Producer Gale Ann Hurd (AMC’s The Walking Dead) recently went on a tirade of sorts in The Hollywood Reporter about a lack of industry and critical respect for genre TV shows (meaning science fiction, fantasy, etc.).
She says, in the wake of the 2012 Emmy Awards nominations announcements, “There’s a reason the Saturn Awards were created to honor science-fiction, fantasy and horror films and TV series. You have a better chance of winning the lottery or the Triple Crown than you do of winning an acting or best drama series Emmy for a genre TV series. Is that fair? Probably not.”
Much of what Ms. Hurd has to say about her peers as well as television critics is undoubtedly true. Genre programming has a stigma attached to it: being cheesy or campy or using special effects to hide a lack of good storytelling or just not
being very good. There are countless examples throughout the history of television of great shows going unrecognized or, worse, being prematurely canceled due to an industrial, critical or popular perception that they just aren’t very good.
run of Star Trek was only a mild success on NBC, earning a small but passionate fan base, but only grew in prominence during syndication after the series ended.
Blockbuster hit-maker Joss Whedon only got to churn out one season of his excellent Firefly before cancellation by Fox. Firefly has since become a cult classic with a rabid and vocal fan base ready for Netflix to save another beloved show.
Even more recently, Battlestar Galactica had four strong seasons of critical acclaim and remains one of the greatest television series to ever air in this country. Battlestar was very much a science fiction show with spaceships and robots, but was an equally strong human drama to compete with any other “normal” drama on TV. It should be noted that Battlestar received Emmy nominations not only for visual effects, but also writing, directing and a host of other categories. It also received a Peabody Award and was featured in Time‘s “100 Best TV Shows of All Time.” Despite a certain level of acclaim and success, Battlestar is still seen by many as just another science fiction show (though not to the cast of Portlandia) and never received any major accolades for an outstanding cast of actors, even in its final season.
Which brings us right back to Ms. Hurd’s statement that about the improbability of an Emmy win for genre TV.
In the case of Battlestar Galactica and more than a handful of other excellent genre series, she could not be more right. It seems that for many members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, sci-fi and fantasy actors just aren’t capable of the same caliber of work as those on traditional drama programs.
However, recent history has put a bit of a tear in Hurd’s argument. Lost, a hugely popular and critically acclaimed (for the most part) series, earned Best Drama and acting Emmy nominations during its run, winning once and twice, respectively.
Just last year, HBO’s Game of Thrones was nominated for Best Drama and sent Supporting Actor Peter Dinklage home with a much-deserved Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister.
Ms. Hurd isn’t wrong – it takes a lot, even today, for a genre show to be truly taken seriously as a contender for major industry or critical awards. Even the People’s Choice Awards. But it clearly is not impossible. Ms. Hurd’s greatest mistake in her piece is to essentially berate Emmy voters and critics for never giving genre shows a chance. They do, as Game of Thrones proves with its critical acclaim, crowded awards shelf and huge influence on the public and pop culture in general.
But Game of Thrones is so good at crossing the boundary between niche success (like Battlestar) and mainstream hit because it is on HBO. HBO has perfected the art of television branding to the point that now, anything on HBO is known as being of quality, whether it follows the lives of prohibition bootleggers, young Brooklyn-ites, incompetent politicians or warring lords in a fantastical realm.
It’s not TV. It’s HBO.
Battlestar Galactica is a great human drama that just happens to be set in space. You probably won’t watch it. Game of Thrones is a great human drama that just happens to be set in the fantasy realm of Westeros, and it’s on HBO. OK, maybe you’ll check it out.
Lost did the same thing with its popular success on a major broadcast network (ABC). Couple that with the fact that it was a distinctly auteur show (first J.J. Abrams as auteur, then Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) and you have a show that was both nerdy genre fun and acceptably high quality for everyone else. Its popularity and critical acclaim made it OK for everyone to like, regardless of nerd credentials.
Game of Thrones, Lost and a handful of other popular examples prove Ms. Hurd essentially wrong. And her argument would be all the better for acknowledging these genre successes. But the fight for the honor of genre TV is far from over. While well-made films like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, The Hunger Games and The Avengers and popular television like Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and, hopefully, NBC’s upcoming Revolution (another Abrams show) are starting to prove to the masses that genre stories can also be good stories, the stigma lingers still.
Whether it’s The Walking Dead, Falling Skies, Alphas or something else, there are great stories on our TVs that happen to fit the “genre” mold. Instead of flipping past them, or watching just for fun and not for the same type of character exploration of human drama like Mad Men or The Good Wife, we should be taking the same critical eye to genre shows. Genre TV is good TV. Sometimes, genre TV is even great TV. Let’s not be too blind to see it.