You Just Keep Me Hanging On: Repeat Emmy Winners among Lead Acting Nominees

All hopped up on the excitement of Emmy ballots coming out on Monday, we posed the question yesterday of whether Emmy voters’ love affairs with certain shows might be blocking other deserving winners. 30 Rock and Mad Men are great, but does rewarding them over and over “cheat” other great shows out of the prize? It’s a tricky question–maybe these shows (or their submissions) really are the best, or really do best match voters’ tastes. While voting panels change from year to year, it’s not like there are sweeping changes to the overall Academy membership across short periods of time.

Still, the numbers suggest that there’s a pretty good case to be made that logjams among series winners are creating a few victors and a block of losers. We wondered, however, whether the pattern of repeat winners would be the same for performers. There are obviously many more actors to choose from than series, and since actors submit a single episode to be judged, an especially striking performance or storyline might propel a seeming underdog to victory. At the same time, everyone can think of anecdotal evidence suggesting that some lauded actors just aren’t able to break through. Hugh Laurie and Steve Carell, for example, have both done seven seasons of their signature roles, they’ve both been nominated for performance Emmys five times for those roles…and they’ve both won exactly zero times. Could repeat wins for other actors be the explanation? Today we look at 20 years of actors in lead categories.

Lead Actor in a Drama: 25% repeat winners, 60% multiple winners

Dennis Franz, who was terrific on NYPD Blue, won four times; during those years George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Jimmy Smits, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, and David Duchovny were nominated multiple times and never attained the prize. (You thought Jimmy Smits won one of those years, didn’t you? Me too. Like Laurie and Carell, he was nominated five times without a win.) James Gandolfini’s three wins kept Orbach, Peter Krause, and–hold me closer, tiny dancers–Martin Sheen off the podium, while James Spader’s and Bryan Cranston’s three wins apiece have pretty effectively blocked Laurie, Michael C. Hall, Gabriel Byrne, Denis Leary, and Jon Hamm.

Lead Actress in a Drama: 15% repeats, 65% multiple winners

To be fair, the annual nominations of the usual suspects in this category probably reveals a dearth of quality roles for women. But from year to year, this tends to be the same small number of women trading off the trophy. With a historic lack of good leading roles for women, is rewarding the same good stuff over and over a problem? As much as I like Angela Lansbury, for example, I can’t get that worked up over Kathy Baker’s three victories keeping Murder, She Wrote out of the winner’s circle. Still, The Edie Falco and Allison Janney Hootenanny Variety Hour (I would totally watch that) that soaked up five Emmys effectively blocked Jennifer Garner and Frances Conroy from winning for notable performances, and a second win for Glenn Close for a lesser season of Damages could have gone to someone like Holly Hunter.

Lead Actor in a Comedy: 20% repeats, a staggering 70% multiple winners

The six-year Kelsey Grammar/John Lithgow stranglehold shut out John Goodman, Gary Shandling, and even Michael J. Fox’s Spin City performance until he was forced to leave his show. (It also shut out Paul Reiser while Helen Hunt won four Emmys in a row for the same show and Jerry Seinfeld while his show was the biggest phenomenon on TV, but, like Sue Sylvester, I don’t care so much about that.) While Tony Shaloub’s Monk was certainly a great performance, his three wins came at the expense of  Matt LeBlanc, Bernie Mac, and Steve Carell, who I note again has never won for playing Michael Scott. (Alec Baldwin’s repeat win in 2009 helped with that little blockade.)

Lead Actress in a Comedy: 25% repeats, 50% multiple winners

While the 50% multiples number is a lot, there hasn’t been a repeat winner in almost a decade. The Candice Bergen/Helen Hunt (four in a row)/Patricia Heaton era, during which five women won in 12 years, meant no awards for Betty White, Delta Burke, Marion Ross, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen DeGeneres, Calista Flockhart, and Jane Kaczmarek. Since Heaton’s repeat win in 2001, however, nine different women have taken home the Emmy in this category. A sign of a sea change?

