Pushing the envelopes

The list of Emmy nominees comes out this week. Will TV's best be on it?

Topics: Emmy Awards, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Sex and the City,

In the wee hours Thursday, the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences
will announce its 1999 Emmy award nominations, and I think I speak for many
viewers when I say, Big whoop. Over the past few years, some of TV’s most
deserving shows have inexplicably failed to even register on the academy’s
radar (“Buffy”? “Everybody Loves Raymond”? “Homicide”?). So, excuse
me, but it’s difficult to get all tingly at the prospect of turning on the
Emmy telecast (Sept. 12, Fox) and watching “Frasier” and Dennis Franz feel
the love of their peers, again.

But, still … What if this were the year the Emmy nominations were really based on
merit, not popularity, snobbery or inertia? Hey, it could happen! Several
reliable nominees from years past, like “Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders
Show” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” are no more. Slots are up for grabs.
If ever there was a time for Emmy voters to make that great leap into the
present, it’s now.

To help the academy along, I’ve compiled my own list of fantasy-league Emmy
nominees. But I’m making some major rule changes. First and foremost, I’m
instituting term limits for Emmy nominees. Under this new rule, which shall
be known as the Candice Bergen Statute, once a performer wins two Emmys for
the same role, said performer is automatically enshrined in the Hall of
Fame and ineligible for further nominations in that role. This rule would
erase the high dij` vu factor that makes the Emmy telecast such a yawn. I
mean, would you watch the Academy Awards if you knew that Gwyneth Paltrow
was going to keep winning that Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love” for the next
four years? No! So what makes the TV Academy think we want to see Dennis
Franz (three), Helen Hunt (three), Kelsey Grammer (three) or Candice Bergen
(five) hogging all the hardware? Give it up!

Series, however, would be exempt from term limits. Unlike performances,
which tend not to vary greatly from season to season, wonderful shows can
easily have terrible years, due to cast changes, bad plot decisions and
mass cases of writer’s block. A series is a living, breathing, evolving
thing, as anybody who suffered through the “Seinfeld” slump of ’94 can tell
you.

My other big rules change would be to nominate prime-time animated sitcoms
– yes, cartoons — in the best comedy series category, where they should
have been all along (they’re currently segregated in an animation
category). Last season, there were more animated series in prime-time than
ever before — Fox has built entire nights around non-human sitcoms — and
the ‘toons deserve some respect. There was a live action sitcom drought in
1998-99, and it’s going to show up in the Emmy nominations, I betcha, with
shaky efforts like “Sports Night” or “Just Shoot Me” dragged in to fill up
slots that should rightfully belong to “The Simpsons” and “King of the
Hill.”

Of course, once you start nominating cartoons in the best comedy series
category, you’ve created a whole other problem: Where do you nominate the
voice actors? I’ve thought long and hard about this and I have to say –
beats me. On the one hand, Kathy Najimy’s voice-only Peggy Hill on “King of
the Hill” is a fascinating and fleshed-out performance (much more so than
her live-action work as Olive on “Veronica’s Closet”). So shouldn’t she be
nominated with the other comedy actresses? But, then, what do you do with
Pamela Segall, the woman who voice-acts the part of the most exquisitely
strange adolescent boy on TV, Bobby Hill from “King of the Hill”? Would you
nominate her for best supporting actress, even though her character is
male? You see how tricky this is?

So here’s a compromise suggestion. The animated sitcoms get nominated in
the regular best comedy series category (and in the comedy writing and
directing categories), but the voice actors are nominated in their own
voice actor categories. It’s not perfect, but, hey, if you don’t like it,
get your own fantasy.

