Having said that, you can't fault the Emmys which once seemed determined to continue nominating the corpse of Dennis Franz for years after his death for not sharing the wealth this year. Two new shows were nominated for best drama ("24" and "Six Feet Under"), and Michael Chiklis was nominated for his first year on FX's morally ambiguous cop drama (which should have gotten "Law & Order's" drama spot, but who are we kidding?). HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" a screamingly funny comedy of neuroses watched by approximately 15 people outside New York and LA, all of whom will write me angry e-mail for that remark surprised everyone by getting a best-comedy nod, along with usual suspects.
These are all reasons to be happy and there were plenty more. Kiefer Sutherland ("24") and Jennifer Garner ("Alias") got deserved nominations for showing us that acting does make a difference, even in action thrillers. (If you ever read a "24" script and then watch what Kiefer's stone-cold-sumbitch performance does for its workmanlike thriller dialogue "Trust me on this one, Nina!" etc. you will be ready to give him not just an Emmy but a Nobel.
The impeccably acted "Six Feet Under" got nominations not just for its traditonal leading-man and -woman types (Peter Krause and Rachel Griffiths) but for its two real standouts, Michael C. Hall and Frances Conroy; the two of them take the kind of repressed characters that creator Alan Ball made into cartoons in "American Beauty" and give them surprise and whimsy and nuance. A supporting-actor slot went to another master of complex repression, "Alias'" Victor Garber, who as Jennifer Garner's enigmatic spy dad communicates more emotion in one tensed frown than Martin Sheen in an entire season of Oval Office curtain-chewing.
The comedy-actress categories were more routine Patricia Heaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Debra Messing, yada yada yada but it was nice to see "Sex and the City's" Cynthia Nixon nominated as Miranda for supporting, and not just Kim Cattrall for the ever-more-drag-queen-like Samantha. (But Lauren Graham, denied a comedy-actress spot for "Gilmore Girls," was robbed. Not only is she so cool and bracing she should wear a speared olive on her head, but given the rat-a-tat hour-long "Gilmore" scripts, she may well have to memorize more dialogue per episode than actors who play Hamlet.)
On the male comedy side, some justice was done: Bernie Mac picked up first-year recognition, though his self-titled show should have been recognized over the spinning-its-wheels "Will & Grace" and the living dinosaur "Everybody Loves Raymond." But this year's There Is a God Award goes to the overdue nomination of Bryan Cranston, the funniest physical comic in sitcomland who redefined the bumbling dad for the sensitive-male era on "Malcolm in the Middle."
Troll down the endless list of Emmy nominations (I haven't finished yet, but I think I may have been nominated for an Emmy) and you find some of the real treats. "Survivor" will square off against TLC's "Trading Spaces" in a "special" category for reality programming. Another reality category (Outstanding Nonfiction Program (Reality)) shows how brilliant and diverse the much-maligned genre has become: "American High," "Frontier House," "Project Greenlight," "The Osbournes," "Taxicab Confessions" and "Trauma: Life in the ER." The midseason comedy gem "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" got a writing nomination while "Six Feet Under," weirdly, got none. And it turns out we critics got it all wrong: NBC's funny-for-the-wrong-reasons chefcom "Emeril" got an Emmy nomination (Outstanding Art Direction for a Multi-Camera Series). Someone must have slipped the judges a little foie gras with their screener tapes.
All in all, there were more surprisingly just nominations than egregious snubs though we might as well admit that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (which is wittier than "The West Wing," more suspenseful than "Law & Order" and more inventive than the slick "CSI") could cure cancer and not get a thank-you from Emmy. (It got a few minor nods for music, makeup and hairstyling.)
But let's not kid ourselves about the prospects come September. "Friends" is probably a shoo-in for comedy, as is Jennifer Aniston (who's certainly deserving enough) for best actress. "The West Wing," which had its weakest season to date, will probably win the drama category, because it has for the last two years. True, "Six Feet Under" got more nominations, but the fact remains that Emmy voters do not like to recognize cable series, period. "Six Feet Under's" situation is especially unusual this year, because it was actually nominated for two seasons in one year: season one, which ran last summer, and season two this spring. One of the usual crybaby complaints the networks make about competing against cable shows is that the cable shows have to make fewer episodes per season (13 for most cable dramas). But this past Emmy year, "Six Feet Under" ran 26 episodes, compared with 22 for the typical network drama. Pretty soon we'll hear the networks whining that that's unfair.
Of course, there is one worthy alternative for non-cable-ready judges. "24" re-imagined the narrative possibilities of network TV with its innovative editing and real-time plot (one day plays out hour by hour over a whole season) but on an old-fashioned broadcast network with commercials. If the judges decide (as they should) that "The West Wing" slipped too far this year to justify the traditional legacy Emmy, giving the award to freshman drama "24" would be one way to acknowledge innovation without giving the award to HBO, which would probably rend a hole in the fabric of space-time. (It's not a likely outcome; the academy did give the drama award to "The West Wing" in its first season, but that's because the only other plausible alternative back then was "The Sopranos" another HBO show.)
If its second season holds up, "24" could get the award next time around, when the Emmys will again be looking for a reason not to give the top slot to "The Sopranos." But like its protagonist Jack Bauer, the show will probably have to wait one very, very long day before that happens.