Of dodos and Emmys

The TV academy announces its nominations Thursday morning. A reality-enthralled nation yawns.

By Joyce Millman
July 17, 2000 10:35PM (UTC)
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When the Emmy nominations are announced July 20 "Survivor" won't be nominated for best comedy, even though it's funnier than a barrelful of Friends. And it won't be nominated for best drama, even though last week's "the tribes merge and now it's every castaway for him- or herself" episode was filled with more exquisitely complex intrigue and nail-biting suspense than this year's entire output of "The X-Files" and "The Practice" combined.

Richard, Rudy, Stacey, Susan, Jenna and the rest of the castaways won't hear their names called on Emmy nomination morning. The same goes for Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell -- and Karen, Mega, Eddie and Jordan the exotic dancer from "Big Brother." How out of it are the Emmys when it comes to this newfangled reality programming? The academy is announcing the nominations on a Thursday morning, for heaven's sake. And that's the morning after, when we're busy rehashing who got voted off the island the night before! Yes, in Emmyland, time has stopped; unreality, in the form of scripted dramas and sitcoms, still rules the airwaves. It is the land of dodos and dinosaurs, "Frasier" and "3rd Rock From the Sun." The Emmys are an endangered species.

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Look, I'm not saying that "Survivor" or "Big Brother" or (God help us) "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" deserve to win Emmys. It's just that their popularity is another example of a TV trend that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will undoubtedly fail to acknowledge -- the way it previously tried to ignore cable, Fox, animated series and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (and everything else on WB) in the hope that they would just go away.

But the academy is finally making one concession to the modern world. In response to the scathing criticism that followed last year's joke of an Emmy night (in which clear favorites like "The Sopranos," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and James Gandolfini were snubbed in favor of dij` vu winners like "The Practice," Dennis Franz and John Lithgow), the academy is trying a new voting procedure this year. Panels of volunteer judges drawn from the ranks of academy members will still choose the Emmy winners. But this year, the judging panels won't convene for two days at a Los Angeles hotel to screen tapes of nominated shows and performances. Instead, they'll be allowed to watch tapes of nominees in the privacy of their own homes.

Critics of the hotel screening procedure argued that most of the members volunteering for judging duty were retirees with time on their hands and no star hang-ups about being sequestered in a hotel for two days with a bunch of nonstars; these voters, critics contended, favored traditional broadcast network programming and well-known actors. Proponents of the home-viewing procedure (which is also how Academy Award judging is done) are hoping it will attract busier, hipper volunteers with more adventurous and informed tastes. Will all of this make a difference on Sept. 10 when the awards are handed out? Probably not: The voting change affects only the final vote, not the initial nominations, which are made by a poll of academy members who may or may not pay attention to "for your consideration" ads in the trade papers or make attempts to sample shows they're not familiar with. But it's a start.

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Ironically, just as the Emmys are trying to shore up their credibility on one front, the floodgates have opened on another. The reality trend has rocked the very notion of what constitutes prime-time entertainment. Except for the brief media frenzy that accompanied the start of the second season of "The Sopranos" last January, no fictional series has elicited as much viewer excitement this year as has "Survivor" or "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (which, as a game show, was eligible for a daytime Emmy, even though it airs in prime time -- go figure). Water-cooler discussions about make-believe stuff like who shot J.R. or how "Seinfeld" would end are but a quaint memory; they've been replaced by whispers and giggles about the "real" exploits of famous nobodies.

Those of you who can't bear another minute of this reality stuff can take comfort in this: The only way the year's hottest trend will be represented at the Emmy telecast this year is as the butt of parodies and jokes (which is how the Emmys handled the WB last year). Besides, even if "Survivor" were to earn a nomination, there's no obvious category to put it in. Yes, it might qualify for "outstanding nonfiction series," but that depends on one's interpretation of the Emmy rulebook, which defines a nonfiction series as "any program that depicts actual people and events with the primary intent to inform." Is "Survivor" informative? Well, it did teach us that we're supposed to bite the heads off live beetle larvae before eating them.