All of this is only mentioning the repeat nominees who were blocked–second, third, and fourth wins also beat out solo nominations for the likes of Ian McShane, Dylan McDermott, Matthew Fox, Kyle Chandler, Amber Tamblyn, Minnie Driver, Zach Braff, Jason Bateman, Bonnie Hunt, Marcia Cross, and Connie Britton (although we’re still hoping Chandler and Britton will become two-time nominees this year). And of course, repeats mean leaving out a laundry list of never-nominated actors too long to list here. As was true of serial series nominations and wins, there is little representation for genre stories (where is Mary McDonnell’s Emmy? Where is Nathan Fillion’s? Where is Kristen Bell’s? Where is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s?)–would requiring a winner to sit out, even a year, open up the field for unexpected nominees and maybe even winners? Would instituting such a rule have solved your favorite example of a great performance that missed out on a nomination or win?

Saturday: Ensemble shows probably make up the bulk of TV–quality and otherwise–today, and we tend to find the supporting categories the toughest to winnow down as we try to pick nominees. With so many actors to choose from, is the winners carousel even more problematic in supporting categories?

Repeat Offenders: Consequences of Emmy Love Affairs

Ah, spring–when a TV watcher’s heart turns to Emmy consideration. Ballots come out on Monday, and since there’s nothing the Baconeers love so much as a good list (you may have noticed), said ballots whet our appetite. As much as we are sometimes frustrated with the Emmys–and oh, how frustrated we get–last year’s had some surprisingly great moments. Remember the murderous comfort food cookoff judge from the greatest Pushing Daisies episode ever? Eric Stonestreet has an Emmy now. How neat is that?  While we might gripe about who was excluded from nominations–wherefore art thou, Community and Friday Night Lights?–Modern Family and Mad Men were deserving winners. Huh. Maybe that adorable Jimmy Fallon-Glee opening just put everything in a more flattering light.

Bryan Cranston gives me pause, though. I love Cranston–I thought he was robbed of an Emmy for his Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, and his performance on Breaking Bad is a genuine tour de force. It’s certainly hard, then, to argue that he shouldn’t have won. At the same time, this was Cranston’s third win in a row, while nominees like Hugh Laurie–who, believe it or not, has never won for House–continue to languish unrewarded. While I’m not ready to ask Cranston to remove himself from contention this year (Breaking Bad‘s broadcast schedule takes care of that), it got me to wondering about how often the Emmys get “stuck” on one winner, and what repercussions that might have beyond the winner.

We looked back at the last 20 years, examining in particular three things: first, the percentage of repeat winners (winning in consecutive years for the same role or show), such as the Cranston example above. Second, we looked at the percentage of multiple winners (winning in non-consecutive years for the same role/show)–two lauded performances trading off wins across several years might block notable others from winning just as much as one repeat victor might. Third, we looked at who the other nominees were during years with repeat or multiple winners. Who is potentially being blocked from an Emmy when the Academy becomes obsessed with a single winner? If, for example, Frasier‘s multiple wins came at the expense of The Nanny, maybe that’s not a problem–maybe it’s justice.

Drama Series: 40% repeat winners; a whopping 75% multiple winners

While Mad Men has won the last three trophies, the most notable repeat winner in this category in the past 20 years was The West Wing. The show usually cited as a close second-place–or robbed, depending on your perspective–was The Sopranos…which won the Best Drama Emmy twice, so maybe things turned out just fine. In the past 13 years, however, only 6 series have won (The Practice, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, 24, and Mad Men). Notable nominees during that time who never won? Six Feet Under, Deadwood, House, Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, Damages, Breaking Bad, and Dexter. While I like some of those shows very much, and while I would have preferred to see some of them win in their nominated year(s) (hi, Deadwood), the repeat winners do look pretty strong.

Maybe the problem is in the nomination process: notable shows that couldn’t break the repeat stranglehold because they were never nominated include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights, among others. If repeat winners had to skip a year or took themselves out of contention, would genre spoilers sneak into contention?

