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Insightful Notes, Now for the Votes, 06.10.02 ...


What are America’s most influential critics saying this Emmy season? Awards historian Tom O’Neil reports his annual survey.

Emmy nominations are announced July 18. After that, who knows? Maybe we can expect:
•To see a few lucky stiffs. Most TV critics believe that Six Feet Under will loom large among new series contenders.
•To see some fortunate flexibility: versatile new talent in shows like 24, Alias, Scrubs and The Bernie Mac Show.
•To hear gasps of, “Hey, who bumped off The Sopranos?!” The hit HBO mob series sleeps with the fishes this season because its last new episode aired May 20, 2001 — eleven days before the Emmy eligibility period. Expect Tony & Co. back next year, however.
•To see returning favorites that had another strong year. The West Wing “deserves another term,” insists Entertainment Weekly writer Lynette Rice, while The Practice is “definitely appointment viewing.”

Sizing up the past TV year, Associated Press reporter Lynn Elber gives it “a mildly enthusiastic thumbs up,” adding, “I think we saw some brave new shows that took interesting chances creatively and introduced compelling new actors.” But she wonders how those rivals will play at the Emmys. “The shows that tried to do something new — like 24, The Shield and The Andy Richter Show — didn’t find favor with big audiences,” she says. “It’ll be interesting to see what shows up on voters’ radar screens.”

What were the best TV shows of the past season? According to USA Today critic Robert Bianco, they were 24, Once and Again, Alias, Gilmore Girls and Friends.

“It was a good year for dramas,” he says, “but a weak one for sitcoms.” He makes a few exceptions to the judgment, though: “Friends deserves a nomination and deserves to win. It’s rare that we see a show rally so strongly this late in its run. Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc were brilliant. Both of them should be recognized. A nomination for The Osbournes would certainly be interesting if it could be counted in the sitcom category.” At last report, however, it appeared The Osbournes would be classified as reality programming.

The sitcom category witnessed the launch of several other hit series and stars. “Bernie Mac has certainly made a splash and certainly has a chance to get some acknowledgment,” Elber adds.

Scrubs “has earned the right” to a comedy series nomination, according to TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “It’s a smart ensemble that’s put together in a very inventive way.” He does note, however, that it has “one drawback that may hurt it. There’s a sort of frat boy sensibility to the show that may turn off some older voters who think it’s just about kids trying to find places to make out in a hospital.” Roush also points to Reba McEntire as “a breakout new TV star, giving the WB its first hit comedy — that combination could make her an Emmy contender.”

Among new drama series, Roush believes that Six Feet Under “will take over the presence this year that Sopranos had last year. It’s like Emmy bait. It’s quirky and well acted, and sometimes it’s precious and full of itself, but that’s OK because voters love that. It feels important because it deals with the big issues of death and life. I think it’s a slam dunk that Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall and Rachel Griffiths — and possibly Lauren Ambrose — will all get acting nominations.

“I’m fascinated to see how a show like 24 measures up,” Roush adds. “It definitely should get acknowledged. It pulled off everything it set out to do, except to attract a huge audience. But audience aside, I think it demonstrated a terrific new way to construct a narrative for television that built in cliffhangers and used split screens to show you the same thing from multiple points of view. It racheted up the suspense and tension like nothing else I’ve ever seen.”

24 star Kiefer Sutherland — plus Alias topliner Jennifer Garner — were among the season’s new talents to win Golden Globes in January, and that often gets the attention of Emmy voters. “Sutherland and Garner both pulled off big surprises at the Golden Globes and now have earned the right to get Emmy nominations, even though they perform the kind of roles that traditionally don’t get noticed,” Roush says. “They play action heroes, but ones with a complex emotional subtext. That’s something you don’t see very often.” Bianco believes that 24 and Alias deserve to nab bids for best drama series “just because they’re so entertaining.”

The Education of Max Bickford has a blue-chip cast that came to TV with Oscars in their pockets,” Roush adds. “We might see a surprise nomination for Richard Dreyfus or Marcia Gay Harden.”

TVGuide.com reporter Mike Ausiello wouldn’t be surprised to see Jill Hennessy of Crossing Jordan cross over into the ranks of Emmy contenders. In fact, he calls her “a shoo-in” because she’s “the star of a female-driven drama series that’s a hit on NBC. Add all of that up and it virtually guarantees an Emmy nomination. She’s lucky to be competing in a category where there will be at least two major openings thanks to the absence of Sopranos actors Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco.”

All of that fresh TV talent must compete against longtime Emmy faves that have excellent odds to return. Law & Order — “the rock of TV,” says Elber — already holds the record for scoring the most consecutive nominations for best drama show (ten). If it returns, it’ll tie the tally of Cheers and M*A*S*H. Elber thinks that its chances are good, since Law & Order “always seems to find interesting ways to deal with ripped-from-the-headline stories with fresh twists.”