And now, the nominees:

Best drama series

Last year’s nominees: “ER” (NBC); “Law & Order” (NBC); “NYPD Blue”
(ABC); “The Practice” (ABC, winner); “The X-Files” (Fox)

My nominees: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (WB); “Homicide: Life on the
Street ” (NBC); “NYPD Blue”; “The Practice”; “The Sopranos” (HBO)

The big question is, Will the academy have the cannolis to snub “The Sopranos,” far and away
the best drama series of the year? Given academy voters’ history of
embarrassing cluelessness, don’t be surprised if the nominations come out
and the sublimely written, directed and acted “Sopranos” is as invisible as
Jimmy Hoffa. In my fantasy, it gets a nomination (and the award).

It’s an even safer bet that the academy will once again ignore WB’s “Buffy
the Vampire Slayer” as best drama. Most voters probably hear that title,
look down their noses at its WB pedigree and dismiss it as “teen junk.” The
media uproar over (nonexistent) similarities to Littleton in the “Buffy”
season finale won’t help either. But “Buffy,” a dazzlingly original tour de
force of drama, comedy, horror and romance is second only to “The Sopranos”
on my list. Series creator Joss Whedon gets nominated, too, for his writing
and directing.

Last year’s best drama series winner, “The Practice,” is assured of another
Emmy nomination, and that’s OK by me — David E. Kelley’s legal drama had
another fine season of attorney angst and juicy personal crises. “NYPD
Blue” had a transitional year that dealt viewers one too many heartbreaks
and focused too heavily on Dennis Franz in the wake of Jimmy Smits’ departure. Yet
it remains the most haunting, emotionally naked series on TV. It’s more
than the sum of its parts, so I’m giving it the edge over “Law & Order,”
even though “L&O” has dealt with cast changes better (and more often) than
any other series on the air and keeps pumping out good, solid
entertainment. It just doesn’t move me the way “Blue” does.

I’m also torn when it comes to a personal favorite, “The X-Files.” The show
had some amazing episodes last season — Chris Carter deserves directing
nominations for “Triangle” and “Two Fathers”/”One Son.” But the conspiracy
angle seems to have run out of gas. And while the light-hearted episodes
were fun, they didn’t add up to much. So I’m going with “Homicide.” I know,
I know, I dissed it all year. But even though the show has lost some of its
luster, it still had enough left over to make you sorry to see it get axed.
“Homicide” has never been nominated for a best drama series Emmy, and
that’s a crime; I’m giving it a nomination for old times’ sake. Yes, I’m
breaking my “on merit only” rule, but this is my fantasy, so I get to do
stuff like that.

Best actor, drama

Last year’s nominees: Andre Braugher (“Homicide,” winner); David
Duchovny (“The X-Files”); Anthony Edwards (“ER”); Dennis Franz (“NYPD
Blue”); Jimmy Smits (“NYPD Blue”)

My nominees: Duchovny; James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”); Steve
Harris (“The Practice”); Dylan McDermott (“The Practice”); Smits

Franz’s three Emmys for “Blue” disqualify him under the Bergen Statute.
Braugher left “Homicide” before last season began. Edwards does a solid
job, but I think there are worthier contenders. That leaves three slots,
and I’m filling them with James Gandolfini, Dylan McDermott and Steve
Harris. As Tony Soprano, the Jersey mobster and upwardly mobile suburban
family man on Prozac, Gandolfini gives the sort of powerhouse performance
you’d expect to find in a big-screen mob epic. His portrait of a man in the
middle — middle manager, middle-age, middle-class — is both tough and
lean. The bearish Gandolfini makes Tony as poignantly confused as any guy
who only wants to do what’s best for his family, but he doesn’t spare us
from the tension-sprung violence coiled around his heart.

In any other TV season, Gandolfini for best actor would be a no-brainer.
But this was the season Jimmy Smits died. Well, he didn’t really die, but
he had you fooled, didn’t he? Smits made a stunning exit from “NYPD Blue”; his
deathbed scenes were a lesson in subtlety and control. My vote still goes
to Gandolfini, but Smits sure did earn his nomination — even if he only
appeared in four episodes. As for Duchovny, he’s at his best when he’s
doing dryly mischievous comedy with an undertone of desperation, and last
season gave him ample opportunity to get seriously silly.