Comedy Series: 30% repeats and 60% multiple winners

Two non-consecutive wins each for Murphy Brown and Everybody Loves Raymond (Except Me), but four consecutive wins for 30 Rock and five for Frasier (Modern Family‘s win certainly raises the question of whether Christopher Lloyd has the submission process dialed in). Frankly, I personally have more trouble with some poorly chosen one-time winners than these repeaters (Ally McBeal? Really?), but notable nominees who lost to repeaters include Scrubs and The Larry Sanders Show. On the other hand, I can’t feel that bad about Two and a Half Men.

Still, perhaps the problem is–again–in the nominating process, since Frasier and 30 Rock tended to beat the same competition over and over: Pushing Daisies, Gilmore Girls, and, perhaps most notably, The Simpsons were boxed out entirely during these repeat winner years.

Are repeat winners a problem, or just rewards for a job well done? Should the Academy attempt to spread the wealth more? What series do you think were most unfairly denied the gold by repeat winners?

Friday: But you were talking about Bryan Cranston and Hugh Laurie. Does the tendency toward repeat winners hurt individual actors more than series?

LIFE Makes AFI’s Top Ten of 2008

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NBC’s Life received its first ever awards attention Sunday when the American Film Institute announced its top 10 TV programs of the year. The other television honorees (which include series, telepics and minis) are Breaking Bad, In Treatment, John Adams, Lost, Mad Men, The Office, Recount, The Shield, and The Wire.

Conspicuously missing from the list is award-darling 30 Rock, as well as other frequent nominees Entourage, Weeds, Damages, Dexter, and House. AFI awards are selected by a 13-person jury composed of “scholars, film artists, critics and AFI trustees.” Creative teams for the selections will be honored at a luncheon on Jan. 9 in Beverly Hills.

THE WIRE, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS Recognized by WGA

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The Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of America, East today announced nominations for outstanding achievement in television, radio, news, promotional writing, and graphic animation during the 2008 season. Obviously, we only care about television. And we’re excited, because finally someone has given The Wire and Friday Night Lights their due. And look, Burn Notice! Also, we’re loving the fact that the WGA isn’t afraid to nominate My Name Is Earl‘s hilariously titled episode “Vote for This and I Promise to Do Something Crazy at the Emmys.”

Although some of the WGA’s nominees do mystify us. Entourage? Fringe? True Blood? For real? You guys sure you don’t want to watch them again and reconsider?

Winners will be honored at the Writers Guild Awards on February 7, 2009, in Los Angeles and New York. A complete list of television nominees is behind the cut…

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Emmys with a Side of Bacon

Susannah and I have been kicking back at the Emmys for a good long time now. We’ve wept. We’ve wailed. We’ve gnashed our teeth. Personally, I’ve worn sackcloth and ashes, but that’s just my general fashion aesthetic.

Part of the issue is that we can’t put our finger on what the problem is–something’s wrong (really, Academy–Entourage? Really?), but what is it? We’re inclined to blame the Emmy categories–is Pushing Daisies really the same kind of beast as Two and a Half Men? Should Dirty Sexy Money–or Boston Legal, for that matter–really be considered a drama? We’re embarrassed to admit, however, that every new categorization scheme we tried went exactly nowhere.

We considered doing away with “Drama” and “Comedy” and going instead with “Half-hour”/”Hour” or “Single-camera”/”Multi-camera”, both of which are already used in the technical and animated categories. In today’s television landscape, however, that left us with a couple of strong contenders and a couple we could argue about in the half-hour or mutli-camera categories while overloading the hour/single-camera even more than the current drama category already is. We toyed with the idea of honoring more actors by creating lead, supporting, and ensemble categories. These might allow for, say, Hugh Laurie (lead), Robert Sean Leonard (supporting), and Omar Epps (ensemble) or Steve Carell (lead), Rainn Wilson (supporting), and Ed Helms (ensemble) to be nominated for the same show, or for the large ensemble casts of, say, Lost or Friday Night Lights to be considered separately from shows that focus on true leads, like House or Life. The details necessary to make that work, however (“if the character appears on-screen for less than 30% of the broadcast…”), both felt arbitrary and were, frankly, nearly impossible to hammer out. We played with the possibility that there just aren’t enough slots available to honor all of the great performances out there, so we tried adding and dividing up categories differently–“Classic Sitcom”! “Workplace Drama”! “Speculative Fiction”! “Human Interest (read: Soap Opera”)! Each of those seemed just as arbitrary as “Comedy” and “Drama,” though–is Grey’s Anatomy a workplace drama or a human interest show? You could argue either category for Mad Men. We were stumped.

