EmmyWatch: Drama Writing and Direction Analysis

Members of the Television Academy who participated in voting for this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards nominations selected their preferences last week and turned in final ballots before last Friday. While most of the emphasis falls on the series and acting races before nominations are announced, predicting what will be voted into Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series and Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series is more difficult. When voting in these races, Academy members nominate specific episodes on the ballot, unlike in the acting and series races where the work/artist must first accomplish the nomination, then an episode is choose by the panel of judges to evaluate for the win.

Since the episodes being considered are already selected and many shows submitted multiple episodes (shows are ultimately competing against themselves), securing a nomination is a more strenuous task than winning in these categories.

For example, when someone voted for Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, they simply marked off Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, no episode included. (Cranston, after being nominated, picked an episode to contend for the win.) But for Vince Gilligan to have been nominated in the writing category, a voter had to mark off an episode title, like “Felina,” on the ballot, not “Vince Gilligan.”

Better Call Saul

One of the more fruitful paths of the writing and directing races is for a show to simply present only one knockout episode on the ballot. Doing that eliminates the possibility that Academy members will split votes among various episodes from a single show. This year, Downton Abbey decided on single submissions for each category: “Episode 8” for writing and “Episode 9” for directing. It’s likely the show will conquer slots in both categories (even in the less likely directing group), because Academy members often use a show they personally admire as a filler nominee (we all understand Downton Abbey is an Emmy-voter favorite), and having only one option from that personally admired show with which to fill the ballot increases the show’s odds of being nominated.

Masters of Sex frugally submitted episodes this year as well. The much-acclaimed episode “Fight” was submitted for both writing and directing, and the season two premiere, “Parallax” was subsequently placed on the writing ballot. While their scarcity looks to be profitable, Masters of Sex has an uphill battle to climb with the Academy this year. The topic of sex does not exactly leap off the screen as bait for older voters, and the fact that Masters of Sex was overlooked in most of the major categories last year is very telling of the lack of interest in the show. The second season did not hit any new highs in terms of buzz either, so even with strong submissions, it’s not easy to justify newfound faith in the show after such a noiseless first run at the Emmys.

The Americans chose wisely out of its thirteen superb episodes, picking showcases that emphasize the strengths voters look for in each category: “Stingers” and “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” for writing, and “Walter Taffet” and “March 8, 1983” for directing. The Americans has been overlooked by the Emmys twice, so the hope for the show seems to be dimming, even after its most celebrated season yet. Boardwalk Empire has been falling off the Emmy radar for the past two years, but the directors’ branch of the Academy is known to have a soft spot for the show. The series’ submissions included “Cuanto,” “Friendless Child” and “Eldorado” for directing, in addition to the less-likely “What Jesus Said,” “King of Norway,” “Devil You Know,” and “Eldorado” in writing. Of its three submissions, Boardwalk Empire’s most promising directing bet is the series finale, “Eldorado.”

Game of Thrones is smarter than most shows with its selections, particularly in the writing category where it usually lists one episode. The season finale “Mother’s Mercy” is the sole option for the writing branch to nominate or snub. With its strong position enshrined in the drama series race, it’s a show most voters will fall back on to fill empty spaces on the ballot when selecting their nominees, which considerably extends the show’s chances here. The Academy members who do watch the show should be able to recall some of the memorable moments from “Mother’s Mercy,” like Cersei’s Walk of Shame and Jon Snow’s shocking death, which will help it get voted in as a finalist. On the directing side, the fan-favorite epic submitted “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” “Hardhome,” and “Mother’s Mercy.” “Hardhome” looks to be the closest thing one could call a lock in this category due to its buzzing fifteen-minute zombie attack. But “Mother’s Mercy,” as good as the writing is, relies heavily on the directing to give it the impact we felt while watching it. If a show gets double nominations in either of these categories this year, it will most likely be Game of Thrones in directing for “Hardhome” and “Mother’s Mercy.” There are usually one or two shows that get multiple notices in the same category: Breaking Bad got two writing nominations for the past two years; Mad Men got two, sometimes three and four, writing nominations while reigning over Outstanding Drama Series.

GOT

House of Cards received both writing and directing nominations last year, but unlike this year, the same episode was its only submission for both categories. Only having one option increased its chances last year because the show was not competing against itself for a position on the shortlist. This year, Netflix appears more indecisive about its chances for the Outstanding Drama Series frontrunner in these two critical categories, submitting three episodes in writing (“Chapter 32,” “Chapter 35,” “Chapter 39”), and four in directing (“Chapter 28,” “Chapter 35,” “Chapter 37,” “Chapter 39”). Having once won the directing category two years ago and factoring in the heavily directed nature of the show, House of Cards was most likely voted in for a directing nomination last week. But for which episode? “Chapter 37” and “Chapter 39” were among the show’s more significant directing achievements this year, flaunting tricky camera moves and weighty plot developments. I say the spot is between those two while leaning towards the former. On the writing side, the Academy could want to nominate Beau Willimon personally and opt for “Chapter 39,” otherwise the greatest chance for writing (albeit voters are actually watching the episodes) is “Chapter 32,” which is hailed by most binge-watchers as being a series highlight in the writing department. It dared to cover a topical subject matter in gay rights and contained notable moments in the season’s arc.

