Emmy to Dennis Franz: Sit Your Butt Down!

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Used to be a guy knew what to expect from the Emmys. The deserving would falter and the dinosaurs would rule. Dennis Franz would bring home his eighth or ninth award ("Hey honey! How would this look in the laundry room?"). And because I would cynically pick the longest-in-the-tooth, least deserving nominees, I stood a good chance of winning breakfast in bed, in my two-person Emmy pool with my wife, Beth.

This year ended the age of the dinosaurs. I'd like to think that, in some cosmic way, NBC's "Will and Grace" and "The West Wing" owe their Emmy Awards, perversely, to CBS's "Survivor." For if there was an unofficial theme to this year's Emmy Awards, it was fear — fear of reality TV's power to put actors and writers out of work — that scared the ossified academy into changing its voting practices, emerging from its coma and start rewarding quality this year. Reality-phobia was the undercurrent of many of the jokes on stage, belittling "Survivor" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," shows that whipped most of the assembled in the ratings this season. The most pathetic moment of the Emmy broadcast came when the audience of actors wildly cheered host Garry Shandling's declaration that "real people should not be on TV."

As usual, the E! pre-show with Joan Rivers was the most worthwhile part of the event — and even that, this year, was most distinguished by the appearance of practically the entire cast of "Survivor." Newly skinny millionaire Richard Hatch told Joan that the celeb he was most dying to see was Sela Ward — the star of "Once and Again," an ABC show, which statement, under the restrictive contracts CBS signed the Survivors to, was probably worth a $50,000 fine. (On the other hand, maybe not, since CBS also unshackled Jeff Probst to do the expected "Survivor" parody — which, surprisingly, was actually funny — to open ABC's broadcast.)

The first sign this could be a weird night for Emmy came off the bat, when Megan Mullally picked up a supporting actress award for her first nomination for "Will and Grace." A weirder moment came minutes later, when the stellar "Malcolm in the Middle" — a midseason Fox show — won a directing award. (Who thought we'd live to hear a They Might Be Giants song played by the Emmy orchestra?) But the clincher came after the commercial break, when the flame-tastic Sean Hayes of "Will and Grace" stole the David Hyde Pierce Memorial Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, with Mr. Emmy, Pierce himself, as his competition.

This may be an Emmy record: three awards in a row won by people who deserved them, who had not won Emmys five years running. By the time the fourth award, for writing in a comedy series, was in the shocked palms of "Malcolm"'s Linwood Boomer (OK, Paul Feig of "Freaks and Geeks" really deserved it, but this isn't Never-Never-Land) justice had been done. And by now I did not have a single point in my Emmy pool. What next — was Eddie Izzard going to win?

Huh? Oh. Never mind. (Actually, once the hilarious, cross-dressing Izzard won his second Emmy — and "Will and Grace" won Best Comedy Series — it was clear that only gay men had bothered to return their Emmy ballots this year.)

Oh, sure, there were the predictable, boneheaded sentimental nods: Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon and Oprah Winfrey's production company for "Tuesdays With Morrie" — you know, for having the rare courage to make a TV adaptation of the biggest-selling book in the history of the printed word. But even some of the perplexing choices — e.g., Sela Ward in the increasingly dull and blubbery "Once and Again" — at least went for a change to new series.

The shocking tally went on and on: "The West Wing"'s brilliantly subtle Richard Schiff took home the supporting award he's deserved since appearing in "Relativity." "The West Wing"'s Allison Janney won over Tyne Daly and Stockard Channing — two actresses whom the laws of physics decree must win whenever nominated and so must have canceled each other out — and the deceased, and robbed last year, Nancy Marchand of "The Sopranos." (Incidentally, why the hell did the Emmy producers show Marchand not as Livia Soprano but apparently with a still photo from "Lou Grant"?) For God's sake, most of the jokes were even funny.

In short, for the first year in many, the Emmys left us little to complain about. Of course, I'm going to complain anyway, because I'm a critic and that's my job.

I like "The West Wing." I like it a lot. I have to say this, because it's true; because I work at a newsmagazine, where my co-workers entertain the quaint, outdated illusion that electoral politics is one of the most important influences on American lives and pretty much to a person worship the show; and because the critical love-fest for "The West Wing" this season is such that were I not to like the show, a lot, I would probably have to return my TV critic's decoder's badge.

