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Breaking Bad vs. True Detective at the Emmys

The TV match between Bryan Cranston and Matthew McConaughey will be settled on Monday.
By Emily Yahr
The Washington Post (*)
The new has long tradition of winning over the old at the industry’s leading awards

There’s going to be a lot of drama at the Primetime Emmy Awards this year.

More specifically, it will happen in the category for outstanding drama series, which is shaping up to be the most heated contest of the glitzy annual telecast. Out of the five nominees, two critically acclaimed shows have the best chance of taking the prize: AMC’s Breaking Bad and HBO’s True Detective.

At the heart of it seems to be the old versus the new. It’s only natural at the Emmy Awards as the hot debut shows come along in a very competitive category and aim to take out their veteran competitors. For example, in 2005, the freshman season of Lost beat out the last season of Six Feet Under. And in 2012, the addictive first year of Homeland triumphed over Mad Men, which had won four times in a row.

In this case, Breaking Bad is a five-season-old drama that aired its final episode last September. While still eligible for this year’s Emmy Awards, in Hollywood, that counts as forever ago. Meanwhile, the shiny new True Detective wrapped up its first season in March.

So, which one will take home the crown? There are many parallels between both shows, each of which racked up great ratings for their respective networks. Both have that inexplicable “cool” factor, with a layered, complicated story line that results in hundreds of theories and analyses and recaps.

Let’s take a closer look at their attributes: before True Detective came along, Breaking Bad had the prize wrapped up, no questions asked. The AMC drama started out as a niche favourite back in 2009 as Bryan Cranston portrayed Walter White, the chemistry teacher with terminal cancer who decided to start selling meth as a way to support his family after he dies. His plans went awry and got increasingly scary as he recruited a former student as his partner in crime, Jesse (Aaron Paul), and lied to his long-suffering wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn).

The series went from a niche cult favourite in the first years to a bona fide hit by the end of its run thanks to excellent word of mouth and subsequent binge-watching by latecomers. More than 10 million people watched the series finale, a huge number for basic cable. Cranston, Paul and Gunn have all been awarded with individual acting awards for their efforts over the years. Add it all together with the riveting, stellar finale? A no-brainer for a best drama series win.

That is, until True Detective took over the conversation. The HBO crime noir anthology got a lot of buzz before it began, mostly due to casting Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as the leads. The pair starred as detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, respectively, who are tasked with solving a case involving a terrifying serial killer in swampy Louisiana.

The show got rave reviews for excellent, complex performances from both stars, along with its slow build and careful storytelling through the eight episodes. McConaughey’s major star factor made headlines, as this was his first major TV role. By the end of the first season’s run, 3.5 million people watched, doubling the premiere numbers. Factor in repeats, and HBO said 11 million tuned in over the week.

Still, there was also plenty of controversy about the show, including its treatment of women (particularly Marty’s wife, Maggie, played by Michelle Monaghan). There were even accusations of plagiarism, as some claimed that Cohle’s philosophical musings were taken straight from writers such as Thomas Ligotti. HBO and show runner Nic Pizzolatto strongly denied the accusations, and it only gave more attention to the series.

With both dramas up for the trophy, it could go either way — though it would be seen as controversial if True Detective managed to knock Breaking Bad out of what many feel is its rightful prize. True Detective, which will swap out characters and story lines every season, really should be in the miniseries race. But because of some technicalities in the Emmy rule book, it is still allowed to compete in the more prestigious drama category.

In an interview, John Leverence, the awards senior vice president for the Television Academy, talked about how tough it is to define dramas in this TV landscape where more shows have limited runs, such as True Detective.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to tell what you’ve got in the first season. For example, Downton Abbey — we thought we had one thing, and then all of a sudden, (the show) made a U-turn and became something else,” Leverence said. “It took the second season to really nail down and identify the nature of the programme. We simply don’t know what’s going to be happening with True Detective.”

Either way, no one can be 100 percent certain which one will take home the prize — who knows, maybe they’ll split the vote and the trophy will go to one of the other nominees (Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Mad Men). It’s not likely but would be an appropriately epic ending to what’s already a surprisingly intense battle.

The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards (three hours) air Monday at 9pm on Warner HD (Argentina).

@emilyyahr
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