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Sixties out, CIA in? Looking for meaning in Emmys

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NEW YORK — Have the '60s gotten boring? Has the CIA become sexy?

Or have we gotten weary of looking back, albeit stylishly, at our collective past, and are now eager to face our precarious present and perhaps scarier future?

Or were Emmy voters, like fashionistas awaiting the new collections, just a little restless and ready for change?

It's perhaps foolhardy to draw any broad cultural lessons from the Emmy awards — but that doesn't mean people don't try. And there were a few themes emerging on Monday after, in the most surprising news of this year's awards, AMC's "Mad Men" was dethroned in rather spectacular fashion, losing all 17 awards it was nominated for and replaced by "Homeland" as best drama.

Sure, "Homeland," the Showtime thriller about a bipolar CIA agent trailing an Iraq war hero whom she suspects is working for al-Qaeda, has been much praised for its writing and its stellar cast, led by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis (both acting winners on Sunday).

But was there something broader at play? TV critic and analyst David Bianculli was struggling with that thought, saying he was drawn to "this really nice idea that one show, teaching us about our present by focusing on our past," was making way for another show, "Homeland," which was "focusing on our present and showing us our future."

But he wasn't sure he believed that. It could simply be, he noted, "this natural inclination of people just wanting to gravitate to something new." That was the feeling of TV historian David Brooks, who noted that the Emmys "are a matter of what's hot at the moment."

Not that Emmy winners change every year, of course — "Mad Men" had won the best series Emmy four years running. But what it ran into, added Brooks, a former executive at Lifetime, was a show that was managing both to capture the current zeitgeist — it is, after all, an election year, and "Homeland" delves into politics as well as national security and terrorism — and to say something weighty.

"Emmy voters like to reward the 'big statement,'" said Brooks. "They like the big subjects."

What is precisely the "big statement" of "Homeland"? To Showtime president David Nevins, who was basking on Monday in the glow of his network's first series Emmy win, it's not just the obvious connection between the show and current events, although that's part of it. (And some of that was unplanned; the second-season trailer shows anti-American protests overseas, scenes that were filmed before the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.)

"The show has a very intense relevance to the world that we live in, and that adds greatly to its watercooler effect," Nevins said in a phone interview. "But it's also topical and political in less obvious ways. The politics of the show are complicated. Is it coming from the right? The left? What is it saying about America's position in the world? It's not obvious." And that, he said, means it can resonate for both sides in a polarized country.

It's undeniable that the "Homeland" buzz was greatly enhanced by the news that none other than President Barack Obama is a big fan. "You don't expect the commander in chief to be watching your spy thriller," Nevins said. Even before that news, he added, "we'd already heard that people in the intelligence and diplomatic circles were watching."

Fair enough, but "Mad Men," the stylish series about 1960s-era America through the prism of an advertising firm, has its own rabid fan base. And the series was considered to have had a very good season. They were surely shocked at the show's declining Emmy fortunes.

They weren't alone. "I was flabbergasted that 'Homeland' won," said Tom O'Neil, the editor of the Gold Derby website, which follows awards shows. He added that it was particularly surprising that "Mad Men," instead of setting a happy record by winning a 5th consecutive best drama award, set a dubious one by losing all 17 awards it was nominated for.

"What's really astounding is the abrupt renunciation of 'Mad Men,'" he said. "Nobody thought their record would be the shutout record."

O'Neil's best cultural explanation? "The Emmys frequently want their winners to be weighted with meaning," he said. "'Homeland'" is a highly stylized thriller that says something important about our time."

On top of that, O'Neil added, is the sophistication factor — which he also calls the "snob factor."

"One thing you can count on with Emmy voters is that they are elitist snobs," said O'Neil. Remember the much-awarded "Frasier"? "That was about two elitist brothers squabbling over things like wine."

So "Homeland," O'Neil said, weaves sophisticated subject matter into an exciting thriller, with a snapshot of America today — all during an election year. How could voters resist?

One thing all analysts agreed on was the way in which these Emmys signaled the failure of the big broadcast networks, in the area of drama (In comedy, by contrast, ABC's "Modern Family" remains triumphant, winning its third Emmy on Sunday.)

"Think of how ashamed of themselves the broadcast networks must be," noted Bianculli, editor of the TV Worth Watching website and a teacher of film and TV at Rowan University. "Cable used to have its own awards because it wasn't good enough for Emmys. Now it's the broadcast networks that aren't good enough."

There was some good news for broadcast networks — viewership was up for the Emmys.

Nielsen estimated that 13.2 million viewers watched Sunday night's awards show on ABC. That's up from the 12.4 million who watched in 2011. And the social media measurement company Trendrr reported there were more than 1.5 million mentions of the Emmys on social media Sunday, up 29 percent from last year.

But back to those mourning "Mad Men" fans — analysts were not at all convinced that the AMC series was on a real decline. And they pointed out that in a year or two, "Homeland" could even seem old.

"Something else could come along, making a big statement, and shove it aside," said Brooks. "There is nothing like the glow of the new."

TV writer David Bauder contributed to this report.