Who does Buffy have to slay to get an Emmy nomination?

The lamest awards show in the land stiffs the best show on TV -- again.

Published July 12, 2001 7:19PM (EDT)

She saved the world a lot, but that just doesn't cut it with Emmy voters. Despite a superb season capped by two of the most talked-about episodes of any drama series this year, not to mention a vigorous grassroots "give 'em an Emmy" campaign by fans, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has earned a grand total of zero Emmy nominations.

The shut-out came as a bit of a shock, given the universal praise for creator/writer Joss Whedon's "death of Buffy's mom" episode, "The Body." (Last year, Whedon did win an out-of-left-field writing nomination for the episode "Hush.")

But, then, this is the Emmys we're talking about, the lamest awards show in the land. In writing, directing and acting, "Buffy" towered over every drama in primetime this season, with the exception of "The Sopranos," but the dust-covered relics who make these nominations can't get their heads around a show with "Vampire" in the title. Or maybe it's the "Buffy" part that throws them off.

Anyway, this was probably the last chance for "Buffy" and star Sarah Michelle Gellar to score a nomination; the show moves to UPN next season and if you think Emmy voters are snobs when it comes to the WB ...

As for the shows that did get nominated Thursday, well, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences hardly needed to bother with an announcement -- it could have just dug up a tape of last year's nomination proceedings and hit rewind. On awards night last September, Emmy voters took a baby step forward, casting an uncharacteristically wide net and bestowing trophies on deserving first-timers like James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos," Patricia Heaton of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and Allison Janney and Richard Schiff of "The West Wing." This year's nominations, though, show the academy members spinning their wheels in one of their familiar ruts.

The five nominees for best drama series are the same as least year: "ER" (NBC), "The Practice" (ABC), "Law & Order" (NBC), "The West Wing" (NBC) and "The Sopranos" (HBO). No "Buffy," of course, but then, no nods for highly-touted newcomers "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS) or "Gilmore Girls" (WB), either, or for TV Guide's "best show you're not watching," "Once & Again" (ABC). Look, I'm no huge fan of those shows, but I'd take any two of them over "ER" and "The Practice," which had ridiculous seasons filled with improbable and mega-melodramatic storylines.

Not that "ER," "The Practice" or "Law & Order" have a prayer when the awards are handed out on CBS on Sept. 16. This is strictly between "The Sopranos," which leads all shows this year with a huge 22 nominations, and "The West Wing," which won a record nine Emmys last year, including best drama. And this time, it's personal: while "The West Wing" racked up Emmy after Emmy last year, "The Sopranos," nominated for 18 awards, won only one, the best lead actor trophy for Gandolfini (Tony Soprano).

This year, "The Sopranos" and "West Wing" go one-on-one in the directing and writing categories. "The Sopranos" has the edge over "West Wing": David Chase's mob series outdrew Aaron Sorkin's White House drama three nominations to two for directing and a whopping four nominations to one in the writing category.

The "Sopranos" episodes nominated for the writing Emmy are "Second Opinion" (Carmela sees a shrink), "Pine Barrens" (Paulie and Christopher's dark night of the soul), "Amour Fou" (Tony and Gloria's affair gets messy) and "Employee of the Month" (Dr. Melfi is raped). "West Wing" gets its writing nod for the assassination-attempt episode, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen."

The impressive showing for "The Sopranos" is a surprise, considering the amount of criticism the show took this season for its supposed offensive stereotyping of Italian Americans and its violent and allegedly misogynistic storylines. The season's most controversial episode, "University," in which Ralph Cifaretto beat his pregnant girlfriend to death in a graphic depiction of his profound rottenness, received a nomination for director Allen Coulter. And Emmy voters rewarded the women of "The Sopranos" handsomely for their troubles. In addition to Edie Falco (Carmela) and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) earning best actress nods for their emotionally shattering work, Aida Turturro (Janice Soprano) received a best supporting actress nomination and Annabella Sciorra, who played Gloria, Tony's difficult mistress, earned a nod in the guest actress category.

The supporting actor category is all "Sopranos" and "West Wing" as well, with last year's "West Wing" winner, Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), joined by castmates Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman) and John Spencer (Leo McGarry), and "Sopranos" actors Dominic Chianese (Junior Soprano) and Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti). I would have knocked off Uncle Junior and gone with Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) for his fine work in the "Pine Barrens" episode, where spiffy and smooth Paulie becomes slowly unhinged with paranoia, but whaddaya gonna do?

