BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — There's a changing of the guard in the air, as a fresh posse of buzzed-about new series collected major nominations in the 2008 Emmy awards — many from the world of basic cable TV. Critical darlings such as AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad, HBO's In Treatment, FX's Damages and ABC's Pushing Daisies burst into major categories among the nominees announced Thursday, in some cases pushing out more established shows. Experts pointed fingers at the Hollywood writers strike, which hobbled Emmy favorites such as Fox's 24 and NBC's Heroes, sending viewers in search of quality TV to basic cable series in greater numbers.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the drama acting categories, where Mad Men's Jon Hamm, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston and In Treatment's Gabriel Byrne surfaced as best actor nominees.
Damages star Glenn Close and Saving Grace's Holly Hunter broke into the female drama acting category, taking space held last year by actors from NBC's Medium and The Sopranos. Similarly, Mad Men, Damages and Showtime's Dexter joined perennial nominees House, Lost and Boston Legal in the best drama category.
But for new shows to win, some established series had to lose. So Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Heroes and Ugly Betty were shut out of major categories, serving notice that a new crop of quality shows are on Emmy's radar screen. My own tiny gripe: that HBO's landmark crime drama The Wire got just one nomination for its final season this year, the same number as According to Jim and Kid Nation.
Despite the upsets, this year's crop of nominations proved less surprising than in years past, thanks to the academy's decision to release lists of 10 semifinalists in best drama and best comedy series categories last month. Surprisingly accurate bootleg lists of semifinalists in major acting categories made the rounds among fans and insiders as well, leaving some performers well aware that they were out of the running early on.
As usual, an HBO miniseries led the pack in nominations for a single show, with John Adams racking up 23 nods. Recount, HBO's tale of the fight for Florida's electoral votes in 2000, placed fifth with 11 nominations, including one for Laura Dern's turn as former Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
NBC's 30 Rock was the best-performing series with 17 nominations and Mad Men proved the best performing freshman, coming in third overall with 16 nominations. Project Runway's Heidi Klum even snagged a nod in Emmy's first award for reality show host, along with Dancing With the Stars' Tom Bergeron and American Idol's Ryan Seacrest.
Of course, there's still lots to complain about: among 31 lead acting nominations for drama, comedy and miniseries, there were just two actors of color nominated — Ugly Betty's America Ferrera and A Raisin in the Sun's Phylicia Rashad. And why does Law & Order: SVU's Mariska Hargitay keep racking up best actress nominations for increasingly hysterical performances in more outlandish plotlines?
Still, a fresh blast of outstanding newcomers were nominated — from Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace as best actor in a comedy to a first nomination for a Saturday Night Live cast member in Amy Poehler's supporting actress comedy nod. So why nitpick?
And if dipping ratings this year weren't evidence enough, the broadcast networks just got notice: Quality is increasingly migrating to cable TV. Time to take action before the slide becomes a permanent problem.