Earlier this TV season, Elber was skeptical that The West Wing could retain its Emmy heat. “I thought it would be really hard for Aaron Sorkin to make that show relevant in the post–September 11 environment,” she says. “I thought that the plot line of a political skirmish over a president who lied to the American public” — which had been introduced before tragedy hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon — “would not resonate and might consume the show this season. Instead, he dealt with that quickly, neatly and interestingly and moved on to focus on the kind of things that have made that show such a solid drama — social issues and glimpses into the psychology and daily lives of the characters.”

Weighing in on other Emmy stalwarts, Elber believes that The Practice had “a pretty good year” and that NYPD Blue was “solid.” USA Today’s Bianco credits Blue’s creative heft to a recent cast addition. “Mark-Paul Gosselaar really deserves a nomination for revitalizing NYPD Blue when everybody went into this year thinking it would be the show’s last,” he says.

The past TV season turned out to be another ratings disappointment for Once and Again, once touted on the cover of TV Guide as “The Best Show You’re Not Watching.”

Once and Again deserves some kudos, especially for the young cast members like Evan Rachel Wood, Shane West and Julia Whelan,” says Entertainment Weekly’s Rice. Bianco singles out Susanna Thompson as deserving of special notice, too.

Other actors singled out by critics include Anthony Edwards and Eriq LaSalle, who exited ER “with aplomb,” says Rice. Edwards’ character was felled by a brain tumor, an affliction that could’ve tempted the actor to strain for histrionics, but Elber applauds Edwards for “underplaying it so nicely that you caught the humanity of that character.”

Also on the critics’ list: Denis Leary (The Job), CCH Pounder (The Shield), Victor Garber (Alias) and the perennial Emmy outsider despite a legion of rabid fans — Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

“Maybe Gellar will finally get a nomination this year since the competition is less fierce without the Sopranos women competing,” says TVGuide.com’s Ausiello. “That would be a bit ironic because the show itself is not at the top of its game since it moved to UPN from the WB. One episode does deserve writing and directing nominations for Joss Whedon, though — the musical episode. It was brilliant — one of the best hours on TV — and Sarah was magnificent in it.”

Another star who’s also failed to score a bid for best drama series actress recently despite heavy lobbying by critics — Lauren Graham of The Gilmore Girls — will not be eligible for that this year. The reason: the show’s producers are “taking the Ally McBeal tack,” according to Elber. They’re submitting the show as a comedy.

As a result of that strategy, “The Gilmore Girls has every chance of making a real splash at the Emmys,” insists Roush. “As a drama, it’s not weighty enough to participate alongside the West Wings. It should do better in the comedy categories — that’s where Lauren Graham can emerge big time.”

Gilmore Girls will compete against last year’s comedy champ Sex and the City, which, ironically, “could compete in the drama series races,” Roush notes. “It was a more dramatic show this year.” Their fiercest rivals may be past champs Will & Grace and Frasier plus the program Roush hails as “the best comedy on the air, week in and week out — Everybody Loves Raymond.” Roush is also a fan of Malcolm in the Middle. “Jane Kaczmarek, Frankie Muniz and Bryan Cranston all deserve nominations,” he insists.

What about the one show that consistently runs off with the ratings — CSI? The critics are divided on how the hit program — which was not nommed for outstanding drama series last year —- will fare. “It’s really a terrific mainstream series — a great police procedural, but the characters are rather thin,” Roush says. “It gets under the skin, but it doesn’t really dig very deep in terms of emotion. It’s hard to say what Emmy voters think of it. Will they want to give a nomination for best drama series just to reward it for being such a breakthrough hit? Maybe.”

What about long forms? “The battle of the miniseries is likely going to pit Band of Brothers against Dinotopia,” predicts Bianco.

Roush expects HBO telefilms to do well this year, as they usually do, with offerings like The Laramie Project, Shot in the Heart and The Gathering Storm. He also cites A&E projects like Shackleton and counts a long list of other worthy features. “I suspect that these categories will look like they usually do — like the History Channel brings you a night at the movies,” Roush says.

And once all of the nominees are known, the voting is done and the envelopes are opened on the night of September 22, who’ll go home with Emmy Awards?

Predicting winners this year is “especially tough,” says Elber. When last year’s Emmy ceremony was held after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the votes had long been counted. “We’re all different people now thanks to a tragedy we witnessed on TV. We think differently — and we’ll never view TV the same again,” Elber adds. “We have to wonder: Will this be a different Emmy year now that we’re in this anticynical, post–September 11 mode?”
Credit: Emmys.com


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