And then it occurred to us: maybe the categories are the problem–and maybe that means there shouldn’t be any categories at all. This was a strangely liberating idea. We kept the sex split, both because it seems less arbitrary than the above and because we feared our lists would be swamped with male roles otherwise (try filling out the female comedy roles under the traditional categories–brutal). We limited ourselves to people on the official Emmy ballot, which meant excluding favorites because of production-based eligibility problems (goodbye, British-based Doctor Who crew), because of genre (sorry, Venture Brothers–we’ll catch you next time), and because they simply didn’t appear on the ballot for reasons beyond our understanding (who dropped the ball on submitting Dan Byrd from Aliens in America?). We began with a list of 40 actors of each sex, then narrowed the list to 30 and ranked them. By assigning points to those rankings, we were able to compare and combine our lists to create a category-less Bacon Emmys. After complaining that there just weren’t enough spots to honor all of the excellent performances out there, we were pretty surprised to find that in the end we shared 21 ranked male actors and 21 ranked female actors–with one tie in the Lead Actor in a Drama category leading to 21 official male Emmy nominees in the “major” acting categories this year, that means our numbers are pretty much right on the real numbers. Some other patterns surprised us, too:

Male actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
  • Steve Carell, The Office
  • Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
  • Gaius Charles, Friday Night Lights
  • Henry Ian Cusick, Lost
  • Glenn Fitzgerald, Dirty Sexy Money
  • Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
  • Ed Helms, The Office
  • Michael Hogan, Battlestar Galactica
  • Hugh Laurie, House
  • Robert Sean Leonard, House
  • Zachary Levi, Chuck
  • Damian Lewis, Life
  • Zeljko Ivanek, Damages
  • Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
  • Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies
  • Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies
  • Wendell Pierce, The Wire
  • Andre Royo, The Wire
  • Michael K. Williams, The Wire
  • Ray Wise, Reaper

Female actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Julie Benz, Dexter
  • Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
  • Rose Byrne, Damages
  • Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies
  • Glenn Close, Damages
  • Tina Fey, 30 Rock
  • Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies
  • Ellen Greene, Pushing Daisies
  • Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
  • Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
  • January Jones, Mad Men
  • Angela Kinsey, The Office
  • Swoosie Kurtz, Pushing Daisies
  • Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost
  • Adrianne Palicki, Friday Night Lights
  • Amy Pietz, Aliens in America
  • Jamie Pressley, My Name Is Earl
  • Sarah Shahi, Life
  • Sonja Sohn, The Wire
  • Natalie Zea, Dirty Sexy Money

For the record, Susannah’s top two ranked actors I didn’t list were Lost‘s Michael Emerson and FNL‘s Jesse Plemmons, while my top ranked she didn’t list were Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day. For the women, her top two ranked picks I didn’t list were The Riches‘ Minnie Driver and Lost‘s Evangeline Lily, while my top picks she didn’t list were Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica and Sunny‘s Kaitlin Olson.

