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Emmy nominations single out quality, not pedigree

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


PASADENA, Calif. -- Has Emmy finally learned its lesson?

That's a tempting conclusion after Thursday's announcement that the season's most critically acclaimed shows -- NBC's The West Wing and HBO's The Sopranos -- earned the most Primetime Emmy Award nominations, with 18 each.

Consider, as further evidence, the Outstanding Comedy Series category, featuring CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond, NBC's Friends, Frasier and Will & Grace, along with HBO's Sex and the City.

All are among the most critically praised and highly rated comedies on television: a rare confluence of fan appeal, quality and industry respect.

Ditto with the Outstanding Drama nods, including NBC's ER, Law and Order and The West Wing, along with ABC's The Practice and HBO's The Sopranos. Even the sentimental choices made sense, with Michael J. Fox nominated as best comedy actor after Parkinson's disease forced his exit from Spin City and The Sopranos' Nancy Marchand listed among best supporting actress nominees in drama weeks after her death.

The Emmy academy also made up for past mistakes this year, handing supprting actor nods to Will & Grace's Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally -- two actors whose work was overlooked criminally in 1999.

To ensure the winners remain as relevant, voters in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences no longer will attend group screening sessions, instead viewing videotapes at home to choose recipients for this, the 52nd annual prime time Emmys.

"Last year . . . there were a number of extremely qualified people who had not participated in the judging . . . (and) we had to make sure they did," said academy chairman Meryl Marshall, who even tapped Emmy awards host Garry Shandling to serve as a judge this year. ("I have to catch up on my TV," deadpanned Shandling. "I thought Malcolm in the Middle was an episode of OZ.")

In recent years, the slate of Emmy contenders had become so established that a presenter once accidentally read off a list of nominees from the previous year and barely noticed.

Not so with Thursday's picks, which rightly snubbed past winners such as Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue (though star Dennis Franz was rewarded for standout work) and 3rd Rock From the Sun -- all formerly great shows that have slipped in quality.

A pack of newcomers joined the Emmy fold this year, including Friends' Jennifer Aniston, who scored her first nomination as a supporting actress.

Actresses in freshman series also fared better than before, with Malcolm in the Middle's Jane Kaczmarek, Judging Amy's Amy Brenneman and Once and Again's Sela Ward all earning nods in comedy and drama.

At an NBC party Wednesday night, publicists warned reporters not to ask West Wing star Martin Sheen about his chances -- his fear of jinxing the deal proved unfounded -- but co-star Rob Lowe made a prediction.

"He'd kill me if he heard me saying this, but Martin should get nominated," said Lowe of Sheen, who got a best dramatic actor nomination, along with Franz, Law & Order's Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston and The Sopranos' James Gandolfini. "He's the president, for God's sake."

Of course, there were still some gaffes. Fox's Malcolm in the Middle missed a deserved nomination for best comedy series.

And the man of the season, Who Wants to Be Millionaire host Regis Philbin, remains unrecognized -- forced to compete in the daytime Emmys because the prime time contest has no game show category.

Emmy still has a hard time recognizing people of color. Among 45 slots available in major acting nominations for comedy, drama and miniseries, just three ethnic minorities -- Halle Berry, Danny Glover and The Practice's Steve Harris -- were named.

The entire cast of HBO's black-centered urban drama The Corner was overlooked -- including standout actress Khandi Alexander -- though the show was nominated as Outstanding Miniseries alongside Arabian Nights, The Beach Boys, Jesus and P.T. Barnum.

The weirdest Emmy picks? Comic Chris Rock's total eight nominations for a standup special and his HBO series (more than NYPD Blue, Ally McBeal and Freaks and Geeks combined); Henry "The Fonz" Winkler's two nominations; and Family Guy's nomination for best music and lyrics in the song, We Only Live to Kiss Your A--.

It all adds up to the most interesting and relevant collection of Emmy nominees in recent memory (the awards show airs at 8 p.m. Sept. 10 on WFTS-Ch. 28).

At least, until that Survivor thing becomes eligible.

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