But that idealistic White House drama was not the best drama nominated this year. That would be "The Sopranos," the mob drama whose screwing-over at last year's Emmys may have precipitated this year's voting changes. The showdown between “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos” was a showdown between nice and nasty, between inspiration and executions, between feel-good TV and art. And even in a year of experimentation, the academy is not quite ready to get in the car with Tony Soprano.

[Incidentally, before you start writing your j'accuse about my defending a show on HBO, owned by TIME's parent Time Warner, "The West Wing" also is a Warner Bros. show, so it's pretty much a wash for the world-devouring conglomerate that issues my paycheck.]

"The West Wing" is one of TV's best dramas, but an overrated one nonetheless; a wittily written, brainy, impeccably played but at times implausible series which has won TV critics' hearts so decisively that they seem willfully blind to its obvious flaw. Namely, that it tries way too hard to win your heart. The show is praised, and rightly, for dealing with politics without easy and useless cynicism. But it's done so by producing a cast of political staffers so righteous, brave and morally unconflicted, that their only flaws are caring too damn much about their jobs and the American people.

To suggest that there are some people like that on a White House staff is refreshing. But to suggest that everybody on the staff — people who have survived the Darwinian selection of party politics — could be like that is a fantasy, made watchable only by Aaron Sorkin's brilliant, funny writing. Remember Mandy Hampton, Moira Kelly's ruthless political consultant? You might not, since after the first few episodes, she faded into the background and was finally written out — because Sorkin couldn't, or wouldn't, take this risk of getting a mass audience to understand, maybe even sympathize with, somebody we wouldn't want to speak to our kids' third grade class.

In other words, "The West Wing" is a romance, not a love romance but a political one, and Hollywood loves romances, especially when its own biases are being courted — not to go all Limbaugh on you, but if you think the show would have been applauded as loudly for portraying conservative Republicans, I've got a presidential monument to sell you. More to the point, the show is in love with its characters' idealism at the expense of the reality it otherwise strains to maintain (I mean, you had to love it for creating an episode around census sampling).

In one of the most praised episodes of the year, for instance, the Bartlet administration is shaken by a scathing memo that says President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was hurting his chances for re-election by not being liberal enough. Critics fell over themselves praising the cornball ending, in which one staffer after another pledged to fight the good fight because "I serve at the pleasure of the President," without noting that the episode's premise was flat-out bogus to anyone who's watched a news program in the last eight years. What can you expect from a town full of people who thought Warren Beatty could get elected president?

The problem isn't bias. No TV series is obligated to be as neutral as the Commission on Presidential Debates, and besides, if the series were hopelessly slanted, it wouldn't make the top 20 regularly. The problem is that the show's relentless niceness is, dramatically, a cheat, one that's unbecoming of this otherwise excellent show. To make audiences root for characters like those in the “The West Wing,” who arrange burials for homeless vets and pull all-nighters for causes they believe in, is as hard as making audiences cry when Bambi's mother dies. To make audiences root for, or at least care about, “The Sopranos”' morally ambiguous-to-evil characters is true genius of the kind that makes Emmy's voters uncomfortable. That's the difficult middle ground between "The West Wing" and the nasty "Survivor," where true art exists. (The academy may have nodded to this by choosing James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano, as lead actor/drama over Martin Sheen, whose President Josiah Bartlet is really a supporting role, nuclear codes or no nuclear codes.)

There were other factors working in "The West Wing"'s favor. "The Sopranos" is on HBO, and if there's one thing that scares network creatives as much as reality TV, it's pay cable. “The Sopranos”’ second season was a little weaker than the first, running into some plodding stretches. But “Sopranos” wasn't competing against its own first season, it was competing against “The West Wing” — which, fine as it is, is not yet in the same league.

Having said all that, the bottom line is: at least they didn't pick "ER." "The West Wing" did easily outclass most of its broadcast TV competition, and if the academy's gotten loose enough to honor a first-year drama, that's a great sign, even if it happened a year late. The righteous, for the most part, have been rewarded.

And this year, I will be serving Beth breakfast in bed.