Anyway, when summer is over and viewers (especially younger ones, who have few loyalties to traditional forms of TV entertainment) have had their fling with voyeurism and freak shows, will they come back to "NYPD Blue" and "Will & Grace"? Or will the charms of episodic television pale in comparison with the contrived reality of "Survivor" and its ilk? Emmy voters have the perfect opportunity to remind viewers of the joys of storytelling, character development and professional acting by honoring TV's brightest, most original fictional fare. I'd like to believe that the academy recognizes how much is riding on this year's nominations. I'd like to believe that this is the year Emmy voters will rise above inertia and politics and truly choose the best. But if past disappointments are an indication, dinosaurs will walk the Earth again on Emmy night. And if that happens, viewers will be entirely justified in voting the Emmys off the island for good.

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If I were an Emmy voter, these would be my nominees.

Best drama series
My nominees: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (WB), "Freaks and Geeks" (NBC), "Now and Again" (CBS), "The Sopranos" (HBO), "The West Wing" (NBC)
Last year's winner: "The Practice" (ABC)

"The Sopranos" is still the most gleefully unpredictable drama on TV, but the second season suffered from the limited participation of the late Nancy Marchand; with Livia a shell of herself, the tragicomically savage matricidal-infanticidal impulses that propelled the show were gone. (Creator David Chase has his work cut out for him next season.) "The Sopranos" should have won last year; instead, it lost to safe, automatic-pilot choice "The Practice." The injustice still hurts.

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The canceled "Now and Again" doesn't have a chance, but it was an unclassifiable jewel -- part sci-fi fantasy, part romantic comedy, part family drama -- and it brought me many happy hours this season. Likewise for "Freaks and Geeks," which has just been picked up for rerun (beginning Aug. 29) by the Fox Family Network. NBC never knew what it had in this heartbreakingly funny and true portrayal of high school life circa 1980, although it did appease angry fans by running three never-aired episodes in a row on July 8. The last of the episodes won its time slot. So, um, tell me why the show was canceled? "The West Wing" is a solid example of old-school drama at its finest -- irresistible, flawed yet noble characters; witty, cerebral dialogue; a deft blending of issues, politics and good storytelling. I serve at the pleasure of the president! Oh, you didn't see that episode? Never mind.

While old school can be cool, the Emmys are all about old school -- which is why I'd give the Emmy to "Buffy," the academy be damned. This season surprised me; it started out draggy, with all the characters in transition from high school to what comes next. They were not quite themselves. Then it miraculously found its groove with the "Hush" episode (a mini-silent movie/scare-a-thon that should win Joss Whedon an Emmy for best screenplay and direction, but won't), and barreled into the homestretch with bruising meditations on female sexuality, sexual orientation, midlife depression and, oh yes, good vs. evil. "Buffy" has been snubbed for so long, I'd consider a best-drama nomination a victory at this point.

Best actor in a drama
My nominees: Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue"), James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"), Dennis Haysbert ("Now and Again"), Rick Schroder ("NYPD Blue"), Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing")
Last year's winner: Dennis Franz

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Haysbert was a delight as the erudite, inscrutable creator of a government-built superhuman; he crooned a tune ("Fly Me to the Moon," "Ooh Child") when he was happy, could turn icily menacing when he needed to and, in general, carried himself with the air of a man harboring a heartbreaking secret (which we never did learn, thanks to CBS's itchy trigger finger). This should have been a star-making performance. But, no.

I know I called him a dinosaur, but Franz (last year's winner, and the year before, and the year before ...) really earned a nomination this year for his gut-wrenching work in the scene in the chapel in the season finale. His acting partner Schroder continues to amaze, quietly crafting a riveting character (detective Danny Sorenson) out of producer David Milch's obtuse dialogue and maddeningly sketchy back story. We still don't know what childhood trauma left Danny so badly scarred, but Schroder is heartbreaking as this mess of a boy-man.

"The West Wing" boasts one of TV's strongest ensemble casts, but I'd nominate Whitford as a lead actor because his Josh Lyman has emerged as the overcaffeinated embodiment of the show's main theme -- the push and pull between idealism and pragmatism. Besides, I like the way Whitford plays his flirty scenes with his annoying chatterbox of a secretary, Donna; Josh is so busy being (what he thinks is) the suavely cynical boss, he doesn't realize he's completely in love with her.