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Don’t hate Dylan McDermott because he’s beautiful. McDermott is an unlikely, but fascinating, father figure on “The Practice.”
As the founder of his law firm, McDermott’s Bobby Donnell has to make the
decisions for his squabbling brood. But deep down, this whip-smart stud is
a package of insecurities and neuroses. I’m nominating McDermott’s burly
castmate, Harris, as a lead actor, not a supporting actor. Harris’
character, lawyer Eugene Young, carries as much of the emotional weight of
“The Practice” as McDermott’s Donnell. And Harris brings a quiet passion
to his role as an idealistic guy who can’t figure out whether his loyalties
should belong to the black community, to the law or to the dollar.
McDermott and Harris are an acting team. Look out, Franz and Rick Schroder.

Best actress, drama

Last year’s nominees: Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”); Roma Downey
(“Touched by an Angel”); Christine Lahti (“Chicago Hope,” winner); Julianna
Margulies (“ER”); Jane Seymour (“Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”)

My nominees: Anderson; Kim Delaney (“NYPD Blue”); Edie Falco (“The
Sopranos”); Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”); Margulies

The looseness of this season of “The X-Files” worked well for Anderson,
too, who got to show off Scully’s charming playful side. Delaney has
already won a best supporting actress Emmy for her role as Diane Russell on
“NYPD Blue,” but I’m bumping her up for her lovely work in the Smits
deathwatch episodes. Margulies continued her fine performance as the
poker-faced, dry-witted and intensely complicated Carol Hathaway on “ER.”
The show’s male actors may get all the attention, but Margulies is the
heart and soul of the show. When she leaves after next season, “ER” may as
well close up shop.

Edie Falco deeply deserves a nomination as the no-bullshit Mafia wife
Carmela Soprano, especially for the episode where she finally tells off
Father Phil, the teasing priest who led her to believe that she was his
special favorite. Man, the look on her face when she dumped the rigatoni
she prepared for him into the garbage …

My vote for best actress, however, goes to Sarah Michelle Gellar for her
big, big star turn on “Buffy.” The girl can do it all: tender love scenes,
smart-mouth sarcasm, body slammin’ action, teenage flakiness. Gellar has
created a character who is the very essence of verge-of-adulthood emotional
chaos. There isn’t a better young actress working on TV today. Gellar
rocks. Do you hear that, academy members? She rocks.

Best supporting actress, drama

Last year’s nominees: Kim Delaney (“NYPD Blue”); Laura Innes (“ER”);
Camryn Manheim (“The Practice,” winner); Della Reese (“Touched by an
Angel”); Gloria Reuben (“ER”)

My nominees: Lara Flynn Boyle (“The Practice”); Alyson Hannigan
(“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”); Innes (“ER”); Manheim; Nancy Marchand
(“The Sopranos”)

These are all exceptional performances. Boyle’s prosecutor Helen Gamble is
a fierce portrayal of blind ambition. Hannigan has always been a delight as
Willow, the sweet class smarty-pants who is tougher than she appears.
Innes’ busybody Kerry Weaver remains a marvel of characterization; she’s
like the taskmaster professor who you can’t stand when you’re in her class
but, years later, you realize you admire. And Manheim, who won one
for all the fat girls last year, had another terrific season as Ellenor
Frutt, the attorney who says exactly what’s on her mind.

But these women are going to have to defer to Nancy Marchand’s Livia Soprano.
Marchand, who won four Emmys for her role as Mrs. Pynchon on “Lou Grant,”
is an academy favorite; she’s the only cast member of “The Sopranos” who is
virtually assured of a nomination. And she deserves to win; Livia is a
towering character, the antithesis of the sweet little old granny. Marchand
is best known for playing elegant ladies with strong backbones. Livia ain’t
elegant, but when it comes to backbone, she’s all steel.

