HBO’s True Detective Shakes Up Emmy Race by Entering as Drama Series Instead of Mini

by HFPA April 2, 2014

With the continued growth in serialized fiction and now the exploding diversification in digital and streaming platforms, the "television" landscape is literally changing under everyone's eyes. So much so that the industry in some respects is struggling to keep pace with the changing formats, genres and definitions. Case in point: Awards categories (a subject we know a little something about here at This feature by Studio System News looks at the case of True Detective and how lines between types of fiction are becoming increasingly blurred.

It was a no-brainer. HBO was poised to walk away with this year’s Outstanding Miniseries Emmy months before the nominations were even announced, with its heavily-buzzed dramatic anthology smash True Detective. It was a slam-dunk; case closed; as sure a sure bet as you ever find in these awards thingies.

And then HBO did the only thing that would deny the Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson starrer (they also executive produce) its rightful victory—they opted instead to enter for Emmy consideration as a Drama Series instead.

The thinking is clear—TD isn’t interested in being the biggest fish in a tiny pond, it wants to play with the Big Boys. And so rather than competing against the likes of FX mini Fargo, Starz’s duo The White Queen and Dancing on the Edge, BBC America entry Sherlock, and FX’s perennial nominee American Horror Story, it will instead be locking horns with AMC’s four-time drama series winner Mad Men, last year’s mega-buzzed champ Breaking Bad (also AMC), HBO’s Game of Thrones, Netflix’s House of Cards and CBS’s ascendant The Good Wife, among others.

Why does Detective qualify as a mini in the first place? For the same reason as American Horror Story. Both shows follow the same structural formula in that basic storyline and characters change season to season. McConaughey and Harrelson will be replaced for season two of the HBO hit, as are actors in AHS (except Jessica Lange, who portrays a different character each time).

It’s a little bit of a cheat in that an ensemble drama is an ensemble drama, even if its essential premise and storyline evolve season to season. But Horror Story (competing this year with the entry Coven) has taken advantage and been nominated for top Movie-Miniseries all three years it’s been eligible, winning four of the things (including ones for supporting players Lange and James Cromwell).

Now that the two-year experiment, that combined outstanding made-for-TV movies and miniseries, has been scrapped for 2014, movie and mini contenders again have their own distinct categories, and the moody, disturbing Louisiana mystery would have been an even heavier favorite had it gone for mini. But alas, it traded the easier, surer road for the greater glory of going up against the heavyweights.

Not only that, but McConaughey and Harrelson now will be taking on a veritable all-star team in the lead drama series actor race, one that includes two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) and a pair of three-time Emmy champs—Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and James Spader (NBC’s The Blacklist).

“I’ll tell you who is really bummed by this decision,” says one voting producer, “it’s the
guys who make Game of Thrones. Their chances at an Emmy upset just went from
longshot to zero.”

Indeed, Detective will now be a likely spoiler for such HBO stable mates as Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and True Blood, though of those, only Thrones figures to land a nomination.

While it’s relatively rare for a series in its first season to take home the big drama prize at the Emmys, True Detective likely has what it takes in that it quickly grew into a genuine pop culture phenomenon during its eight episodes of life. It premiered with an impressive 2.3 million viewers but swelled in its March 9 finale to 3.5 million, a 50% spike in two months. Moreover, with an average gross audience of 11 million throughout its run, it became HBO’s most-watched rookie series since the debut of Six Feet Underway back in 2001.

The TD capper on March 9 was such a draw that it temporarily crashed the HBO GO streaming service. Creator Nic Pizzolatto is reportedly making progress on a second season storyline that features new actors, characters, and location—the same anthology gambit that’s worked so well for Horror Story.

As for a drama winning the top Emmy in its first season of eligibility, it happened as
recently as 2012, when Showtime’s Homeland took home the gold for its freshman campaign (along with five other trophies, including for lead actress Claire Danes and lead actor Damian Lewis).

With the perception that Homeland has taken a dip in quality, it isn’t likely to be among the favorites for top drama this time, and may not even land a nomination at all. In fact, it’s no longer even the most likely nominee from Showtime. Those would be acclaimed, Golden Globe-nominated freshmen, Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex. That’s not to mention FX’s The Americans and NBC’s Spader-starring The Blacklist (also a Globe nominee). Indeed, this remains a jam-packed category that also includes the likes of PBS’s Downtown Abbey and the aforementioned House of Cards (a category co-favorite with True Detective).

Emmy season is just starting to heat up. But the Detective drama series decision has sent the mercury rising in a hurry.