Don’t count on precedent to predict Best Comedy Directing at the Emmys. This year’s nominees go against a number of historical trends. For instance, Emmy voters had turned their back on multi-camera sitcoms for years, but this year they’ve shown a renewed fondness for the traditional format. “How I Met Your Mother” and a special live installment of “30 Rock” are the first multi-camera episodes to earn nods since “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Will & Grace” in 2005.
Pilot episodes are usually a safe bet. In fact, six of the last seven winners were series premieres, including “Arrested Development” (2004), “My Name is Earl” (2006), “Pushing Daisies” (2008), and “Glee” (2010). But not a single pilot competes this year, even though the high-profile debut of “The Big C” – directed by Oscar-winner Bill Condon – was eligible. The Showtime comedy was an expected nominee because at least one cable series has made a showing every year since 2001, but not this year; all five nominees represent broadcast networks. To be sure, this is a peculiar year for comedy directors. Usually the winner is easy to predict, but this race could go any number of ways.
The only previous nominee in the category is “30 Rock” director Beth McCarthy-Miller. Her nomination for the NBC comedy’s “Live Show” is exceptionally rare, in fact the only such citation in this category since the golden age of television. The multi-camera episode, filmed before a studio audience, was divisive for fans who are accustomed to the show’s polished production and fast-paced visual gags; though McCarthy-Miller tries to match the series’s usual tone, the audience’s laughter reminds us of the live-TV gimmick. Nevertheless, the logistical challenges of live television make it seem like McCarthy-Miller would be the frontrunner. However, other live productions have not fared well: Thomas Schlamme was nominated for Best Drama Directing for a live episode of “ER” (1998) and co-directors Stephen Frears and Martin Pasetta received a bid for the live telefilm “Fail Safe” (2000), but neither won their categories.
After six seasons, “How I Met Your Mother” finds itself in the directing race for the very first time. “Subway Wars,” directed by Pamela Fryman, follows the characters as they compete against each other in a race across Manhattan. Though the sitcom is filmed in a multi-camera format, Fryman inventively uses split-screens and graphics that show where the characters are at any given time. But she is unlikely to win, because the series seems to have lost whatever Emmy momentum it might have had; it was nominated for Best Comedy in 2009, but hasn’t returned to the top race since, and even Supporting Comedy Actor mainstay Neil Patrick Harris was snubbed this year after four unsuccessful bids.
“Modern Family” accounts for the rest of the nominees. A possible winner is Michael Alan Spiller, director of “Halloween.” In the holiday episode, hilarity ensues when Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) arrives at work in a Spider-Man costume. Mistakenly believing his co-workers dress up every year, he is mortified when he discovers that almost no one does. Later, Mitchell and his family bond when Halloween-obsessed Claire (Julie Bowen) feels no one is taking her elaborately decorated haunted house as seriously as she is.
Gail Mancuso is a strong threat for the even funnier “Slow Down Your Neighbors.” Claire goes to outrageous lengths to stop a reckless driver who speeds through the neighborhood, while her husband Phil (Ty Burrell) tries to hide that the driver is his real estate client. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) flirt shamelessly with dashing guest star James Marsden, who they think is an upstairs tenant until they realize he’s taken up residence in their daughter’s backyard playhouse.
The emotional heavyweight in the category is “See You Next Fall,” directed by series co-creator Steven Levitan. The family meets at Jay’s (Ed O’Neill) house before the middle school graduation of Phil and Claire’s younger daughter, but they’re trapped in the driveway when the front gate malfunctions, leading Phil and Claire to panic for fear that they might miss the big event. But without a single clear standout among them, all three impressive “Modern Family” entries might cancel each other out, paving the way for “30 Rock’s” first victory in the category. It’s just as possible Emmy voters might show a fondness for one of these episodes over the others. Which direction Emmy voters will go may be anyone’s guess.
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