Emmy Flashback (Lead Actress in a Drama Series – 2001)

edie falco lorraine bracco

The continuously delayed 2001 Primetime Emmy ceremony was interesting and memorable for many reasons. The Emmys had the tough task of trying to celebrate great television in an interesting way, while recognizing the lives that were either lost or affected by the 9/11 plane crashes. Host Ellen Degeneres struck a nice chord between being respectful and being funny.

However, this post isn’t about the entertainment industry’s response to 9/11…it’s about The Sopranos, mainly the two “female leads:” Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco.

Lorraine Bracco, who had been nominated for an Oscar for her role in Goodfellas, was one of the first actors cast in The Sopranos. Although she was asked to play Carmela Soprano, the wife of the show’s main “protagonist” Tony Soprano, she opted to play Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist. She felt the role of Carmela was too similar to the kind of role she played in Goodfellas. So, with that, relative newcomer Edie Falco was cast in the role of Mrs. Soprano.

If you watch the show’s opening credits, you’ll notice that right after James Gandolfini is credited, Lorraine Bracco’s name shows up, and then Edie Falco. Now…I’m not going to pretend I have some deep secret knowledge of how billing works on the show. There are a few possible reasons why Bracco, who in an average episode appeared in maybe 2-3 scenes, was second billed, right above Edie Falco, who played Mrs. Mob Boss. Alphabetical order could be a reason (although after Michael Imperioli, that reason seems less plausible). It could be that since Bracco was the only Oscar nominee, she had more of a right to that high billing placement. But I believe that, originally, there was supposed to be a greater emphasis on the relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi. In the show’s pilot, those are the first two characters we see. Their therapy sessions are the main point of focus. Falco also does a lot in the episode as well, but if I had to make a guess, I’d say that Bracco has more screen time, or at least a more meaningful characterization.

However, throughout the rest of the season and the next, it’s clear that the original idea for this show was abandoned. Melfi remains an important character for the rest of the series, but she frankly turns into a supporting performer, while the relationship between mob husband and wife is more central to the show’s overall narrative. Both Edie Falco and James Gandolfini won three Emmys each for their performances, while Lorraine Bracco “only” ended up with three Lead Actress nominations, and one Supporting Actress nomination for the last season. Bracco continued to receive second billing all the way until the end of the series, but Falco became the undeniable, primary female lead.

During the show’s first three seasons, both Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco competed in the same Lead Actress category. They competed against each other. For the first season, Edie Falco won a well deserved Emmy for probably the season’s strongest episode “College.” For the second season, both actresses lost to Sela Ward for her performance in the pilot episode of Once And Again. By the third season, it was finally time for Bracco to win an Emmy of her own. Once again, both Bracco and Falco were in the same category. Here are the 2001 nominees for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

  1. Lorraine Bracco – The Sopranos (“Employee of the Month”) (HBO)
  2. Edie Falco – The Sopranos (“Second Opinion”) (HBO) *WINNER*
  3. Amy Brenneman – Judging Amy (“The Undertow”) (CBS)
  4. Sela Ward – Once and Again (“The Second Time Around”) (ABC)
  5. Marg Helgenberger – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (“Justice is Served”) (CBS)

It really shows the strength of The Sopranos‘ storytelling that the two performances by Bracco and Falco pretty much tower over the other three contenders.  Edie Falco submitted an episode where Carmela does a lot of different things, including trying to convince Tony to donate 50,000 dollars to her daughter’s university. She has a therapy session with Dr. Melfi that sort of mirrors the first one between Tony and Melfi in the pilot. However, her whole story line boils down to whether, despite all the bad things her husband does, it’s worth staying with Tony. Her scene with Dr. Krakower, an honest psychiatrist who tells her to leave the crime life, is a scene that stuck with me years after I first watched this series. It goes without saying that Falco is truly deserving of this Emmy.

However, I’ll always be a little bummed that Lorraine Bracco couldn’t win for “Employee of the Month” (aka the “rape episode”). “Employee of the Month” is one of the show’s most praised episodes. It won an Emmy for Writing and was nominated for a Writers Guild Award. There are a couple detractors who believe that Melfi’s rape story line was unnecessary and far removed from everything else happening in the show. On the one hand, I can’t help but think this episode was solely conceived just to legitimize Bracco as a leading performer on the show. On the other hand, this episode gave us a very dramatic glimpse of Melfi’s life, her relationship with her husband, and her complicated feelings towards the mob. In many ways, this episode mirrors “Second Opinion.” While Carmela decides to take advantage of the good life she has despite Tony’s profession, Melfi chooses to not tell Tony about her rapist (who was let go by the police), even knowing that Tony would/could kill him. Melfi makes a somewhat bold choice, and I think it’s a choice that really defines her character, even if the rape is never much referenced after this episode.

In any case, “Employee of the Month” is one of my favorite hours of television, and Bracco does such a great job. She displays helplessness, anger, and sadness so convincingly. It’s a wonderful performance that never reaches higher than it needs to. It goes without saying that this is Bracco’s greatest performance on the show, and probably her strongest chance at ever winning an Emmy for The Sopranos. I love Edie Falco, and, during the show’s seven years, she probably gives the most consistently great performance out of everyone in the cast. But I truly believe Bracco should have won this one, especially considering the episode itself was awarded in other areas.

The other performances in this category are good in their right. Amy Brenneman (who I mostly know from her silent performance in The Leftovers) submitted an episode where her character struggles balancing work with her family life (which is the type of episode you’d expect from a show about female who dares to have a career). It’s not until the last scene where her character has a breakdown in a broken elevator that I understand how this episode could be a submission. Sela Ward submitted the season 2 finale where her character finally marries Rick. It’s a relatively quiet performance with a sweet happy ending. And Marg Helgenberger submitted an episode where her character investigates the death of a six year old girl in the carnival. Neither the performance nor the episode does much for me.

Yeah…this one was clearly between the two Soprano actresses. And if Bracco couldn’t win, I’m glad Falco did. Her speech was quick and, like many speeches that night, paid homage to the New Yorkers after 9/11.

For more Emmy flashback posts, click here.

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