but I’m glad we get to spend one more year in Dillon.” Then Vince’s father started causing trouble, the team went on the Kingdom road trip, the incredibly lame story about Julie and the TA turned into a much more interesting story about Julie and her parents, and “FNL” was back to brilliance again – a level it maintained for the rest of that season (which still has a few episodes to go on NBC, so I won’t say much else.) Clear eyes. Full hearts. Probably can’t win this category, but I’d be oh so pleased if it did.

Some series, like “FNL,” hit the ground fully-formed. Others take a while to fully grasp their strengths and weaknesses. “Justified” had itself a very good first season, particularly in the later episodes once FX convinced Graham Yost to stop trying to do an Elmore Leonard short story every week and take advantage of the strengths of a serialized TV drama. Season two began with Yost having learned that lesson, so even the standalones usually featured at least a cameo appearance by the incredible Margo Martindale as crime boss Mags Bennett. And as for the episodes that focused on Mags? Ho. Lee. Cow. Fantastic work from Martindale, Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins and the rest of the cast and guest stars as the tension kept mounting and mounting.

Where “Justified” remains one of FX’s bigger hits and seems likely to be around a long time, the ratings gods weren’t as kind towards FX’s two new dramas this season. Of those, “Lights Out” was strong but a bit too flawed to crack a tough category. “Terriers,” on the other hand? “Terriers” was great. Nobody watched, which FX president John Landgraf in part blamed on the notion that people had seen a million buddy detective stories before, and that it’s much easier these days to sell a new idea than a familiar one. The few of us who bothered to watch, though, saw that even though all the elements were familiar, the execution – from the performances by and chemistry between Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James to the mix of film noir conceits and goofy banter crafted by writers Ted Griffin, Shawn Ryan, Tim Minear and more – was perfect. I have absolutely no expectations that “Terriers” will get any nominations of note, but it deserves more attention from the Academy than it got from viewers.

Speaking of familiar concepts with terrific execution, HBO made a big splash this fall with the Martin Scorsese-directed premiere of “Boardwalk Empire.” Since the show debuted, I’ve seen some backlash to it, either from people who felt the whole concept (wiseguys at the dawn of Prohibition, created by a top “Sopranos” writer) was too HBO 101 or from people who found the show technically impressive but cold. I didn’t have either problem, though, as I found the characters – particularly Michael Pitt’s damaged World War I veteran Jimmy Darmody – as compelling as all the work put into recreation Atlantic City of the 1920s.

As impressive a first season as “Boardwalk” had, “Game of Thrones” at least matched it, if not passed it. Again, we have a show where it would be very easy for everyone to rest on the technical laurels involved in creating this alternate version of the Middle Ages, on the spot-on casting of people like Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean, and just on their ability to cram as much of George R.R. Martin’s first book into 10 hours as they possibly could. But “Game of Thrones,” particularly in its final few episodes, was more than just an adaptation where they didn’t screw it up. It came alive as its own thing, offering not only spectacle, but heart and humor and poetry and all the things we’ve come to expect from the great HBO dramas.

Tough omissions: If the 6 terrific summer episodes of “Men of a Certain Age” season 2 were eligible for this year’s Emmys, I’d have sweated a lot more about how to squeeze it into the above group; as it is, the 6 that aired in the winter were still very strong, just not strong enough to displace anyone above. “Treme” is a show that made my fake ballot a year ago, and actually got better this season, where a touch more focus and overt plotting made the parts that were pure atmosphere work even better; this is just a tougher field than last year. “Rubicon” and “Lights Out” were both fascinating, but flawed, one-and-done series that I wish had lasted longer. “Fringe” season 3 had a great first half, then sputtered a bit once the two Olivias were restored to their proper universe. Similarly, “Grey’s Anatomy” had one of its strongest stretches ever in this season’s first half when it focused on fallout from the Seattle Grace mass shooting, then had a solid but mostly unremarkable second half. “The Good Wife” and “Parenthood” each continue to provide the kind of deep characterization and moral complexity that some people insist isn’t possible on network TV anymore, and I’m glad they won’t be in the same timeslot next year. The final season of “In Treatment” was the show’s weakest, but any chance to watch Gabriel Byrne at the top of his game working with the likes of Irrfan Khan, Amy Ryan and company is still time extremely well-spent. And Showtime’s “Shameless” had its ups and downs – and is probably better-suited to the comedy category than several Showtime series that will actually be nominated for best comedy – but featured amazing breakout performances by Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and the other young members of its cast.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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