EMMYS 2011

'Mad Men' Might Lose!

The race for the Emmy Awards’ top drama prize isn’t as cut and dried as it looks. Jace Lacob on the cutthroat competition this year for best drama, and why ‘Mad Men’ may not win.

09.12.11 6:57 PM ET

Will AMC’s Mad Men four-peat this year and once again take home the top prize at the Emmy Awards? After a fourth season that included such emotionally wrenching installments as “The Suitcase,” the lavish period show seems poised to take home the award for Outstanding Drama Series for the fourth time in as many years, but a closer look at the Matthew Weiner-created show’s competitors reveals that Don Draper shouldn’t start pouring a self-congratulatory drink just yet.

For one, public sentiment toward its network, AMC, is at an all-time low, following very public contract renegotiations for its top shows Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, an even more public firing of showrunner Frank Darabont off of zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead, and fury over the non-reveal of the season finale of murder mystery The Killing.

This isn’t a necessarily good thing going into the voting period, as the cable network has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, and some of that ill-will may have rubbed off on critical darling Mad Men, particularly as the network and the show’s creator clashed in the trades over budget-related issues. Additionally, Mad Men has always had the added benefit of actually being on the air during the Emmy Awards voting period, keeping the show fresh in the minds of Academy members and showing forward momentum a season later. Not so this year, as the prolonged renegotiation has pushed Mad Men out of its usual summer perch to a March 2012 launch date. Which means that the show may suffer from being out of sight and out of mind at a crucial time.

Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that the fourth season of Mad Men was anything less than gripping television, as Jon Hamm’s Don Draper spiraled out of control, losing his family, his professional mien, and his grip on decency at times. (Case in point: his shocking decision to propose to his secretary out of the blue after divorcing icy wife Betty Draper. This man just can’t function on his own.) “The Suitcase,” a remarkable tableau of searing loss and unexpected connection, remains arguably the show’s most brilliant hour to date, and is a stunning showcase for Hamm and co-star Elisabeth Moss, both nominated in their respective categories. (The episode is also up for a writing award as well.) But this past season has also produced some worthy competitors to Mad Men’s Emmy Awards hegemony, all of which could topple it later this month.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences clearly likes period trappings, especially when they’re thoughtfully and expertly executed and paired with modern and vibrant renderings of characters trapped by their respective times. It’s no surprise then that Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s Prohibition-era mobster saga Boardwalk Empire walked away with a nomination for its freshman season, bringing to life the speakeasies, backrooms, and brothels of 1920 Atlantic City and Chicago with precision and the right amount of menace. Plus, AMC has largely been seen of late stealing some of HBO’s thunder, so there could be some poetic justice in righting the scale a bit. However, Boardwalk’s run last autumn may be too far off from voters’ memories at this point; it’s a good thing HBO is launching Season 2 right after the Emmys and blanketing the airwaves with promos.

Plus, HBO also has another contender in its pocket with Game of Thrones, the sweeping and ruthless adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series overseen by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Shot on location in Northern Ireland and Malta, Game of Thrones has captured the imagination of millions and become a critically adored adaptation of a nearly unfilmable novel series in the process. While it’s unequivocally a fantasy show (there be dragons here!), this is one show that deals with universal experiences—love, loss, war, death, betrayal, and corruption—in a kingdom that’s both far removed from our daily lives but also scarily close. Whether voters can put aside the slashing swords and genre trappings to see the humanity and complex morality (play the game or die) that lurk within is another matter.

CBS’s The Good Wife is the lone broadcast network series in the mix and is widely regarded as one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking shows currently on television, effortlessly fusing together an exploration of the sacrifices of today’s working women with procedural legal cases, workplace romance, and character-driven drama. Boasting one of the very best ensemble casts—and a gasp-inducing revolving door of guest actors—The Good Wife is compelling, genre- and gender-defying television, turning its gimlet eye onto politics, the media, technology, and the evolving role of women in society. The Good Wife might just be the broadcasters’ best shot at being not only relevant and intelligent, but also competing with (and exceeding) their cable brethren. Plus, it’s a show that positively crackles with energy and wit.

Friday Night Lights’ fifth and final season was an exercise in bittersweet poignancy and poetry, as showrunner Jason Katims wrapped up the stories of those we came to know and love in small town Dillon, Texas. While devotees sobbed their eyes out, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his firecracker of a wife, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), faced the future with their own uncertain destinies under evaluation, the East Dillon Lions found victory on the field, and everyone moved forward with the sort of courage and strength that we hoped they would after five years of remarkable and realistic stories. Friday Night Lights may have never found widespread popularity, but the Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama—long overdue—could be a sign that the final season will score a win it so richly deserves.

And then there’s Showtime’s serial killer drama Dexter, largely viewed as the dark horse in this race. While adherents praise the sensational previous season—in which John Lithgow’s Trinity killer terrorized Michael C. Hall’s titular slayer—passions didn’t run nearly as high about Season 5, which found Dexter grappling with the loss of his wife Rita (Julie Benz) and trying to come to terms with his Dark Passenger, even as he helped a traumatized woman (Julia Stiles) enact a brutal revenge on the men who had raped and tortured her. As Dexter didn’t win for Season 4, it seems even far more unlikely that it will take home the prize this year.

It’s a strong set of six shows, each worthy in their own right, and it’s possible that one of these could pull out an unexpected win and triumph over the incumbent Mad Men.