Emmy nominations embrace old and new

Primetime lineup includes new shows and names and underscores cable's strong presence.

The 61st annual Primetime Emmy nominations came out this morning and, say media watchers, despite the shunning of HBO's vampire saga, "True Blood," the most notable trend is the presence of so much fresh blood.

"For many years, the Academy [of Television Arts and Sciences] used to nominate the same shows over and over," says Mediaweek's Marc Berman, "but this year is refreshingly full of new shows and names." He points to such first-timers as Simon Baker for "The Mentalist," Jemaine Clement (HBO's "The Flight of the Conchords"), Toni Collette (Showtime's "United States of Tara"), Jim Parsons (CBS's "The Big Bang Theory") and Sarah Silverman (Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program").

At the same time, the tally underlines just how powerful cable has become in the past decade. HBO walked off with an eye-popping 99 nominations and both basic and pay cable had strong showings in nearly all major categories, taking five of the seven nominees for outstanding dramatic series – "Big Love" (HBO), "Breaking Bad" (AMC), "Damages" (Fox), "Dexter" (Showtime), "House" (Fox), "Lost" (ABC), and "Mad Men" (AMC).

"Cable doesn't put on as many episodes and the shows don't typically run as long as many broadcast shows," points out Mr. Berman, which encourages new material. It also helps that cable doesn't have to work within the same standards and practices guidelines as the broadcast networks, which in turn leaves room for both edgier and more raw material, adds the pundit, also known as "Mr. Television."

While the roster contains numerous pleasant surprises, the most unexpected hopeful is Seth MacFarlane's "Family Guy," a half-hour animated series on Fox. It has been given the nod in the best comedy series category. The last time an animated series turned up in that slot was 1961 for "The Flintstones." "Family Guy," however, couldn't be further from the benign, stone-age family life depicted in the Hanna Barbera hit. Often crude, the show both mocks and embraces the conventions of the comfortable domesticity of the traditional sitcom.

"It manages to appeal to both hip and low-brow viewers," says comedy maven Rob Thomas, executive producer of the freshman Starz show, "Party Down." The zany, adult humor in an animated family format has been going strong for at least two decades since "The Simpsons" debuted.

The selection of "Family Guy" shows the Academy's recognition that this kind of humor has reached a critical mass in the overall culture, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"People used to regard this kind of material as being everything sending American culture down the tubes," says Mr. Thompson, "but even while the jokes can be occasionally tasteless and crude, the show is also quite often brilliant."

While Berman says he was gratified to see the television academy voters branch out to tap new faces, "it was nice to see some old-timers, as well," he says, pointing to such venerable TV icons as Ed Asner, Betty White, and Carol Burnett for their guest spots on, respectively, "CSI: NY," "My Name is Earl," and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

The Emmy awards ceremony will air live on CBS Sunday, Sept. 20.

* For a full list of nominations go here.

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