Best supporting actor, drama

Last year’s nominees: Gordon Clapp (“NYPD Blue,” winner); Hector
Elizondo (“Chicago Hope”); Steven Hill (“Law & Order”); Eriq LaSalle
(“ER”); Noah Wyle (“ER”)

My nominees: Dominic Chianese (“The Sopranos”); Anthony Stewart Head
(“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”); Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”); Clark
Johnson (“Homicide”); Rick Schroder (“NYPD Blue”)

I have no idea what the academy saw in Clapp’s performance last year. The
guy is OK, but he’s strictly background noise. As for Elizondo (and the
other “Chicago Hope” nominees), does anybody watch this show? Hill
is a fine, sage presence; I’d nominate him again if I had room. And I
suggest that whoever submits the nominees for “ER” end their little
charade. Wyle and LaSalle are both lead actors, and it’s insulting
to cheat them into the nominations this way.

So I’m proposing a clean slate in this category. Chianese is a joy as Uncle
Junior Soprano, the proud, old-style mob boss who’s a few cards shy of a
deck (but, oh, he’s got a bedroom trick that drives the ladies wild). The
dark-browed Imperioli provides both heat and comic relief as Christopher,
the Soprano crew’s young gun and loose cannon. Clark Johnson has served
viewers well as Meldrick Lewis, one of the original characters on
“Homicide”; his cool, assured work deserves some recognition. Rick Schroder
came into as tough a situation as you’ll find on TV — former kiddie star
replaces popular lead of thinking-person’s cop show. But Schroder made an
immediate impact as tightly wound young Detective Danny Sorenson. He was
soon made to walk in Franz’s shadow, though, which is why I’m nominating
him for a supporting Emmy. But next year, when we find out what makes Danny
so antsy around sexual predators (was he abused as a kid?), Schroder will
be moving up to the bigs.

Buffy’s tweedy British watcher (protector), Giles, played by Anthony
Stewart Head, is one of the most intriguing characters on any series. He’s
a bookworm who’s proficient with a vampire-killing crossbow; he’s a
tongue-tied romantic who was once in a devil-worshiping punk band; he’s all
business, but sometimes he looks at Buffy with something approaching — I
don’t dare say. Giles is not your typical voice of adult reason, and Head
makes you appreciate the complexities of this repressed middle-aged man who
hangs around with teenagers because he’s mourning his lost youth. An Emmy
for the Taster’s Choice guy!

Best comedy series:

Last year’s nominees: “Ally McBeal” (Fox); “Frasier” (NBC, winner);
“The Larry Sanders Show” (HBO); “Seinfeld” (NBC); “3rd Rock From the Sun”
(NBC)

My nominees: “Everybody Loves Raymond” (CBS); “Friends” (NBC); “King
of the Hill” (Fox); “Sex and the City” (HBO); “The Simpsons” (Fox)

“Seinfeld” and “Sanders” are gone. “3rd Rock” is over. The frothy soufflé
that once was “Frasier” has fallen into a mess of tired “we’re smarter than
you” jokes and wimpy pathos. If any Emmy category is ripe for an overhaul,
it’s this one. So I’m nominating the long-neglected “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” two of the funniest,
wisest sitcoms about family life on the tube today. The voters will
probably nominate “Ally McBeal” again, which is great, because that means I
don’t have to. On my list, her slot goes to “Friends,” the last light of
Must See Thursday glimmering on NBC. “Friends” had a hilarious, resurgent
year, carried by the Chandler-Monica secret love plot line. Putting these
über-neurotics together was a stroke of genius. And in the “no chance, but
what the hell” slot, I’m nominating the good, dirty fun of “Sex and the City,”
a smartly written diary of the single-gal life in Manhattan with fizzy work
from its ensemble cast.

