Will the red carpet this August be for the Emmys or the Oscars? It's getting hard to tell.
Anyone needing proof that television has usurped much of the movies' cultural relevance need look no further than Thursday's announcement of nominations for the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, which produced a list cluttered with movie stars who already have Oscars on their mantels.
Chief among those was Matthew McConaughey, given his first-ever nod from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for HBO's intense crime thriller "True Detective." Barely four months ago, the photogenic Texan drawled his "all right, all right, all right" catchphrase at the Dolby Theatre when picking up his lead actor award for the AIDS drama "Dallas Buyers Club."
Now TV fans might get a chance for an encore Aug. 25, an earlier date than usual chosen for the Emmys broadcast by NBC so as not to conflict with the network's September NFL schedule. In true movie-star fashion, McConaughey bypassed the media Thursday morning, opting instead for a gracious but unrevealing statement complimenting his fellow actors.
But while McConaughey's praise may have been obligatory, the Emmy nominees are an especially well-credentialed bunch this year. Kevin Spacey — who won an Academy Award in 2000 for "American Beauty" — was back with another Emmy nomination for his role as a compromised Washington congressman on "House of Cards," last year's breakthrough show for Netflix. Other Oscar winners joining this year's Emmy club include Billy Bob Thornton for "Fargo," a TV adaptation of an Oscar-winning feature, along with Jessica Lange ("American Horror Story: Coven") and Jon Voight ("Ray Donovan").
For the first 60 years of its existence, commercial TV was the movies' poor stepchild, the "vast wasteland" that, omnipresent as it always was, never achieved the prestige accorded the silver screen. But the networks' recent crush of creatively ambitious programming — coinciding with an ongoing feature-film stagnation in the superhero genre — is changing all that.
"There's an undeniable shift happening," said Ryan Murphy whose HBO movie "The Normal Heart" earned 16 nominations Thursday. "A lot of great talent is moving to television, moving to that way of telling stories. If you look at the nominees this morning, so many great movie actors that have such acclaim — like Mark Ruffalo, Matthew McConaughey, Billy Bob Thornton, Julia Roberts, Jessica Lange — made a big showing. That to me is exciting. It's bringing a new dimension to what we as creators and writers can do in some ways. I think actors go where the good parts are, and great parts are on television."
TV's renaissance is traceable to the late 1990s, when HBO revolutionized the drama series with "The Sopranos," a nuanced portrait of a contemporary New Jersey mob family. Since then has come a flood of highly acclaimed original series — first on cable networks and now via online providers such as Netflix — with the kind of flawed protagonists, ingenious storytelling and rich production values that were once strictly the province of movies. It's an impressive list that includes repeat Emmy nominees such as AMC's "Mad Men" (eight nods this year) and the since-concluded "Breaking Bad" (16).
"Audiences have demanded the kind of antihero characters that 25 years ago TV would have steered away from," Spacey observed in an interview after the nominations were announced. Back then, television characters "had to be likable and good at their jobs and [be] family men. Now we see complicated characters who aren't necessarily good at what they do — or even good people — and audiences seem to dig it. We can all tip our hats to HBO and 'The Sopranos,' which paved the way."
Post-"Sopranos," HBO seemed at first to have been caught short by aggressive come-latelies such as AMC and FX, but the pay-cable network has recovered nicely. Its epic fantasy "Game of Thrones" broke out this season with record-breaking audiences — network executives reckoned it had surpassed even "Sopranos" to become their most-watched series ever, after all the available platforms are counted — and received the most Emmy nominations of any program this year, with 19.
HBO also received a nice surprise comedy nod for "Silicon Valley" — a sly satire of the tech world with a tone closer to the cult movie "Office Space" than to the crowd-pleasing CBS tech-nerd sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" (although "Big Bang," it should be noted, also got a nod, its fourth in the comedy category).
Now the tech revolution is, of course, bringing yet more competitors into the programming mix. "House of Cards" shattered the wall last year by becoming the first show delivered exclusively online to receive Emmy nominations in major categories, including drama series.
And Netflix followed up this season with another breakthrough for its women-in-prison comedy "Orange Is the New Black," an off-kilter one-hour series that in years past would likely have turned up only in the cinema, if at all.
This is the same Netflix that a few years ago was best-known for sending red envelopes through the mail with the latest DVDs from the movie studios.
"Quality television is now platform-agnostic," Bruce Rosenblum, chairman of the TV academy, said in kicking off the nomination announcement. He should know: Rosenblum for years ran Warner Bros. Television, which made many of the shows that kept the broadcast networks cashing big advertiser checks for decades, including "Friends" and, yes, "Big Bang Theory."
TV is a different place now, with so many acclaimed and lavishly produced series no one viewer could reasonably expect to follow them all while holding down a job or having a family. Not much reason to head to the cineplex when you've got tons of stuff on the DVR or Roku you haven't had time to watch.
That is a problem for the movie studios, perhaps, but it seems to be all right, all right, all right with network executives and their audiences.
Staff writers Deborah Vankin and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.