A lawyer, an extended family and a cadre of high school singers are giving the big broadcast networks a happier tune to hum at the Emmys this year.
Three first-season series nominees — Fox's Glee, ABC's Modern Family and CBS' The Good Wife— have given a boost to broadcast television at the awards show, with 19, 14 and nine nominations respectively. Glee is the most-nominated series; Modern Family is No. 4, after AMC's Mad Men (17) and NBC's 30 Rock(15).
At the creative arts ceremony last week, Modern Family won three Emmys and Glee two, including guest-actor honors for Neil Patrick Harris.
The newcomers, all with solid ratings, have helped reverse a trend in which cable shows with smaller audiences had increased their presence at the Emmys, accounting for a majority of best-series nominations last year. This year, broadcast — represented by ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — and cable are even. (Cable has its own bright new entry: Showtime's Nurse Jackie scored eight nominations, including best comedy, covering its first and second seasons.)
"Broadcast has upped its game. They've finally produced some Emmy-friendly shows that satisfy the criteria of voters at the same time as they are popular with viewers," says Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys. "The Good Wife is a superb show. It's not your typical legal show. There's great depth to it. ... Modern Family is in the tradition of Emmy-winning shows dating back to I Love Lucy and Everybody Loves Raymond. It's a notch above slapstick, silly sitcoms. ... Glee is not your typical teen angst sitcom. It (has) all kinds of issues being debated."
Tweaking familiar formulas
Each of the three new broadcast nominees offers a fresh take on an existing genre:
•Glee, which follows high school singers, combines comedy, drama and music in a successful mix that eluded most predecessors. "We really didn't know what we were doing when we started. I think we created some new template," co-creator Ryan Murphy says. "I think there's never in the past 25 years been an original musical comedy that worked. I feel we created a new thing, hopefully."
•Modern Family, the story of three very different related families, "is just a half-step different from other family shows," co-creator Christopher Lloyd says. "The way it looks is different, with the documentary approach. You have a sense you may be watching something you're not supposed to, which gives the viewer a bit of a different experience. But it's very much the same experience they've had before, maybe done a little better in that it's about real identifiable situations, characters that make audiences say, 'Oh, I know that guy,' or, 'I know that feeling.' "
•The Good Wife, which centers on the personal and professional life of lawyer, wife and mother Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), intertwines dramatic genres: law, politics, family.
"There are legal stories every week, but they do not always follow a traditional legal structure. A case doesn't walk in the door and you solve the case. The point of entry can be a personal angle, or it can be something Alicia comes into midstory," CBS programming chief Nina Tassler says.
New faces are abundant in the major series acting categories, where nearly half of the 48 are first-timers, 14 of those from first-year shows. "It's been a while (since) new shows have been represented with this breadth, broadcast shows that had a significant audience," Fox programming chief Kevin Reilly says.
The success of critically acclaimed cable shows with smaller audiences has been a point of contention for the Emmy broadcast, he says. "Certainly, that quality of show needs to be recognized. For the (Emmy) show itself, the vast majority of the viewing public has never really watched those kinds of shows, and it's been a bit of a tricky issue as more cable shows (win) major awards."
'An amazing validation'
Good Wife actress nominee Margulies, already a Golden Globe winner, says nominations provide reassurance for a new show. "There's no downside. What it gives you is a greater sense of security — job security — and also the feeling that we may have done something right in the first season, and it gives us the courage to maybe play on that a bit."
There may be a little déjà vu for Margulies, who won a supporting-actress Emmy in ER's first season.
"It feels a little surreal, to be honest," she says. "This time around, I'm a little more cognizant of how great it feels to be on a show people are watching and applauding. I've been there before, but I was in such a whirlwind. I didn't really understand the business and it was all new to me, whereas this time, I can sit back and just enjoy it."
At the same time, she reminds colleagues, especially ones newer to the business, that good fortune should be savored. "I keep saying to everyone on the show, 'Guys, this doesn't happen. This is one in a million.' "
A first-year win puts a show in the rarefied company of such series as Frasier, 30 Rock, Mad Men and Lost. "For us, it would be an amazing validation, just sort of a dream come true for everybody," says Steven Levitan, executive producer of Modern Family.
Murphy was surprised at the number of nominations for Glee, which started as an underdog and now already has a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. "I was stunned. I was floored," he says. "Because it's so specific, I thought it had a really good shot at being rejected. But what I've learned from the show is the more specific you make something, the more universal it can become."
A banner went up at Glee's soundstage to celebrate, but the nominations haven't affected anyone's approach, he says. "The kids are the same. They root for each other. They laugh all day long. They eat soup all day long. ... I worried that they would change, but they haven't."
Bigger cheering sections
The arrival of popular new series could boost viewership for the ceremony, as blockbusters such as Titanic have done for the Oscars. (The late August broadcast, weeks before the usual date, could be a viewing deterrent.) Glee, with fervent young fans, might provide a youthful boost.
The Emmys matched a record ratings low in 2008. Top winners were 30 Rock and Mad Men, critical hits with smaller audiences than this season's newcomers. Both won again last season and are contenders this year.
"I think there definitely is a positive correlation between the number of viewers for these programs (and) the kind of rooting interest that drives people to watch the Emmys," says John Leverence of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Emmy attention may echo the public's feelings for a show, says Julie Bowen, who is up for supporting actress for Modern Family. "Every couple of years they say TV is dead or drama is dead or comedy is dead, and then whenever a show comes along and they go, 'Maybe it's not,' then people get excited by that."
New entries can enliven the competition, Levitan says. With fresh contenders such as Glee and Modern Family among comedies, "suddenly, no one's saying it's a foregone conclusion 30 Rock's going to get it, or Frasier's going to get it. Suddenly, there are a lot of legitimate contenders."
If the nominations reflect a creative burst, it may come from an unlikely source, says Robert King, who is nominated for a writing award with his wife and Good Wife co-creator, Michelle King.
"With regards to there being so many good first-year shows, I think it's coming off of the writers' strike. I think a lot of people re-evaluated what they were doing creatively and said, 'I'm just going to do something I really want to do.' I think that's why there was probably a burst of creativity," says King.
For Glee's Jane Lynch, a favorite for supporting actress, the show's nominations are a good enough reward.
"I'm thrilled, so honored to be chosen by my peers to be in such a kind of really highfalutin group of women," Lynch says. "I think the show, in all humility if I can say, does some amazing television. (But) I honestly don't care about winning. I just think it's just a terrific thing that we all get to party together" at the Emmys.