The Good Wife has an advantage this year over shows that tend to be more popular with the Emmys: it won the Writers Guild Award award for best episodic writing in February. Assuming the WGA holds as much precedent as the other guilds (like SAG, where winners Uzo Aduba, Viola Davis, and Kevin Spacey are all considered locks in their respective categories), The Good Wife looks to be in an optimal position for a nomination in the writing category. And besides having one leg up in having been nominated in this category before, CBS submitted the perfect Emmy-writer-bait episode in “Oppo Research,” penned by Robert and Michelle King, the creators and driving forces behind the critic-favorite series. The Good Wife also has the most mechanically impressive episode of the 2014-15 in the ingenious “Mind’s Eye,” which was on the longlist for directing. Success in a directing nomination is less likely than winning a spot in the writing category, for no other reason than The Good Wife is not as dependent on flashy directing as shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards. The directing branch may not have been paying as much attention to the series as the writing branch.

house-of-cards-season-3-2

But there’s a problem that faces The Good Wife: it didn’t submit only those killer episodes. In addition to “Oppo Research,” “The Deconstruction” was a second writing submission, and the three episodes placed on the directing ballot were “Mind’s Eye” (directed by Robert King), “Loser Edit” (directed by Brooke Kennedy), and “The Deconstruction” (written and directed by Ted Humphrey). Instead of submitting two straight shots that could have guaranteed nominations, they offered work from each of the series’ longtime contributors, Kennedy and Humphrey, in addition to the showrunners, the Kings. Writing is less of an issue than directing though, because the consensus says “Oppo Research” is the season’s best episode and “The Deconstruction” among the season’s worst.

Like The Good Wife, Homeland won the television honor at the Directors Guild Awards, which should make it a frontrunner in the directing category. Homeland received two nominations in Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for its first two seasons and won the writing category consecutively. But sadly, this is where superfluous submissions wound strong shows. The team behind Homeland submitted half of their twelve episodes this year, and that’s something that could really hinder its chances. Homeland is not the only show that failed to be circumspect in its Emmy strategy: Orange is the New Black submitted six in writing and four in directing, while Mad Men and Better Call Saul practically offered their entire seasons to the Academy for the first round of voting:

 

Better Call Saul
Writing (6 submissions): Uno, Five-O, Alpine Shepherd Boy, Bingo, Pimento, Marco
Directing (9 submissions): Uno, Mijo, Five-O, Alpine Shepherd Boy, Bingo, Pimento, Nacho, Rico, Marco

Homeland
Writing (6 submissions): The Drone Queen, About a Boy, Redux, Halfway to a Donut, There’s Something Else Going On, 13 Hours in Islamabad
Directing (5 submissions): From A to B and Back Again, Redux, Halfway to a Donut, There’s Something Else Going On, 13 Hours in Islamabad

Mad Men
Writing (6 submissions): New Business, The Forecast, Time & Life, Lost Horizon, The Milk and Honey Route, Person-to-Person
Directing (5 submissions): Severance, The Forecast, Time & Life, Lost Horizon, Person-to-Person

Orange is the New Black
Writing (6 submissions): Thirsty Bird, It Was The Change, You Also Have a Pizza, Low Self Esteem City, 40 Oz. of Furlough, We Have Manners. We’re Polite.
Directing (4 submissions): Thirsty Bird, Low Self Esteem City, 40 Oz. Of Furlough, We Have Manners. We’re Polite.

 

Whenever shows put mass amounts of episodes on the nomination ballot, making it to the next round can become a matter of name recognition of the writer/director, or individual episodes whose buzz universally stands out from of all other available options. So, Better Call Saul’s best bet for a nomination in either category is for the pilot episode, “Uno,” because Emmy King Vince Gilligan, the man responsible for the incumbent drama series winner, directed it. Submitting so many examples really shoots itself in the foot for something like “Five-O,” which has the acclaim to make it in to writing had there been fewer Better Call Saul episodes on the ballot. Orange is the New Black is similar in that it has an episode directed by industry mogul Jodie Foster, “Thirsty Bird.” It’s also a safe bet because Foster was nominated last year for her work on the show. Regrettably for Orange is the New Black, its salty writing could be passed over this year since it’s now in the more competitive drama writing field (not the lighter comedy it was up against last year) and doesn’t have a clear season two masterpiece every voter will be marking down. If a writing nomination does surface, it will likely be “Thirsty Bird,” duplicating its directing hopes, or “We Have Manners. We’re Polite,” a distant possibility.

