Fifty years ago it was cowboys that stood tall in American television. Three out of five Emmy nominations for Best Dramatic Series were cowboy shows and virtually all the top rated series at the time were westerns. These days, if the latest Emmy nominations are any guide, office politics is the new frontier. With Mad Men picking up 16 nominations, 30 Rock scooping 17 and Damages and the American version of The Office also in the running for America's top broadcasting awards, the definition of watercooler television increasingly describes programmes for which the props department have to go out and find a watercooler.
Not that it will necessarily contain water of course. Mad Men included one memorable episode in which it was topped up with neat crème de menthe, the climax to one of the politically incorrect fiestas of smoking, drinking and sexual harassment that made this account of a Sixties advertising agency so distinctive.
No contemporary drama could have risked its sexism, homophobia or casual anti-Semitism, but, safely insulated by a brilliant sense of period design, from the Saul Bass-style titles to the men's sharkskin suits, Mad Men allowed audiences to relish how far they'd come, while feeling a whisper of nostalgia for the unraised consciousnesses they'd left behind.
30 Rock, overlooked and underpraised when Five broadcast it here, put a woman in the driving seat and then tortured her with a boss almost as unreconstructed as the stagging executives of Mad Men.
Tina Fey's performance as the head writer on a weekly comedy show was good, but it was her scenes with Alec Baldwin – a running duel between creativity and the profit-motive – that really lifted the show and marked it out from a string of media-based shows.
Damages, meanwhile, earns its place not by merit of writing or performance or direction – but for the skill with which the first episode lodged a narrative hook so deeply that it was all but impossible to shake it out before the final episode – and for Glenn Close's depiction of a boss so lethally untrustworthy that virtually any employer looks good by contrast.
What's missing though, as it has been from virtually all previous nomination lists, is one of the best office politics dramas of all, The Wire.
Perhaps it's because the Emmy voters can't see that a Baltimore drug corner or the front seat of a police cruiser are subject to the same dynamics of ambition and seething, wage-slave humiliation as any cubicle farm. But if Mad Men and 30 Rock deserve their Emmy lottery tickets, the Emmys themselves are less deserving for having once again overlooked a show that's better than both of them.Reuse content