It's heartening to see Emmy voters refusing to be swayed by either anti-"Sopranos" sentiment or the burgeoning anti-HBO backlash within the industry. (Once again, HBO led all networks in nominations with 94.) But I think it's a safe bet that, when it comes down to the final ballot, the academy is going to vote for the more "uplifting" choice for drama series. "The West Wing" is in for a second term, there's no doubt.

As for the acting categories, they remind me of apartment hunting in New York -- you don't get a good one unless somebody dies. For the lead actor in a comedy, the slot occupied by last year's winner Michael J. Fox opened up when Fox quit "Spin City." In goes lucky Frankie Muniz of "Malcolm in the Middle," but the other four nominees remain the same as last year: John Lithgow ("3rd Rock from the Sun"), Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Eric McCormack ("Will & Grace") and Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier"). The good news for next year is that "3rd Rock" has finally been cancelled. The bad news is that voters will probably find a way to keep on nominating Lithgow.

The same "one out, one in" process was at work in the lead drama actress category, where four of the nominees (Falco, Bracco, Amy Brenneman for "Judging Amy" and 2000 winner Sela Ward for "Once & Again") stay the same, while the Julianna Margulies slot goes to Marg Helgenberger of "CSI." That's right, Marg Helgenberger, not Sarah Michelle Gellar. Helgenberger's work, which runs the gamut from tough-bitchy to tender-bitchy, was so much more deserving than the soulful, multi-dimensional character Gellar has been honing for the past four seasons, wasn't it?

And, since I feel a rant coming on, how is it that all of the actors from "The Practice" and "Law & Order" who were nominated last year -- Michael Badalucco, Steve Harris, Holland Taylor, Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach -- can drop off the list of nominees this year, yet the shows still get best drama series nods?

Anyway, there was one minor shocker in the best comedy series category, when the academy gave the "Friends" slot to "Malcolm in the Middle," but the other four nominees ("Sex and the City," "Frasier," "Raymond" and last year's winner, "Will & Grace") remain unchanged. I would have scratched "Frasier" or "Malcolm" for HBO's dark and hilarious "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which was easily the best comedy series of the year. But then, I'm sure the academy voters didnt mean to ignore "Curb." I'm sure they just feel that creator/star Larry David hasn't really, you know, paid his dues in the biz yet. But, listen, he's a fresh, young unknown whose day will come. Maybe he'll even go on to create the great American sitcom or something!

In the supporting comedy actor category, poor Brad Garrett of "Raymond" -- who had an outstanding year -- gets sacrificed so that sure-thing Robert Downey Jr. can get his nomination for "Ally McBeal." Downey deserves it, but I would have spared Garrett and knocked off his castmate Peter Boyle, whose Frank is growing tiresome. Those "Ally" folks also spoiled things for Jenna "Dharma" Elfman, a two-time nominee who gets booted from the lead comedy actress list to make room -- a tiny bit of room, albeit -- for Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal. In the supporting categories for drama, Alyson Hannigan (Willow) and James Marsters (Spike) of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ... did not get nominated.

Besides James Gandolfini, President Martin Sheen ("The West Wing") and perennial nominee (and three time winner) Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue"), there are two new names on the best lead drama actor list this year: Rob Lowe for "The West Wing" and Andre Braugher for ABC's defunct medical drama "Gideon's Crossing." Braugher's inclusion was expected, even though this was a role that brought out the fussy worst in him; the academy is making up for all those years he should have won for "Homicide," but didn't. Lowe's nomination however is, um, surprising, to put it nicely. Anthony Edwards of "ER," who had one of those seasons that usually get actors nominated (brain tumor, wedding, birth of child, murder of patient), comes up empty-handed; castmate Maura Tierney, however, gets a well-deserved supporting nod for enduring an over-acting Sally Field yelling in her face for much of the season.

In the new expanded non-fiction programming categories, the peerlessly cheesy "E! True Hollywood Story" gets a nomination (hey, now we're talking!), going up against Fox/PBS's "American High," the Learning Channel's "Trauma: Life in the ER," Bravo's "The Awful Truth" and HBO's "Taxicab Confessions." In the "Non-Fiction Program, Special Class" category, CBS's "Survivor" goes up against Mark Burnett's "Eco-Challenge" (Discovery Channel), MTV's "Road Rules," the Learning Channel's "Junkyard Wars" and VH1's "Bands on the Run." The overhaul of the non-fiction programming categories is the academy's lone concession to the notion that time does not stand still.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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