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My Emmy, however, would go to Gandolfini, who should have won last year, but gave just as powerful and assured a performance this year. In the first season of "The Sopranos," Gandolfini made us trust Tony Soprano, courting us with his endearingly open smile, his funny dirty mouth, his panic attacks and his suburban-dad paunch. He was a mobster, true, but he was also a victim and the guy next door. But in the second season, Gandolfini shrewdly used all that love and trust, all our sympathy, to make us complicit in the brutal murders Tony commits; he made us question why we identify so deeply with such a bad man. This is one of the most impeccably thought-out performances (yet still full of life) I've ever seen. I'll bet you a box of ziti that the academy voters will echo the Golden Globes and give Gandolfini his due.

Best actress in a drama
My nominees: Khandi Alexander ("The Corner"), Linda Cardellini ("Freaks and Geeks"), Margaret Colin ("Now and Again"), Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), Sarah Michelle Gellar ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer")
Last year's winner: Edie Falco

This is a rich category. Alexander, who played a classy newscaster on "NewsRadio," did a 180 in HBO's series "The Corner." As a conniving Baltimore junkie, Alexander was all but physically unrecognizable -- except for her eyes, which burned with yearning for something better than the next fix. I loved the underappreciated Colin in "Now and Again" as a widowed mother trying to pick up the pieces without losing the memory of her husband's voice, touch, presence. Newcomer Cardellini was indelible as the heart of "Freaks and Geeks," teenager Lindsay Weir, a brilliant student who couldn't ignore the temptations of the wider world.

Last year's very deserving winner, Falco, had more screen time this season, and her Carmela Soprano emerged as an even tougher cookie than we thought. A shrewd package of contradictions and calculations, Carmela is beating husband Tony at his own game, and he doesn't even know it. Falco is totally fabulous and ought to win a second Emmy. I'd have to declare a tie in this category between Falco and Gellar, who also deserves an Emmy because ... well, damn it, she's the Slayer! Of course, I don't expect Gellar's wonderfully consistent, tough, funny, lyrical work to be acknowledged. Not when the Emmy voters have the chance to hand fave Sela Ward (a 1994 best-actress winner for "Sisters" and a shoo-in for "Once & Again") another nomination.

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Best supporting actor in a drama
My nominees: James Franco ("Freaks and Geeks"), Anthony Stewart Head ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), Michael Imperioli ("The Sopranos"), David Proval ("The Sopranos"), John Spencer ("The West Wing")
Last year's winner: Michael Badalucco ("The Practice")

The ensemble cast of "Freaks and Geeks" was so wondrous, I could have nominated six other guys in this category, but I'll give the nod to Franco, who played dope-smoking, class-flunking freak Danny Desario. Franco turned what could have been a Fonzie knockoff into a surprisingly complex character; his joy at discovering his inner geek -- and maybe a direction in life -- after banishment to the A.V. lab in the series' last episode was one of the season's sweetest moments. Imperioli continued to steal scenes on "The Sopranos" as intellectually challenged aspiring screenwriter and wannabe made man Christopher Moltisanti. Proval was a satisfyingly menacing presence as Tony Soprano's nemesis Richie Aprile. Richie got under Tony's skin because he was a less refined, crueler, trigger-happier version of himself, and Proval chillingly played the scary bad guy to the hilt, thoroughly unsettling Tony by staring at him with (as Tony called them) "Manson" eyes.

Spencer is terrific as Leo McGarry, the president's embattled chief of staff; a recovering alcoholic and painkiller addict, Leo bravely soldiers on, ready to fall on his sword if he becomes too much of a liability to the administration. Spencer makes Leo everything a dedicated right-hand man should be. A familiar face from his days on "L.A. Law," Spencer seems a lock to get nominated for real, and he'd have a good chance to win, too. So I'm giving my Emmy to Head, who has no chance to be noticed at all. I know, I know -- I picked Head last year. But this year, Head really earned it for his portrayal of Buffy's displaced watcher, Giles, as a man in the throes of a midlife funk. Adrift, distracted, self-deprecating and endlessly sad, Giles hit bottom this season: Who knew a WB show could be so sympathetic to a geezer's identity crisis? Head gets extra points for Giles' depressed guitar folkie renditions of "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Free Bird."

