It's "The West Wing" in a landslide: Notes on the Emmys 2000.
Since the Emmys are all about politics, it’s only fitting that “The West Wing,” a show about politics, scored a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election year Emmy telecast.
The fictionalized White House drama won a record nine Emmys, including best drama series. That’s more than “Hill Street Blues” won, more than “L.A. Law,” more than “ER,” more than any show, ever. Misguided pundits kept trying to spin this year’s Emmys as a showdown between “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos,” but the truth is, “The Sopranos” didn’t have a spectacular season and “The West Wing,” in its debut year, did. Ever since the Emmy campaign season began in July, “The West Wing” has had the Big Mo, which was why, in the drama categories at least, the Emmys had all the suspense of last month’s political conventions.
“The West Wing” (and its wonderful winning supporting actors Richard Schiff and Allison Janney) deserved the trophies, don’t get me wrong. This is an ambitious, impeccably acted, grown-up serial, and it’s a heap of fun, too. But its triumph is as much a triumph of old-school network TV as it is a personal triumph for creator/writer Aaron Sorkin. “The West Wing” is a staunchly traditional ensemble workplace drama in the Steven Bochco-David E. Kelley mold, and its decisive win restores sagging NBC’s luster as the network of high-quality dramas.
The win also strikes a blow for fictional TV as a whole; during the telecast, you could practically smell the anti-reality TV resentment in the air, from the audience’s applause when host Garry Shandling mentioned that he hated reality shows to a gooey midshow salute to the richness of this season’s “storytelling.”
(Of course, that didn’t stop the producers from opening the show with a very funny “Survivor” parody in which a disheveled Shandling, Arsenio Hall, Craig Kilborn, Andy Richter and Cheri Oteri — doing a dead-on impression of Susan’s “I would leave you to the vultures” speech — gathered at tribal council, complete with Jeff Probst and flaming tiki torches, to cast their votes for who would be booted off the island to host the Emmys.)
But network storytelling (as opposed to cable, where “The Sopranos” airs) does truly need a buzz show to draw viewers back into the fold. And it isn’t hard to see why “West Wing” is the TV industry’s nominee of choice. Beneath its prickly characters and dense Capitol Hill backstairs maneuverings, “West Wing” mirrors the sort of warm fuzziness America seems to be looking for from its pols this year. Yes, Sorkin writes some great, witty back and forth for his characters, but he also has a cornball streak a mile wide.
“West Wing” captured the hearts of the Academy (and viewers) because, in contrast to the dark worldview of “The Sopranos” (and fellow nominees “The Practice,” “ER” and “Law & Order”), “West Wing” dares to be optimistic and idealistic. It says that politicians do care, problems do get fixed, America is the greatest darned country on God’s green earth. And, most of all, “West Wing” lets Democrats feel good about themselves, their party and the positive accomplishments of the past eight years by offering up a wholesome Clinton surrogate Democratic president. If “West Wing” were a bumper sticker, it would say, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Martin Sheen.”
Al Gore could clinch the election right now by staging as many photo-ops with the cast of “The West Wing” as possible. He should be photographed playing golf with Sheen, stumping in shirtsleeves with Rob Lowe by his side, applauding as Janney performs “The Jackal” for the press corps on Air Force Two. He should replace Joe Lieberman with Schiff’s Toby Ziegler, a Jew who goes to Shabbat services but doesn’t make a big megillah out of it and actually thinks things like school vouchers and censorship are un-American. Yes, “The West Wing” could be very good for Democrats come November. And you know TV-phobic George W. Bush won’t ask for equal time.
The Television Academy Voter Reform Act: It was actually just a rules change that allowed judges to view nominated shows and performances on tape at their homes rather than sequestered at a hotel — but it paid off. The hope was that the new procedure would shake voters out of their repetitive stupor and begin rehabilitation of the Emmys’ clueless, laughing stock image.
Indeed, there were no repeat winners in any of the series categories Sunday night. The winners were spread among a larger pool of shows (“Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Sopranos” may have won only one trophy each, but they were big ones for stars Patricia Heaton and James Gandolfini). And all of the winners (with the arguable exception of best comedy actor Michael J. Fox, who might have gotten a sympathy Emmy) deserved to win. The Emmy tide clearly turned Sunday night. I mean just one year ago, David E. Kelley was TV’s Golden Boy, winning unprecedented best comedy and best drama Emmys for “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice.” This year, he went home with nothing in his hands. Well, except his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer.
The truth in black and white: The networks had a poor record of prime-time diversity this year and the nominations reflected that. So, what better way to punish themselves than by having angry African-Americans Chris Rock and Wayne Brady dis them on the Emmy telecast? Rock presented the first award (best supporting actress in a comedy) by sarcastically noting that all of the nominees were white. Brady, from ABC’s “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” sang a spoofy medley of songs, one of which suggested that he be added to the cast of the all-white “Friends.” The TV camera caught Jennifer Aniston in the audience looking very uncomfortable.
You could understand why up-and-comer Brady participated in this sham of soul searching. But why did someone of Rock’s stature and integrity agree to be the academy’s puppet? And it wasn’t as if Rock and Brady were even needed to call attention to the diversity issue; the academy did that itself when it gave Emmys to “The Corner,” about black junkies on the streets of Baltimore, for best miniseries, Halle Berry for best actress in a TV movie (“Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”) and Charles S Dutton for directing “The Corner.” Neither of those programs aired on broadcast TV; they aired on HBO.
A gay old time: Diversity was not an Emmy issue where gays were concerned this year. Queer-centric “Will & Grace” was named best comedy series. Accepting his Emmy, the show’s executive producer Max Mutchnick exclaimed, “As a gay man, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’ve finally met a girl I want to sleep with.” Todd Holland, who won the best comedy directing award for an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle,” and is gay, thanked his partner, who blew him a kiss from the audience. Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) and Vanessa Redgrave (“If These Walls Could Talk 2″) both won supporting Emmys; Hayes’ character is gay, and Redgrave’s was a lesbian. All of these wins made host Shandling’s weird “I’m not gay, really I’m not” shtick seem even weirder. Is Shandling consciously sending up hetero male sexual insecurity, or just being neurotic? On second thought, we don’t want to know.
Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area. More Joyce Millman.
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