These 42 actors represent 17 shows, which isn’t as many as the real nominees (24 shows). So maybe the Emmys do a better job of spreading the wealth than we would. On the other hand, they spread that wealth by nominating Charlie Sheen and Mariska Hargitay, and…yeah, we’re not going to apologize for not spreading the wealth quite that far. In fact, TV Bacon and the Academy agree on slightly fewer than 25% of the nominees (ten out of 41/42). It’s a supporting-heavy list, although that’s slightly skewed by self-submissions we’d place elsewhere (in what universe is Connie Britton supporting?)–that may reflect the current popularity of the ensemble shows we had such a hard time categorizing. It’s a very, very white list, especially for the women. Thank goodness for The Wire–if we remove their four candidates, 35 out of 38 of the remaining nominees are white. We’re still doing a little better than the real Emmys, who, including The Wire (from which they chose zero nominees), had four minority nominees out of 41 total. While we’ve both had America Ferrera and Edward James Olmos on our lists in the past, even including them wouldn’t hide the whitewash that is American television in 2008.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that after all our complaining about the traditional categories–and we’re still plenty irked about several exclusions among the real nominees–it wouldn’t take us long to declare winners in each of those. Adding together our rankings to create a “winner,” we’d have to go exactly four names down our list of female actors to fill the four traditional categories, as our top four were Connie Britton (supporting actress in a drama), Glenn Close (lead actress in a drama), Kristin Chenoweth (supporting actress in a comedy), and Anna Friel (lead actress in a comedy). The pattern for the men isn’t nearly so clear, since we’d have to go five whole places down our list to declare winners in the four traditional categories: Andre Royo (supporting actor in a drama), Lee Pace (lead actor in a comedy), Alec Baldwin (lead actor in a comedy), Kyle Chandler (lead actor in a drama), and Jack McBrayer (supporting actor in a comedy). If we’d hewn even more strictly to the Emmy rules and judged a single episode the actors submitted, Baldwin’s tour de force journey through 70s sitcoms might well have pushed him over the top. So after all our complaining and rearranging–are the categories really the problem after all?

What do you think? How would you have rearranged the Emmy categories? Who do you think was robbed? Are you coming after me with pitchforks because it was my list that kept John Krasinski out? Will the Emmys ever get it right?

Emmy Hoorays and Horrors

We here at TV Bacon have some issues with the Emmy nominations. This is…not unusual. We remember with something less than glee 2002, when the Academy saw fit to honor Ray Romano for acting. Still, nominees tend to be bifurcated between glorious and ghastly–after all, 2002 was the same year they recognized John Spencer. Below we outline the most exciting moments and the most egregious omissions of the 2008 nominations.

The Horror! The Horror! 

Maybe They Think Masturbation Means Chewing Your Food: The exclusion of Pushing Daisies from the Best Comedy Series lineup is nigh unforgivable. Granted, we’re not convinced this show belongs among comedy company either, but voters had no trouble nominating it for 12 other awards as a comedy. So, having some of the best writing, directing, actors, music, costumes, production design, editing, and hair and makeup means you aren’t as good as Entourage. Nice. Also, where is the cinematography nod?

Game’s The Same–Just Got More Fierce: The Wire got as many nominations as According to Jim. One of the greatest achievements in American television history ends with two total Emmy nominations. Two. Total. Across five stellar seasons. So…convince us the Emmys mean anything.

Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton Get Sacked: Yes, only five people watch Friday Night Lights. Yes, even people who don’t watch the show heard the bad buzz surrounding this season’s ludicrous murder plot. Chandler and Britton still turned in some of the most subtle, detailed, wrenching performances on TV. Thank goodness Boston Legal was there to provide James Spader’s fantasia courtroom grandstanding and Candice Bergen’s ninth nomination instead.

Bear McCreary Must Be in A Galaxy Far, Far Away: We love Battlestar Galactica, but even we’ll acknoweldge that the episodes that fell within the eligibility period were perhaps not the strongest the show has ever put out (we’d hold out more hope that they might be recognized next year as they sign off, but…The Wire). Maybe we should celebrate that a show on the Sci Fi Channel about spaceships gets any nominations at all, let alone six, let alone one in a major category (Drama Writing). Even though it’s a travesty that Mary McDonnell goes unnominated while the likes of Mariska Hargitay get in again, episodes focusing on her character fell outside of the eligibiity period. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t understand how Bear McCreary’s epic, innovative work scoring this show can go unrecognized. We threatened previously to unleash Katherine Heigel if this happened, so batten down the hatches and bar the door against Katie.

Thank Goodness Things Have Changed Since the 60s: Three acting nominations for Mad Men, and they’re all for men, in spite of the complex, beautifully acted female characters on the show. It’s not like television is overflowing with outstanding roles for women, leaving no room for the likes of Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks.