Best supporting actress in a drama
My nominees: Lara Flynn Boyle ("The Practice"), Alyson Hannigan ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), Allison Janney ("The West Wing"), Camryn Manheim ("The Practice"), Aida Turturro ("The Sopranos")
Last year's winner: Holland Taylor ("The Practice")

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Here's an Emmy conundrum: Where do you put an actress like Charisma Carpenter, who gives a dazzling comedic performance in a drama (WB's "Angel")? Until the academy overhauls its rigid categories, left over from the days when comedies were always funny and dramas were always serious, performances like Carpenter's (and James Marsters' in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") will go unacknowledged.

Regarding Boyle's slashing performance as overzealous "Practice" prosecutor Helen Gamble, I think my colleague Charles Taylor put it best when he described her as (I'm paraphrasing) being eaten alive by the desire for vengeance. Past winner Manheim remains an intriguing presence on "The Practice" as kick-ass attorney Ellenor Frutt; I'd nominate her for her fiery, eloquent American Sign Language-enhanced work on the season finale. Last year, Nancy Marchand of "The Sopranos" was robbed of the Emmy in this category for her towering work as Livia. Emmy voters may try to make up for their shameful lapse by nominating her again this year, but the sad fact is that she just wasn't in the show enough this season to make the same kind of impact. I'd nominate instead Turturro, who hit the ground running when she joined "The Sopranos" as Tony's prodigal sister Janice. Although her cagey character was written out of the show in a too-hasty resolution, Turturro was a kick to watch; the sibling love-hate chemistry between Janice and Tony sparked like Roman candles.

I can't choose between Hannigan and Janney, so I'm declaring another tie. In brainy, witch-in-training Willow Rosenberg, Hannigan has created one of the most lovable sidekicks in recent TV history -- a tad ditsy, but brave enough to follow her pal Buffy into battle. This year, Hannigan gave us a beautiful portrayal of a young woman testing her powers and discovering another side to her sexual identity. Janney as presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg reminds me a lot of Willow; besides the fact that, facially, Janney and Hannigan could pass for mother and daughter (or an older/younger version of the same woman), C.J. and Willow both have awkward charm, tomboy spunk and a nerdy fear of being regarded as not smart or cool enough. Janney is a true find; if Emmy voters don't nominate her this year, we should all write our elected officials and demand an official inquiry.

Of course, all of this is moot because five-time Emmy winner Tyne Daly is back on TV in a supporting role on "Judging Amy." And, as it says here in the Emmy rulebook: "Whenever Tyne Daly is nominated for anything, she must win."

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Best comedy series
My nominees: "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS), "The King of Queens" (CBS), "Sex and the City" (HBO), "The Simpsons" (Fox), "Will & Grace" (NBC)
Last year's winner: "Ally McBeal" (Fox)

"Will & Grace" is a gay old time. "The King of Queens" is a sharp-witted and unsappy look at marriage before children. "The Simpsons" continues to take no prisoners as it peerlessly lampoons, well, everything. But my top two sitcoms are "Sex and the City," for its effervescent girlie talk and piercing observations about dating, sex, marriage, work, love and the trouble with men, and "Raymond," for its ever-darker humor as it perfectly captures the daily horrors of family life (not to mention the trouble with men). The most consistently funny sitcom on TV, "Raymond" has deserved the Emmy for the past two years and come up empty. I'm worried that voters will overlook it again this year in favor of Fox's overpraised, noisy, human cartoon, "Malcolm in the Middle," which strains to be a combination of "Raymond" and "The Simpsons" but lacks either show's intelligence and nerve. Sigh.

