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Will 'Mad Men' be penalized at the Emmys for being set during the 1960s?

September 2, 2008 |  9:29 am

Last week, while chatting on the phone about the Emmy race for best drama series with our forums moderator Chris "Boomer" Beachum, he tossed out a fascinating question: When was the last time that a program won best drama that wasn't set in contemporary times?

In short, do TV shows set in the modern day have an edge? Could current industry darling "Mad Men" — which has the most Emmy nominations (16) — be penalized for being set during the 1960s?


Lots of historical epics sweep the top Oscars — like best picture champs "Gladiator," "The English Patient" and "Out of Africa" — but that rarely happens at the Emmys.

You have to go back to the 1970s to find an example of that kind of win for best drama series. In fact, there was a cluster of victors like that then: "Upstairs, Downstairs" (1977, 1975), "The Waltons" (1973), "Elizabeth R" (1972). Before that, there was "Gunsmoke" waaaaay back in 1958.

The trend is even more serious in the race for best comedy series. Only two shows have won that weren't set in contemporary times: "The Wonder Years" (1988) and "MASH" (1974).

Shows that win tend to be classy series that feel real. Victorious dramas may have had an edge — a sense of urgency when their story lines were ripped from the real headlines of the day: "The West Wing" (four wins as best drama series), "L.A. Law" (four wins), "Hill Street Blues" (four) and "The Sopranos" (twice).

Which brings us to "Mad Men." Many pundits consider it to be the front-runner to win best drama series. If that occurs, the AMC show will become the first basic-cable program ever to triumph as best series (drama or comedy).

Maybe something of its odds can be found looking over a list of past Emmy nominees in that category that were set in other time periods. Do you think any of these losing shows came close to winning back when they were in the running? — "China Beach," "Deadwood," "I'll Fly Away," "Homefront," "Quantum Leap" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."