Awards show signals end of summer and start of a new fall season


August 30, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Will Candice Bergen reply to Vice President Dan Quayle if she wins? Will Kirstie Alley try to top her oh-god-what-will-she-say-next acceptance speech of last year when she thanked her husband "for the big one"? And will Roseanne Arnold dress for success or dress to make sure America sees the tattoo near the top of her left breast that she's forever talking about?

And that's just one category -- best actress in a comedy series. What if "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" wins for best variety, music or comedy program? Will everybody weep buckets because Johnny's show is no more? And what if "Late Night With David Letterman" wins? Will Letterman use the podium to trash NBC as he regularly does on his show?

It's Emmy night, and that means the new fall season's first major serving of fresh TV pleasures. The Emmy telecast (tonight at 8 on WBFF, Channel 45) means different things and offers different pleasures to different viewers, of course. But, despite monumental changes in viewer lifestyles and cycles of TV programming in recent years, one thing the telecast still announces to just about everybody is that summer is over and the new TV season is about to begin.

The first, great pleasure of the telecast is that it's live and ope to all the possibilities listed above and an endless variety of others. Consider the hosts. Fox is offering three -- Dennis Miller, Tim Allen and Ms. Alley. Allen is considered a loose cannon in Hollywood. And Will Miller go ballistic about his show recently being canceled and rip Jay Leno as he's been doing in interviews lately?

In a world where everything from national political conventions to wars in the Persian Gulf seem scripted for television, appetites grow for events that are live and somewhat open-ended. This is the great appeal of TV sports and the main reason for its continued audience growth. It is also something that Fox seems to understand better than any of the other networks. One result of that understanding is that Fox is enjoying ratings running 10 percent to 15 percent higher for its live episodes of "Roc" this year than taped versions of the show averaged last season.

Another great pleasure of the Emmy telecast is the way that it serves as a source of next-day gossip.

Gossip is often dismissed as trivial. But we are beginning to see that such thinking is mainly a product of the discourse of patriarchy, which says men talk about important stuff, while women merely gossip.

But gossip has always been an important part of the TV viewing experience. Next-day gossip is part of how we make sense of, get pleasure from, and connect what happens on the screen to our own lives. Talking about soap operas, for example, is half the fun of watching them. It's the same with "Murphy Brown."

Live, off-the-wall or outrageous behavior makes for some of the best gossip. The great topic the morning after the Oscar telecast was not which film won but whether Jack Palance was a wonderful eccentric or some kind of crackpot with a thing for one-handed push-ups.

The part of that next-day discussion about who won is fun, too. What would a major awards show be without second-guessing and controversy?

The pre-telecast controversy this year is about actors who appeared in guest roles being nominated by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in the same categories as actors who have appeared in every episode of a series. Thus, Kirk Douglas, who appeared in one episode of "Tales From the Crypt," might win the award for best actor in a drama series over Rob Morrow of "Northern Exposure" or Sam Waterston of "I'll Fly Away."

But the greatest pleasures of television are often those that we least understand. And, I think, the Emmy telecast has some of them, too. They are connected with the way the show

announces the end of summer and the start of the fall TV season.

For some viewers, tonight's telecast will be like attending the big bonfire and pep rally before the first game of the fall football season. All the players are back on campus and standing up onstage looking terrific and ready to have a great season.

In a business sense, it's the industry's way of firing us up for the opening kickoff of the new season, saying, "Summer's over, and we're back. It's time for you to come on back to your TV sets."

In a psychological sense, there is reassurance for some in seeing Murphy Brown, Roseanne Conner and Sam Malone again, especially since so many longtime characters and performers, like Cliff Huxtable and Carson, signed off with final episodes last spring.

Michael Arlen, former TV critic of the New Yorker, has suggested that major awards shows, like those for the Emmy and the Oscar, are a new kind of parade for the television age, featuring film and TV stars instead of European royalty.

"Our processional avenues are no longer the streets of our great cities, but the airwaves . . . through which images of the paraders are now displayed," Arlen wrote in "The Camera Age."

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