This is the first year in which two Emmy awards will be given out for stunt coordination. The Academy has introduced separate categories for comedy and drama, acknowledging the different scale of stunt work and allowing the pratfalls of Workaholics to compete separately from the epic showdowns of Game Of Thrones. It’s a decision that reflects the diverse role of stunt coordinators, who are not only hired to choreograph specific fights or battles but also to cast stunt performers and organize stunts less flashy than your average sword fight or fisticuffs.
Although a series like Game Of Thrones might seem like a perennial favorite in the drama/movie/miniseries category with its grand scale and premium-cable budget, history suggests otherwise. The category has been dominated by shows featuring either police work (Southland, which has won the past two Emmys in this category) or espionage (Chuck is a three-time winner), and it’s one of the rare Emmy categories that has skewed toward broadcast dramas in a period where cable dramas have dominated overall: Southland was actually the first cable series to win the award, and there has never been more than two cable series nominated in a given year.
This may result from a belief that broadcast stunt coordinators have the more challenging job. Working on a tight schedule to deliver 22 episodes a season, a stunt coordinator on a series like Hawaii Five-0—nominated for two straight years—must adapt to a range of different storylines and week-to-week challenges, as opposed to a single episode heavily reliant on stunts.
It’s an understandable position, but one that risks obscuring the importance of stunt work to the rise of a new brand of premium cable programming. Cinemax has staked its claim in original series with shows that revive pulpy B-movie action and rely on stunts to the point where long-form action sequences are both commonplace and integral to the series’ storytelling. Strike Back and Banshee draw their momentum from their visceral action sequences, setting them apart in ways that depend on stunt coordinators delivering action that leaves room for characters to shine through.
Strike Back breaks each of its seasons into five two-part action movies, shifting locations and characters and developing large-scale action sequences to go with them. In season three’s fourth episode, stunt coordinator Kerry Gregg was tasked with two separate extended field battles, the second featuring improvised explosives, flaming motorcycles, and a close-quarters conclusion. While the first sequence mostly serves to introduce a threat and establish tension, like many of the run-and-gun sequences throughout the series’ run, the latter is asked to reflect the character work that came in between. Strike Back only succeeds if its action sequences resonate on a level beyond gunfire and explosions: Gregg’s work delivers on that front but also leaves room to tell the character stories that allow the show to sometimes transcend its pulpy goals.
Banshee, by comparison, eschews a sense of scale for a sense of extremity, crafting two particularly visceral fight sequences in its pilot (one of which involves a bottle of steak sauce being punched down a man’s throat). And although stunt coordinator Jim Vickers—a previous winner in this category for CSI: Miami—and his team do some strong work in that episode, one of the two submitted for consideration in this category, Banshee’s other submission is most representative of the series’ stunt pedigree. In a sequence that extends through nearly the entire episode, two characters destroy an apartment as they battle for survival. Every piece of the environment is a potential weapon, and with each subsequent return to the sequence, the fight style reflects the exhaustion of a battle won by endurance and ingenuity rather than brute strength. The sequence, coordinated by Marcus Young and Emmy winner Jimmy Romano, is also impressive for how its evolution is tied to the characters’ history: The longer the fight goes on, the less it becomes about the fighting. The stunts are an entry point into a larger and more important contribution to the season’s story arc. Although almost always graphic, Banshee’s violence never feels gratuitous.
It would be naïve to expect any of Cinemax’s series to compete in main Emmy categories: Strike Back and Banshee use nudity and violence as a way to differentiate themselves from the upper-class fare on sister channel HBO and essentially disqualify themselves from broader consideration as a result. However, the artistic and technical work being done behind the scenes on these shows has been consistently impressive, and the stunt work—which on both shows is primarily done by the cast members themselves—is particularly vital to delivering on the promise of their respective parental advisory warnings. Few shows on television—broadcast or cable—are more reliant on their stunt work, and few stunt coordinators are as central to a channel’s success as those behind Cinemax’s original programming.