‘Downton Abbey’ the Continual Emmy Underdog

A version of this article was published to Gold Derby on July 11th as “Is Downton Abbey in Trouble at Emmys?

Downton Abbey inexplicably competed in the miniseries categories for 2011 and won many high-profile Emmys, upsetting HBO’s Kate Winslet vehicle Mildred Pierce, which had led all programs in nominations.  The British period piece then moved to the drama series categories last year and surprised everyone by exceeding its previous nomination haul, despite the steeper competition.  The show went from two acting nominations to six; only two people out of the over 1400 who used Gold Derby’s predictions center forecasted the first-time nominations for supporting performers Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle and Jim Carter.

Gold Derby is again predicting conservatively this year when it comes to Downton Abbey.  The second season reaped seven nominations in the seven drama categories that Gold Derby publishes odds for; Gold Derby odds are in favour of just four nominations for the third season.  This school of thought has emerged that the Julian Fellowes drama will underplay at the Emmys this year may be more bias-driven than logic-based.

The first season of Downton Abbey was a critical gem, scoring 92 on review aggregate Metacritic.  Its second and third seasons tumbled to 84 then 83, still qualifying as a quality production, but not truly befitting of the “Masterpiece” title that American broadcaster PBS has subtitled it and putting it a bit out of its league competing with Breaking Bad, which scored 99 for its most recent season.  One might think that this argument crumbles because the series’ faltering should have already been accounted for last year, but the Emmys are notorious for not always having their finger on the pulse and also for having a soft spot for flavours of the moment.

Glee was a pop culture sensation in its early years; however, from a critical perspective, the show was defined as a “hot mess” with as much disarray as potential.  The first season overachieved with nineteen nominations and was seen as a threat to win Outstanding Comedy Series.  The next season dropped just two points on Metacritic and made up for it with a similarly dubious uptick in Nielsen ratings.  Despite the relative consistency, the second season fared much worse at the Emmys, losing major nominations for writing, directing, lead actor and lead actress.  The Emmy trajectory for Downton Abbey could prove to be similar if it follows up its overachieving year that ultimately did not take home the top prize with a year in which its nominations are dramatically reduced and the cynics rejoice.

In addition to its staggering level of popularity, Downton Abbey owed many of its second-season nominations to savvy Emmy strategizing and submitting.  Whereas many series submit their entire casts for consideration, PBS submitted no more than two performances per category and only one episode for best directing in a fruitful effort to mobilize support.  PBS set out this year with the same strategy, but the ballot ultimately listed three performances in each supporting category.  The network had intended to submit Elizabeth McGovern as a lead actress for the third time, but the Oscar nominee took Gold Derby’s advice and moved to the more-appropriate supporting category.  Meanwhile, Dan Stevens had previously been campaigned by PBS in the lead actor category, but the network opted not to submit him this time around.  Stevens entered himself—in the supporting category.  Lead actress Michelle Dockery just scored her first Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, which would normally make her a lock for a repeat Emmy nomination, but her screen time was reduced this year such that will make it hard to compete with actresses who truly lead their shows.  Gold Derby odds rank her at just fifth place.

While Downton Abbey has much to worry about in the telecast categories like directing against pilots for House of Cards and The Newsroom, as well as in the aforementioned acting categories, it is considerably safer below the line.  Creative Arts categories that it has won like costumes, hairstyling and music composition are locked up, as are most departments that garnered recognition as both a miniseries and a drama like art direction and casting.  Only two trouble spots exist in the technical races: picture editing and sound mixing.  The former again faces new competition in House of Cards and The Newsroom, while the latter tends to favour series with more obvious sound work.  Downton Abbey submitted a war-heavy episode last year with battle scenes, but the third season featured nothing so high-octane.

The Impact of Critical Backlash at the Emmys

A version of this article was published to Gold Derby on July 4th as “Can Mad Men Recover from Emmy Disaster?

In early April, The Hollywood Reporter reported that show runner Matthew Weiner had hired Argo campaign consultant Michele Robertson to help manage Mad Men’s 2013 Emmy campaign, after the series failed to make the history books as the drama series with the most wins in the history of the Emmys and instead entered the history books last year for having the single largest shutout ever with seventeen nominations and zero wins in 2012.  Mad Men was hoping to stage an Emmy comeback following the recent seasons of Emmy darlings Homeland and Downton Abbey being lambasted by the critics who had propped them up in the first place.

But Mad Men has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, as it has taken a critical beating of its own; veteran television critic Matt Roush described the season as “terribly disappointing and weirdly heavy-handed” in TV Guide, while the Associated Press’ Frazier Moore labelled the first couple of episodes “a disappointment—even annoying”.

Mad Men won no Emmys last year and just two the year before that (hairstyling and drama series), but it has been consistent in nominations, scoring from sixteen to nineteen nominations in its first five years.  However, this season of Mad Men is different because the first five were almost universally praised.  The series may see a sudden and massive decline in its nominations this year, like other Emmy-winning shows have experienced following a critical backlash.

In 2006, 24 finally won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.  Like Mad Men, 24 had had a fairly consistent run prior to that in terms of nominations.  The sixth season of 24 is regarded as its worst and was a steep fall from its outstanding fifth season.  Its nominations were cut in half from a series-best twelve to six and the show was even dropped from three key categories that it had actually won the year before: drama series, directing and editing.  For its last two seasons, 24 picked up just six and five nominations.

In 2007, Heroes seemed like the start of a pop culture phenomenon and on the verge of overshadowing Lost, as both were serialized genre shows on major networks with international ensemble casts.  It was nominated for eight Emmys, including best drama, directing, editing and supporting actor.  But Heroes crumbled the next year with a critically-reviled turn—demonstrated by an Entertainment Weekly cover story titled “A Series in Crisis: Fallen Heroes”—and its nominations were reduced to three for its second season.  The series was never welcomed back to the Outstanding Drama Series race; its last season two years later received just one nomination, for art direction.

Dexter had more buzz than ever in its fourth season and it picked up a series-best eight nominations, including best drama, going on to win best directing and guest actor for John Lithgow’s turn as a serial killer that also won him a Golden Globe as best supporting actor on television.  The fifth season was decidedly less confident than the fourth and the show floundered without a strong antagonist and the writers seemed unsure with how to move on in the absence of a major character that had been killed off in the Emmy-winning fourth season finale.  The show still picked five nominations, including best drama, but won none and was reduced to a single nomination—lead actor—the year after that.

Mad Men will return in many categories, but it is poised for its worst year yet with nominations.  Mad Men was nominated in all seven of the drama categories in Gold Derby’s prediction center last year.  This year, Gold Derby odds peg the series as being dropped from three categories: supporting actor, guest actor and guest actress.  Lead actor Jon Hamm and lead actress Elisabeth Moss are each ranked fourth, so are probably safe bets to return, but not the locks that they normally are; the series itself is ranked fifth.