Homeland does not have the jeweled name recognition of Gilligan or Foster to secure a nomination, but it did have three episodes that reinvigorated the series after season three’s enormous quality drop: “Halfway to a Donut,” “There’s Something Else Going On,” and “13 Hours in Islamabad.” Of those three, I could see voters drawn to “There’s Something Else Going On” for the sheer size and epic feel, but also there’s no denying the seismic audience reaction to “13 Hours in Islamabad.” “From A to B and Back Again,” which was the episode to win DGA, is a strong possibility too. Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series is wide open yet severely competitive this year, and since the writing is not necessarily what drew fans back to Homeland in its fourth season, a writing nomination is a longer shot than its guild-winning directing.

Mad Men was once the toast of the Emmy ceremony, and reflecting the boldness it acquired over the years, AMC put forth 85% of its final season on the ballot. There were some excellent — some of the best ever — episodes in this second half of the final season, but this is a different time we live in compared to when Mad Men was in full power at the Emmys. No show is going to occupy three or four of the five nominees like it used to. Heck, the more-than-worthy “Waterloo” could not even get into the writing category last year for the first half of the seventh season. But, Mad Men has the episode everyone will be eyeing up in its finale “Person-to-Person.” It’s a lock for writing and stands a good chance in directing, if not for anything else but for being “the Mad Men finale.” If another Mad Men episode stretches into writing, it may come down to either the iconic-moment-filled “Lost Horizon,” the fresh “Time & Life,” or the penultimate episode “The Milk and Honey Route.”

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Lastly are three freshman shows that have Emmy potential: The Affair, Bloodline, and Empire. The big question mark of this pre-nominations phase of the Emmys is whether or not The Affair will stick with voters, because some argue it’s not exactly the Emmy’s taste. But if they fall for it, expect the pilot to be nominated for writing. The Emmys love to nominate pilot episodes and The Affair’s pilot shows the inventive narrative at its most welcoming. Showtime has submitted the pilot for both categories, the heavily emotional ninth episode in both categories, and seventh episode for directing. Bloodline is going to be a hit or miss show with the Emmys. I’m expecting it to have, at best, a modest success with nominations (being merely good doesn’t get you a spot at the table with the big kids anymore), but they chose carefully in the submissions, only submitting “Part 12” for writing and parts 1, 4, and 13 for directing. The freshman show that is the safest to leave its mark on Emmy territory is Empire. The odds of it being nominated in directing for the pilot, which was orchestrated by Oscar-nominee Lee Daniels, are favorable. Outside of the pilot being submitted in writing and directing, Empire also will be competing with “The Lyon’s Roar” and “Dangerous Bonds” in directing, and “False Imposition,” “Die But Once,” “The Lyon’s Roar,” “Unto to Breach” in writing. However, it’s doubtful the show will likely attract the writers’ attention with its soapy tone and execution.

After taking all of the submissions from the Emmy’s top shows into extensive consideration, the following lists are my predictions of the frontrunners and possibilities for the nominations in the writing and directing categories.

 

Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series

  1. Person-to-Person, Mad Men**
  2. Mother’s Mercy, Game of Thrones**
  3. Episode 8, Downton Abbey**
  4. Oppo Research, The Good Wife**
  5. Chapter 32, House of Cards**
  6. Pilot, The Affair
  7. Fight, Masters of Sex
  8. Thirsty Bird, Orange is the New Black
  9. Uno, Better Call Saul
  10. Lost Horizon, Mad Men
  11. The Milk and Honey Route, Mad Men
  12. Chapter 39, House of Cards
  13. Time & Life, Mad Men
  14. Stingers, The Americans
  15. Five-O, Better Call Saul
  16. Halfway to a Donut/There’s Something Else Going On/13 Hours, Homeland
  17. Part 12, Bloodline
  18. We Have Manners. We’re Polite, Orange is the New Black

 

Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series

  1. Hardhome, Game of Thrones**
  2. Uno, Better Call Saul**
  3. Thirsty Bird, Orange is the New Black**
  4. Eldorado, Boardwalk Empire**
  5. Chapter 37, House of Cards**
  6. Pilot, Empire
  7. Person-to-Person, Mad Men
  8. Mother’s Mercy, Game of Thrones
  9. 13 Hours in Islamabad, Homeland
  10. Episode 9, Downton Abbey
  11. Chapter 39, House of Cards
  12. There’s Something Else Going On, Homeland
  13. From A to B and Back Again, Homeland
  14. Mind’s Eye, The Good Wife
  15. Fight, Masters of Sex

The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards nominations will be unveiled July 16.

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1 comments

  1. Avatar
    Ben Zuk 7 years ago

    I wish The Good Wife had submitted “Winning Ugly” for writing as well. Definitely their best episode of the season in my opinion. “Mind’s Eye” is a real head scratcher. Fans didn’t like it, the ratings for it were low. It’s also currently the lowest rated episode of the series on IMDB. Plus a casual fan of TGW isn’t going to be impressed or really understand anything happening in that episode.

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