Emmy the Best Revenge

Aug 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It’s easy to get jaded about awards in the entertainment business, especially considering how politics and marketing, including those omnipresent “For your consideration” print ads, can influence the nominations. But no matter how calculated the process gets, each year there are nominees for whom the recognition is particularly meaningful because their quest for the spotlight was especially arduous.

This year there are three contenders for whom the cliche about its being “an honor just to be here” is truer than we know.

For them, an victory may yet come as icing on the cake. But if it doesn’t, TelevisionWeek hereby institutes its annual Sweet Vindication Awards, paying special tribute to those creators, shows or performers who, even more than usual, were ignored, under-appreciated and misunderstood along the way.

One for the Gipper

For Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the seven nominations their project “The Reagans” received, including outstanding made for television movie, was nothing short of miraculous, considering the film almost didn’t air.

Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron and their production company Storyline Entertainment are no strangers to -quality work. They have produced the high-profile and critically acclaimed TV movies “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story” and “Martin and Lewis.”

Considering the subject matter, both Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron were prepared for a few raised eyebrows and some political grumbling when they sold to CBS their idea of portraying 40th President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan’s love affair as a two-part miniseries. “It was the same as `Judy Garland,”‘ Mr. Zadan said of the process of preparing for “The Reagans.” “We did research. We went about it in a very meticulous way. It was about their love story. The backdrop of the movie was politics. It was going to be a movie about their family.”

But in a highly politicized time, what was once a miniseries about the former first family became a battle cry for conservatives who had a bone to pick with the entertainment industry. That included former California Assembly member Howard Kaloogian, the founder of the Web site DefendReagan.org, which organized outraged potential viewers to e-mail CBS and implore the network to pull the show. They worried-without having seen any of the footage-that Hollywood liberals would try to tarnish the Republican icon’s memory.

Soon newspaper ads were running, and Mr. Kaloogian and his allies were getting picked up by the cable news networks and talk radio, where they called “The Reagans” a left-wing revisionist history of the Reagan presidency and an unfair attack on the president’s AIDS record. Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron found themselves on the defensive, battered by a well-financed and well-organized movement that was trying to make sure “The Reagans” would never be seen.

“When the attacks were happening, we were like, `Wait a minute, that’s not the movie we were making,”‘ Mr. Zadan said.

CBS backed away from the project, handing it off to its sister network Showtime, which aired a pared-down, one-night TV movie of “The Reagans” on Nov. 30 to 1.1 million viewers-a high number for Showtime but far below the usual CBS Sunday audience.

“We weren’t feeling incredibly optimistic anyone was going to notice the show after all the controversy,” Mr. Meron said. To make matters worse, President Reagan passed away the weekend before Showtime was gearing up its campaign.

But “The Reagans” scored nominations for its two stars, Judy Davis and James Brolin, as well as nominations for casting, makeup, hairstyling, writing and TV movie.

Mr. Meron said he was shocked by the response. “We were expecting maybe [nominations for] Jim and Judy; that’s what we thought our greatest chances were,” he said. “But at a time when a show can be booted off a network, why should we expect to get nominated?”

Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron said they are certain HBO’s Reagan-era miniseries, “Angels in America,” will deservedly sweep the s this year, but that leaves them with the possibility of winning the TV movie category, for which, ironically, they are eligible, thanks to the controversy. “That’s the wild card of the night,” Mr. Zadan said.

The nominations have watchers wondering whether voters went for “The Reagans” specifically because it appeared the producers were victims of right-wing political censorship. Mr. Zadan said it’s impossible to tell.

“I can’t say that the other voters had an agenda that was political, or were simply judging the movie on its quality,” he said. “By getting those nominations, our community is saying `good job,’ and this year more than ever we needed to hear that.”

Gets `Arrested’

Fox’s “Arrested Development” is decidedly different from other comedies on network television, considering its use of things such as unrequited romantic familial love, prison humor and a disturbing amount of second-rate magic tricks.

The Imagine/Twentieth Television single-camera comedy relies on a talented ensemble cast to tell the story of the Bluths, a dysfunctional Orange County, Calif., family thrown into disarray when the patriarch is jailed for business fraud. Starting with buzz among creative executives when it was still in script-development stage, “Arrested Development” was quickly picked by television critics as the best new show of the 2003-04 season.

The only thing missing has been an audience.

“Arrested Development” has been the weak link in Fox’s Sunday night comedy lineup, something that has played out pretty much all season since its Halloween premiere. With no laugh track, a reliance on deadpan humor and comedic sensibility that is far subtler than that of most television comedies, the show has not exactly captured hordes of viewers.

