In three weeks, we (as in, the few dozen who actually care about awards for ridiculously wealthy celebrities) are going to find out who wins the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. It’s a pretty exciting race, with the Mad Men series finale competing against Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, and darkhorse The Americans. Even with such a strong set of nominees, many high quality dramas were snubbed in this category, from network’s best drama to the series finale of Boardwalk Empire. Critics are saying it and they are absolutely correct: we are truly living in a golden age of drama.
Part of what’s made dramas compelling for the last decade or so, is how serialized dramatic television is becoming. Before the “rise” of cable television (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz), dramatic television was mostly comprised of procedurals and episodic programming (the CSI’s, the Law and Orders, the David E. Kelley’s). A tightly constructed, continuous arc, 13 hour season wasn’t as common as it is now, especially on network television, where 22 episode seasons was the expectation (actually, still the expectation in most cases).
Before the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, most dramatic television was in the form of anthologies: essentially one new, original dramatic television movie a week. The still alive Hallmark Hall of Fame is the most recognizable example of that. However, during the early years of television, programs like The Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, and US Steel Hour represented American drama (they were also the first four winners of the Emmy Award for Best Drama Series). If you wanted serialized drama, you had watch daytime soap operas.
With the current rules, anthology series like those would not be eligible for a “Drama Series” Emmy. Current Emmy rules only allow series with a set cast and a relatively continuous storyline to be eligible for the Emmy. If The Pulitzer Prize Playhouse still aired new episodes, each weekly episode would have to compete in the TV Movie/Limited Series categories separately; however, anthology “series” like that don’t really exist anymore.
This whole introduction is my way of pointing out that the line between “drama series” and “anthology series” was blurred during the first couple decades of the Emmy’s existence. For example, an Emmy award for outstanding dramatic writing has existed since the mid fifties; however, a separate writing category reserved for TV Movies and Miniseries did not exist until 1971. That means from 1954 to 1970, drama series, anthology series, and miniseries all competed in the same writing category. So, for example, in 1954, you had four anthology series and their “TV Movie” counterparts compete against an episode of the early medical drama Medic. Medic is undoubtedly as procedural as Grey’s Anatomy, but the show still had a cast of characters that was carried from one episode to the other, something the anthology series lacked.
So, the Emmy voters had to essentially choose between a television episode and a TV movie. For this Emmy flashback, I decided to examine the nominees for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama in 1970. This would be the last year a category like this would exist before a distinction was made between dramatic specials and dramatic series. The nominees were:
- My Sweet Charlie (CBS) *WINNER*
- Marcus Welby, MD (“Pilot” aka “A Matter of Humanities”) (ABC)
- CBS Playhouse (“Sadbird”) (CBS)
“A Matter of Humanities” first aired on ABC as part of its ABC Movie of the Week block on March 1969. Fall of that year was when Marcus Welby aired as a regular series. Even though the episode is feature length, it is still essentially a pilot episode for an arc that will continue for the rest of the series – that arc being the conflict between the experienced, yet unorthodox, Dr. Marcus Welby (Robert Young), and his more traditional, yet younger, co-worker Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin). This pilot mostly centered on a man who is suffering from aphasia (the only word he is able to say is “Mother”) and his conflicted wife. The main conflict stems from whether the man should be committed to a mental institution or not. The episode is sly, clever, subtly humorous, with a couple punches of emotion (particularly a thrilling conclusion involving a fire). It undoubtedly effectively got viewers hooked on the show, which is evident by its #1 Nielsen rank during its second season.
For the 1970 Emmy season, the show received eight Emmy nominations, and four wins. Both Young and Brolin won Emmys; and the show as a whole won for Best Dramatic Series. Strangely enough, the show was also nominated for Outstanding New Series (when that was still a thing) and for Dramatic Program (for its first episode after the pilot). The Emmys were weird back then. The point is, the show was well rewarded for its first season, but pilot episode lost the writing Emmy to the television movie My Sweet Charlie.
Taking place in rural Texas during the Civil Rights Movement, My Sweet Charlie is about a runaway pregnant teenager (Patty Duke) who ends up hiding in an abandoned house with a black lawyer (Al Freeman, Jr.) from New York, who is on the run after being falsely accused of murder. Although the girl initially has prejudicial feelings towards black people, she soon changes her outlook on life after forming a bond with the lawyer. I really dug this movie. Yes, it’s a bit cliche (the second Patty Duke screams “Nigger!” at the sight of a black man, you knew she would stop being racist by the end of the movie), but it’s a beautifully simple, tender story that features two wonderful performances. Eight years after winning an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, Duke won her first Emmy, while Al Freeman Jr. was also nominated.
So, this is what we have: two different mediums competing for the same prize. I think voters made the right choice here. “A Matter of Humanities” is a well written beginning of a popular series. But My Sweet Charlie touched me more. Even though the script is an adaptation of play (which was an adaptation of a novel), it still moved me enough to make it deserving of this prize. However, I’m glad that, for right now, Emmy voters aren’t expected to compare a television episode with a dramatic special. Even though “A Matter of Humanities” tells a complete story (the show, after all, is a procedural), the beginning relationship between the series regulars don’t feel as complete, which is what makes categories like this tricky.
A CBS Playhouse special entitled “Sadbird” was also nominated. This was a dramatic special in the same vein as My Sweet Charlie. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the movie anywhere online or for sale. I know low quality copies exist in film archives not available to the public. If anyone has any idea how I could get my hands on a copy of this seemingly interesting film, please comment or email me. It would certainly make this post a little more complete 😉