By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
In some ways the Hollywood Foreign Press Association reacted true to form with this year’s Golden Globe nominations for best television drama.
On the list were something old (Fox’s “24”), something new (NBC’s “Heroes”), something obscure (HBO’s “Big Love”) and two shows that display all the gloss and glamour that only a Hollywood production can bring to the table. In the case of ABC’s “Lost” that meant exotic locales and puzzling plot points; for ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” it was beautiful romantic characters who kept viewers, and the judges, coming back for more.
Critics weren’t surprised that glamour and production values were recognized. The foreign press has long been obligated to present Hollywood as a mythical place to readers oversees, and the shows that represent this image often get the most notice, said Diane Werts, TV critic for Newsday in Long Island.
“Historically these are people that report on Hollywood to the rest of the world, and they want to think of it as a glamorous place instead of the seedy place that it really is,” she said.
Nor were observers surprised to see the organization champion “Big Love,” a show about bigamists in Utah fighting to get their slice of the American dream. An important role of the Golden Globes has always been to give a nod to little-watched shows. Even if “Big Love” doesn’t win, noted Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group, a nomination helps it build an audience for next year.
“[The HFPA] likes to put the spotlight on shows that average viewers of the Globes telecast are not aware of, which ultimately helps them get sampling,” said Mr. Carroll.
But some observers were startled by the ratio of broadcast shows nominated in the drama category, typically the most serious of the television categories. Cable shows tend to dominate critics’ top-10 lists these days, and with the arrival of Showtime as a genuine competitor to HBO in the premium original space, this year was no exception. Eight of San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman’s top 10 were cable shows. The two that weren’t were from PBS.
Some critics were disappointed by the omission of the cable dramas they loved the most this year.
“Deadwood” is often written about as a work of literary genius that happens to take the form of a small-screen teleplay. The fact that it was canceled may have something to do with its not being nominated, as the HFPA clearly likes to lend a hand to shows that stand to benefit from the exposure.
As it nears the end of its run “The Sopranos” has renewed its affections with many. FX’s “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” continue to be applauded for their grittiness and brave honesty, as does “The Wire” on HBO, which some critics are calling the best show ever filmed for television. The rationale they give for a show like “The Wire” being left off is that they admit it is inaccessible to many mainstream viewers, including the members of the HFPA.
“The characters in “The Wire” are clearly not part of the Hollywood scene,” said Rick Kushman, TV critic for The Sacramento Bee and president of the Television Critics Association. “It’s a really dense, depressing drama. It’s also mesmerizing and fascinating, but not in the traditional Hollywood sense. What makes it so depressing is that the same thing is happening in cities all over the U.S. But I guess you can’t blame people for not wanting to be engaged in that.”
This year’s nominations were a conscious acknowledgment of how far the broadcast networks have come in matching cable networks’ commitment to quality, and critics were happy to give the broadcast networks their due. Shows such as “24,” “Lost” and newcomer “Heroes” began as simple stories but have added surprising depth and dense characterizations.
Networks realized they had to raise the bar because they were losing viewers both to cable and to any number of other entertainment options.
“Given all the competition for people’s attention, they had to give viewers something worth watching. That’s what’s changed,” said Mr. Kushman. “Aiming for the lowest common denominator won’t get the job done anymore.”
These shows have benefited from exposure on the new platforms that are competing for viewers’ free time. “Heroes” followed very much in the footsteps of a trend started by “Lost” during its first season by weaving complexities and clues into the story line for online “otaku” to chew on.
They’ve also been applauded for casting multiethnic casts in a matter-of-fact way.
What remains to be seen is whether the networks will continue to produce quality dramas that cost millions of dollars per episode. NBC worried some with its announcement that is was giving up on scripted programming in the 8 o’clock hour on Thursdays in favor of less risky game shows such as “Deal or No Deal,” the cost of which can be covered by pre-sold sponsorships and revenue from text message participation.
Who’s to say this isn’t a good business decision, given that quality doesn’t necessarily guarantee success? New dramas this year such as “Smith” and “Kidnapped” struggled to find an audience and were ultimately canceled despite big-name stars, top production values and carefully crafted characters.
“It will be interesting to see if they can make these shows pay off financially or if they will take a step back with cheaper-to-produce fare. The industry is at a real turning point,” said Ms. Werts.