Evacuate the Children!: Classical Baby: The Poetry Show. Hannah Montana. High School Musical 2. Nick News with Linda Ellerbee: The Untouchable Kids of India. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Even with a couple of classy entries, this might be the Emmy category with the lowest batting average. We weep for the future.

Lest We Forget: So much for the greatest generation. Ken Burns’ epic, moving, historic documentary on World War II received nominations for writing, directing, sound, and editing, but is nowhere to be found in nonfiction series or special. Inside the Actors Studio, which was nominated, interviewed Charlie Sheen last year. Well, he is an Emmy nominee. As is his personal hairstylist.

Even A Stopped Clock Is Right Twice A Day: Kudos and Huzzahs

And This Award You Just Got? It’s A Cookie: 17.5 nominations (including one for Kenneth’s the Page’s webpage) for 30 Rock…and they probably deserved more. Where’s the recognition for costume design for Will Arnett’s super-short robe? Shine a spotlight on Tina Fey and turn a wind machine on her–she might be on stage a lot come Emmy night.

Better Award Winning through Chemistry: Bryan Cranston was robbed during his time on Malcolm in the Middle, never winning for his warm, rubbery Hal. Here’s hoping that his performance as a terminally ill teacher who becomes a quietly angry meth dealer garners him the Emmy he so deserves. Don’t mess with him, voters–he can melt you in a bathtub.

Perhaps This Will Make Him Feel Warm and Safe and Loved: With a loaded Lead Comedy Actor category, we worried that Lee Pace’s mild, sad, lovestruck piemaker would be overlooked. Finding his name on the list was better than than a cup-pie with urban honey baked into the crust.

He Knew Which Palms to Grease: It wasn’t for his role as The Wire‘s corrupt ex-mayor, but Glynn Turman’s nomination for In Treatment is a huge–and most welcome–surprise in a category that often recognizes movie stars regardless of the size or quality of the role they play. Frankly, we thought he’d lose out to Robin Williams. Now we just want to see Turman beat him.

No More Kings–Just A Bunch of Emmy Nominees: John Adams was uneven as all get-out, but the wide range of supporting actors breathing life into the architects of a new country took our breath away. From the always-brilliant Tom Wilkinson as an earthy Ben Franklin to a surprising David Morse as George Washington to Laura Linney as the backbone helping to hold a country together, the characters surrounding Adams outstrip the second president.

Because We Know Patty: FX’s bold, beautifully shot Damages seemed to suffer from all the things that usually keep shows from being recognized by the Emmys. First, it’s really good. Second, it’s on basic cable–HBO’s award-grubbing budget is probably bigger than FX’s total budget. The intricate mystery doesn’t lend itself to the Emmy screening process. And yet, quality wins out for a change. Let’s hope the same holds true for the final victors.

BREAKING BAD: Not Really Better Living Through Chemistry

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AMC’s Breaking Bad joins a growing number of cable shows (The Wire, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, The Riches, and Weeds, just to name a few) that seem to challenge the reality of the American dream. Tony Soprano might have the lovely wife and the spacious house, but the price for that is occasionally having to kill friends and family. Cops, teachers, and politicians alike try to do the right thing on The Wire, only to be crushed under by the inexorable weight of powers and institutions bigger than they are. Maybe cable is taking the television place that William Goldman claims independent film holds: network shows give us the world the way we want it to be, while cable shows gives us the world as it really is.

The American Dream has skipped over Breaking Bad‘s Walter White (Bryan Cranston), too. He seems to be living a life of desperation so quiet that his day-to-day existence alone throws the Dream into question. The show asks a pretty pointed question–when a hard-working family man who could never get ahead in the first place is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, why shouldn’t he start using his chemistry skills to cook the best meth in town and leave his family with the nest egg the meritocracy never granted him?

The show gives some pretty pointed answers to that question: start cooking the best meth in town, and you might find yourself being chased by your meth lab in your underwear while trying not to be killed by rival drug dealers. That’s…rough, and the show can be tough to watch. I’m not going to pull any punches here: someone’s getting dissolved by hydrofluoric acid on this show. And pieces of that someone are going to end up on the floor. And…wow. At the same time, human flotsam and jetsam provides both some of the funniest moments in this surprisingly witty show (Walter must dispose of a second rival because, as his addict partner reminds him, “the coin flip is sacred”) and some of the most moving (Walter’s recollection of the chemical components of the body is capped with the question of how the soul fits into that equation).