My choice for best comedy, though, is “Everybody Loves Raymond.” How the
academy has managed to completely ignore “Raymond” for the past two years
qualifies for an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” “Raymond” is that rarest
of shows: a sitcom about family ties that never gets tripped up in
cuteness, sentimentality or Very Special Episode-ness. It has a tart
undertone of truth about marriage and parenthood that’s unusual and
refreshing compared to sapfests like “Home Improvement” (and crapfests like
“Family Guy”). But enough of this “TV’s best-kept secret” stuff. “Raymond”
deserves an Emmy. And make it retroactive.

Best actor, comedy

Last year’s nominees: Michael J. Fox (“Spin City”); Kelsey Grammar
(“Frasier,” winner); John Lithgow (“3rd Rock From the Sun”); Paul Reiser
(“Mad About You”); Garry Shandling (“The Larry Sanders Show”)

My nominees: Drew Carey (“The Drew Carey Show”); Dave Foley
(“NewsRadio”); Kevin James (“The King of Queens”); Norm Macdonald (“Norm”);
Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”)

With three-time winners Grammer and Lithgow ineligible for my Emmys, and Shandling off
the air, it’s open mike night at the comedy club. I’m tossing Fox because
being a nice guy shouldn’t be the sole criterion for getting nominated. I’m
tossing Reiser because, well, he bores me.

Carey has created a genuinely complex character, a single-guy sad sack who
happens to be very funny. James was a nice surprise as a cliché-free
blue-collar suburban husband in “King of Queens,” the funniest new sitcom
of the year. Macdonald showed some real flash in his mid-season replacement
series; OK, he’s a cruel bastard, but he has a killer delivery. He makes me
laugh — I’m sorry. And let’s show the brilliantly droll Dave Foley a
little appreciation for carrying the now-defunct “NewsRadio” through the
most difficult, storm-tossed run any sitcom has ever had. I’d give the
Emmy, though, to Ray Romano, who thinks he’s a bad actor, but he’s not. As
Ray Barone, a husband who can’t read his wife’s moods and a son who still
fears his mother’s wrath, Romano wears a crash survivor’s look of wary
blankness that occasionally breaks into a grin of goofy desperation. If
Romano isn’t acting and this is really his life, as he’s fond of saying in
interviews, we should all feel very, very sorry for him.

Best actress, comedy

Last year’s nominees: Kirstie Alley (“Veronica’s Closet”); Ellen
DeGeneres (“Ellen”); Jenna Elfman (“Dharma and Greg”); Calista Flockhart
(“Ally McBeal”); Helen Hunt (“Mad About You,” winner); Patricia Richardson
(“Home Improvement”)

My nominees: Flockhart; Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”);
Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sex and the City”); Leah Remini (“The King of
Queens”)

Three Emmys and you’re out, Helen Hunt. DeGeneres is long gone. Alley and
Richardson — are you kidding? The only one of last year’s crowded field
who makes it back on my list is Flockhart. Hey, anybody who can play a
character this annoying must be a good actress. Sarah Jessica Parker
is doing terrific work as the brainy sex columnist with a soft spot for the
wrong guy on “Sex and the City.” Leah Remini, too, is proving herself to be
a comedy diva on “The King of Queens”; playing a scrappy career woman
walking a tightrope between her blue-collar roots and her yuppie
aspirations, Remini has the tough-pixie sparkle of old-time Hollywood
comedienne Claudette Colbert.

But Patricia Heaton owns this category. As the cranky, over-extended Debra
on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Heaton is exploding a family sitcom trend. On
shows like “Family Ties,” “Growing Pains,” “Home Improvement” and “The
Hughleys,” the husband/father gets to do all the funny stuff, while the
wife/mom hovers around as a vague sassy-but-nurturing presence. Heaton, on
the other hand, is as commanding as Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie and
Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo; she has impeccable timing, she isn’t afraid to
play her character as a woman who frequently makes a mess of things and she
gets to do as much funny stuff as co-star Romano. Plus, Heaton managed all
this while wrapped in blankets or photographed from the shoulders up to
hide her real-life pregnancy.