Best actor in a comedy
My nominees: Drew Carey ("The Drew Carey Show"), Bryan Cranston ("Malcolm in the Middle"), Kevin James ("The King of Queens"), Eric McCormack ("Will & Grace"), Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond")
Last year's winner: John Lithgow ("3rd Rock From the Sun")

Man, this is a weak category. I suppose I could beef it up with the addition of Kelsey Grammer, but, really, hasn't he won enough Emmys? I like Carey's easygoing charm, and James' too. Cranston is guaranteed a nomination, thanks to the bizarreness of his character, Malcolm's ineffectual, back-hair-laden dad Hal. But Cranston did win me over with the episode in which Hal performed a routine from his glory days as a disco roller-skater. McCormack is the weakest link in the "Will & Grace" foursome, but he does have a way with a saucy retort. I'd give the Emmy to Romano because he has actually improved as an actor since "Raymond" debuted and because he has created one of TV's great wusses. Ray Barone is the most infuriating, pathetic, mixed-up mama's boy since Anthony Perkins in "Psycho," except a lot funnier.

Best actress in a comedy
My nominees: Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle"), Debra Messing ("Will & Grace"), Sarah Jessica Parker ("Sex and the City"), Leah Remini ("The King of Queens")
Last year's winner: Helen Hunt ("Mad About You")

Messing is a gifted screwball comedian, Remini a delightful smart-mouthed firecracker. I adore Parker as Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City" -- she sparkles, she pops, she breaks your heart. She is eminently Emmy-worthy. But I think it's time to let Heaton -- who should have won last year -- feel the love. Heaton's long-suffering, combustible Debra Barone is one of the great female sitcom originals. With perfectly timed sarcasm and judicious use of the exasperated eye roll, Heaton is the perfect foil for Romano's silly ass of a spouse. Yet Heaton is careful not to let Debra cross the line into strident man-bashing. She is achingly believable as an overburdened wife, mother and daughter-in-law who can occasionally still find the grace to remember that this is the life she always wanted. Without perennial winner Hunt to spoil the party, this could be Heaton's year -- except that I think Emmy voters will pass her over again in favor of Parker (who won a Golden Globe this year) or Kaczmarek, who plays a larger-than-life suburban mom in "Malcolm."

Best supporting actor in a comedy
My nominees: Peter Boyle ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Sean Hayes ("Will & Grace"), Jerry Stiller ("The King of Queens")
Last year's winner: David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier")

Why is the men's comedy category so weak? Aren't men funny anymore? Hayes is, for sure, as the queenly Jack on "Will & Grace"; he lights up a room, as any great diva should. Boyle and Stiller are the most hilarious curmudgeons in prime time. But this was Garrett's year; the writers of "Raymond" wrote a classic setup for his character, neurotic galoot Robert, and Garrett ran with it. Robert, a police officer, was gored in the rear by a runaway bull and had to go back to his parents' house for a long recuperation; sapped of what little self-esteem he had, Robert spent most of the season regressing into an enormous adolescent sad sack with a grudge against Ray, their mom's favorite. Garrett gets my Emmy, hands down. By the way, I could have had five nominees if I had added Hyde Pierce to the bunch, but as much as the guy still makes me chuckle at Niles' prissy-diva ways, I think he has won, like, 12 Emmys by now and it's time to stop.

Best supporting actress in a comedy
My nominees: Kristin Davis ("Sex and the City"), Leslie Grossman ("Popular"), Tammy Lynn Michaels ("Popular"), Megan Mullaly ("Will & Grace"), Doris Roberts ("Everybody Loves Raymond")
Last year's winner: Kristen Johnston ("3rd Rock From the Sun")

Ooh, what a sassy bunch this is! Grossman's scheming cheerleader from hell, Mary Cherry, and Michaels' bitchy arbiter of high school social standing, Nicole, made an impressive debut this year on "Popular," WB's wicked teen comedy. Davis clicked into focus this season as her ladylike "Sex" character, Charlotte, became even more frighteningly funny in her strenuous quest to find a husband. Mullaly of "Will & Grace" showed how good she is at being bad with her divine performance as drunken, slutty social climber Karen. If anybody's casting "The Mae West Story," Mullaly's your gal. As Marie Barone on "Raymond," Roberts is the grande dame of sitcom matriarchs; she continues to steal scenes with her portrayal of the suffocating, guilt-tripping mother with the "Who, me?" smile. Roberts should have won last year (and the year before); I'm giving her my Emmy as a consolation prize.


Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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