Vince Gilligan (you might remember him from such wonderful X-files episodes as “Paper Hearts” and “Small Potatoes”) brings all the threads of darkness, wistfulness, and biting humor from his previous work into full relief here. The real treasure, though, is Bryan Cranston, who is brilliant in bringing all of the shades of Walter’s increasing frustration, desperation, and mortification to the screen. AMC is showing a “marathon” of the first three episodes tonight (starting at 8pm EST), so I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you new to the show, but Cranston created more shock and awe more with a single tear in the most recent episode than any other show has created this year. Check out the marathon tonight for some high-quality drama–but eat your dinner beforehand.

Guide to January Series Premieres

Despite the lingering writers strike, the television future is not entirely bleak. In addition to the impending return of shows like Lost and Jericho, we’ve got a slate of new mid-season series premieres to warm the cockles of our hearts. Here’s a handy guide to what’s coming up this month.

CASHMERE MAFIA (ABC)
Premieres: Sunday, Jan. 6, at 10 PM
Time slot: Wednesdays at 10 PM
Description: Producer Darren Star (Sex And The City) brings us another show about four high-powered, catty women who sip trendy drinks and gab about their sexual misadventures. Not to be confused with Sex and the City originator Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle, premiering next month on NBC.
Cast: Bonnie Somerville, Frances O’Connor, Lucy Liu, Miranda Otto, Peter Hermann, Julian Ovenden

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES (FOX)

Premieres: Sunday, Jan. 13, at 8 PM
Time slot: Mondays at 9 PM
Description: With the help of an otherworldly protector (played by Firefly‘s Summer Glau), Sarah Connor starts fighting back against the Terminators that will stop at nothing to eliminate her son, the future leader of the resistance.
Cast: Lena Headey, Richard T. Jones, Summer Glau, Thomas Dekker

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BREAKING BAD (AMC)
Premieres: Sunday, Jan. 20, at 10 PM
Time slot: Sundays at 10 PM
Description: From the mind of Vince Gilligan (The X-Files) comes this show about a high school chemistry teacher (played by Malcolm and the Middle‘s Bryan Cranston) sleepwalking through life until a terminal diagnosis wakes him up and inspires him to use his chemistry skills in pursuit of the American Dream.
Cast: Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brant, Bryan Cranston, Dean Norris, R.J. Mitte

IN TREATMENT (HBO)
Premieres: Monday, Jan. 28, at 9:30 PM
Time slot: Weeknights at 9:30 PM
Description: Based on the critically acclaimed Israeli series, this five-night-a-week serial tracks the weekly sessions between a psychotherapist named Paul (Gabriel Byrne) and his patients. Each night will be devoted to a specific patient – Laura (Melissa George) on Mondays, an anesthesiologist who is infatuated with the older, married Paul; Alex (Blair Underwood) on Tuesdays, a fighter pilot who’s still haunted by a botched raid he was involved in years before; Sophie (Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska) on Wednesdays, a gymnast with Olympic dreams; and a married couple (Embeth Davidtz and Josh Charles) in counseling on Thursdays; with Fridays focusing on Byrne visiting his own therapist (Dianne Wiest), a former supervisor and mentor.
Cast: Blair Underwood, Dianne Wiest, Embeth Davidtz, Gabriel Byrne, Josh Charles, Melissa George, Mia Wasikowska

ELI STONE (ABC)
Premieres: Thursday, Jan. 31 at 10 PM
Time slot: Thursdays at 10 PM
Description: Are attorney Eli Stone’s bizarre visions a sign that the universe is guiding him to a higher purpose or just a symptom of an aneurysm like the one that plagued his tortured father? From exec producers Ken Olin, Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti.
Cast: James Saito, Jonny Lee Miller, Laura Benanti, Loretta Devine, Matt Letscher, Natasha Henstridge, Sam Jaeger, Victor Garber