The series got a vote of confidence with a full-season pickup from Fox in November and later a full season order for 2004-05, surprising industry analysts, who were expecting the network to pick up the show for only 13 episodes and a midseason relaunch at best.

That proved Fox believes in the series, but there’s always a question of how patient a network can be in the face of lackluster ratings.

Now creator and showrunner Mitch Hurwitz can take solace in his outstanding comedy series nomination, which proves that critics and Fox executives aren’t the only supporters of the show. So are voters, who favored “Arrested” over “Friends,” which was denied a best comedy series nomination for its final season.

“It’s a confirmation for the network and for us as writer-producers that the risk we took in making the show was a worthwhile one,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “And I’m particularly focused on the fact that it’s confirmation for the network.”

But any thought that an nomination might allow Mr. Hurwitz to relieve the pressure he puts himself under to produce the show is misguided. “It’s definitely a morale raiser,” he said of the nomination.

“There’s no question about that. But walking through the door is a pressure raiser. I’m sort of a neurotic perfectionist as it is, so it doesn’t cure that ailment. I’m nervous all the time; I might as well be nervous and have an nomination.”

Mr. Hurwitz, who started his career as a writer on the -winning “The Golden Girls,” said there’s a big difference between writing for a nominated show and creating one. “Through no doing of mine [“Golden Girls”] was well received,” he said. “This is a whole new world.”

That new world includes lots of press for the show now that it’s in the universe, which in theory should introduce “Arrested Development” to more potential audience members or give viewers who sampled it early and didn’t quite get it an opportunity to return.

Mr. Hurwitz often talks about how media critics call the show funny as opposed to defining “Arrested Development” as “this rarified thing that middle America won’t get.” Another good point for the network to know when it comes time to renew.

Mr. Hurwitz said the nomination surpassed everything he had hoped for with the show, but there is still work to be done. “We’re achieving t
he goal of making people laugh,” he said. “We just haven’t made enough of them laugh.”

Bonnie Without `Life’

Bonnie Hunt is no stranger to television. She got her first series regular role in the short-lived “Grand” almost 15 years ago. And she starred in the 1993 CBS comedy “The Building,” which dealt with the goings-on in an apartment building across the street from the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field. Many critics now call that show a clever precursor to “Friends.”

Five failed series later, Ms. Hunt still perplexes executives, who can’t quite categorize her signature working girl/thinking girl humor. Some even see her as that talented actress who has a great future ahead of her-and always will. But this season Ms. Hunt has become something else: an outstanding lead actress in a comedy series nominee.

“How cool is that?” Ms. Hunt said when asked about the recognition. “I’m surprised and thrilled about being nominated.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Hunt’s nomination comes for her work on a show that has already been canceled: the ABC comedy “Life With Bonnie,” in which she not only starred but also wrote with fellow actor-writer Don Lake. Ms. Hunt played Bonnie Molloy, a Chicago morning TV host who struggles to balance her family with her job.

After two years on its schedule, ABC finally pulled the plug in May, telling Ms. Hunt she would not return for the 2004-05 season.

“It was such a great collaboration,” Ms. Hunt said of her work with ABC and her studio, Touchstone Television. “Up until I got that phone call I never thought we’d get canceled.”

The call was respectful, with the network suggesting “Life With Bonnie” was being canceled because the network didn’t have anything to pair with it.

“I thought, `What was the companion piece to `Seinfeld’?” she said. “I was hoping because of our uniqueness and the quality we’d get a [third] season. I was very disappointed not to get that chance, but the blue-collar girl in me is grateful for the opportunity.”

Ms. Hunt said it was particularly bittersweet to almost make it to that third season, a time when many slightly different, critically respected but low-rated shows find their audience.

“This one, this was the first time I had two seasons,” she said. “In the history of television shows, that third season is where you get a hit. That was my plea to the network all the time.”

Though ABC wasn’t swayed, voters looked past the cancellation and decided two seasons were more than enough to reward Ms. Hunt with a nomination.

At first Ms. Hunt didn’t believe she was nominated. She was up early watching the announcements and heard her name, but still hedged her bets. “I didn’t believe it until I saw my picture up there,” she said.

The question that might come to mind for some actors is whether an nomination produces another sitcom offer or other opportunities that take them to the next career level.

“I have to be honest,” Ms. Hunt said. “I don’t know what an nomination does for a career. I think my overwhelming feeling is [that] I’m so grateful to have an opportunity to do my show and that I get a pat on my back from my peers. It’s just a great feeling.”