By the way, I couldn’t come up with a fifth actress who deserved a
nomination in this category. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Best supporting actor, comedy

Last year’s nominees: Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”); Phil Hartman
(“NewsRadio”); David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier,” winner); Jeffrey Tambor (“The
Larry Sanders Show,” HBO); Rip Torn (“Larry Sanders”)

My nominees: Peter Boyle (“Everybody Loves Raymond”); Brad Garrett
(“Raymond”); Sean P. Hayes (“Will & Grace”); Matthew Perry (“Friends”);
Jerry Stiller (“The King of Queens”)

With “Seinfeld,” “Larry Sanders” and Hartman gone, and two-time winner Pierce ineligible under the Bergen statute,
this is another wide-open category. I’m continuing my “Raymond”
juggernaut with nominations for Peter Boyle as Ray’s combustible dad and
Brad Garrett as Ray’s neurotic, sibling-rivalry-consumed older brother.
“Raymond” has the finest ensemble cast of any sitcom and these two
performances are essential cogs in the machine. Matthew Perry had his best
year ever on “Friends” as finicky, commitment-phobic Chandler deep into a
secret affair with control-freak Monica. And on “Will & Grace,” it was
Carnaval, New Year’s Eve and the Gay Pride parade combined whenever Hayes’
divinely queeny Jack entered a scene. My Emmy goes to Jerry Stiller, the
old pro, for his role as Arthur, Leah Remini’s bellicose dad on “The King
of Queens.” Remini and co-star Kevin James don’t have any children on the
show; instead, they have Stiller, as an oft-widowed schemer who spends his
golden years sniffing paint and suing major corporations for stealing his
ideas. In any other actor’s hands, Arthur would be unbearably cute. As the
incomparable Stiller plays him, he’s deeply, mesmerizingly odd.

Best supporting actress, comedy

Last year’s nominees: Christine Baranski (“Cybill”); Kristen
Johnston (“3rd Rock From the Sun”); Lisa Kudrow (“Friends,” winner); Jane
Leeves (“Frasier”); Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Seinfeld”)

My nominees: Courteney Cox (“Friends”); Johnston; Laurie Metcalf
(“Norm”); Megan Mullaly (“Will & Grace”); Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves
Raymond”)

Johnston remains a hoot on “3rd Rock.” Cox gets the “Friends” slot this
year for her wonderfully frantic performance as Monica trying to keep her
romance with Chandler a secret. After disappearing for a while after
“Roseanne” ended its run, Metcalf surfaced at mid-season as a perfect foil
for Norm Macdonald on “Norm.” Metcalf plays the I-will-remain-calm
straight man better than anybody, and it’s good to have her back. Mullaly
takes a brassy turn as Grace’s idle rich, fashion-plate, sex-obsessed pal
on “Will & Grace.” It’s the sort of over-the-top performance that has a
short shelf life, so I’m nominating her now before her delicious horniness
gets on everybody’s nerves. The Emmy goes to Doris Roberts as Ray’s over-protective, nosy mother, Marie, the bane of Debra’s existence. Roberts’
Marie is, in her cheery way, as formidable and scheming a matriarch as
Livia Soprano. I can’t resist the symmetry of Marchand and Roberts winning
supporting Emmys for playing two of the scariest moms on TV. If only I
could figure out a way to get Kathie Lee Gifford in there …

Best voice actors

Since I proposed this category, I’d better fill it. My nominees for best
voice actress are Julie Kavner (Marge, “The Simpsons”); Kathy Najimy
(Peggy, “King of the Hill”); Katey Sagal (Leela, “Futurama”); Pamela Segall
(Bobby, “King of the Hill”) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa, “The Simpsons”). For
best voice actor: Dan Castellaneta (Homer, “The Simpsons”); John
DiMaggio (Bender, “Futurama”); Mike Judge (Hank, “King of the Hill”); Eddie
Murphy (Thurgood, “The PJs”) and whichever one of those clowns plays
Cartman on “South Park.”

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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