`Wing' wins, but Emmys seem off-key

Awards: The show finally goes on, but it strikes a strange note by going on too long about TV's importance.

November 05, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After two postponements, the 53rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards were finally telecast last night. Not surprisingly, it was a more subdued and purposeful telecast than we are used to seeing.

Still, outside of a blockbuster closing - Barbra Streisand singing as the names of victims of Sept. 11 were projected on the wall behind her - it was also a surprisingly uninspired show given all the emotion connected with the events that caused the postponements.

The big winner was NBC's The West Wing, which started fast and closed strong. The White House drama took three of the first four Emmys awarded: Allison Janney as outstanding supporting actress in a drama series, Bradley Whitford as outstanding supporting actor and Thomas Schlamme for best directing in a drama. The series won the final Emmy of the night as best drama.

HBO's The Sopranos, which led all series with 22 nominations, won three major Emmys. James Gandolfini won as outstanding lead actor in a drama series, while Edie Falco won as outstanding lead actress. The series also won for best writing in a drama.

Eric McCormack of Will & Grace won as outstanding lead actor in a comedy series, with Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond taking home the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy.

The Late Show With David Letterman won as outstanding variety, music or comedy series, while HBO's Wit won Emmys both for Mike Nichols' direction and as the best made-for-TV movie. ABC's Anne Frank took the Emmy as best miniseries, while Judy Davis won for best actress in a movie or miniseries for Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.

But, given the events of Sept. 11 and last night's scaled-down awards ceremony at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles, the awards seemed less important than the telecast itself and the tone it tried to strike - without much success - of an industry responding to a new world order.

The purpose of the show was clearly articulated in the opening sequences - Bill Driscoll leading a choral version of "God Bless America," followed by former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite addressing the audience via satellite.

"This public celebration," Cronkite said, "involves the difficult melding of our deep grief from loss and concern for safety ... with our need to go on."

Like most in the television industry, executive producer Gary Smith was trying to have the Emmy telecast imitate the approach executed so brilliantly by David Letterman when his show returned to the airwaves a week after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. The idea was to start with a serious opening that acknowledges how dramatically the world has changed, situate the show in that new order, and then ease into a more relaxed and comic sensibility with host Ellen DeGeneres.

The opening monologue from DeGeneres was fine.

"Welcome seat fillers, security guards, secret service agents and all you TV stars who we love so much who are watching from home tonight," DeGeneres said in her opening monologue, referring to absent stars and the relocation of event from the Shrine auditorium that seats 6,000 to the Shubert, which seats only 2,000.

DeGeneres deftly shifted the focus from the terrorist attacks to the more particular Hollywood preoccupations with such one-liners as, "They can't take away our creativity, our striving for excellence, or our joy. Only network executives can do that."

She followed that with a reference to her own attire and the ethnicity of many members of the creative community: "Think about it, what would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?"

But it was the industry's penchant for overstatement that most often struck the wrong note. There were too many statements like this from an off-stage narrator's voice: "This telecast honors more than an industry. It honors the cherished freedom that sets us apart as a nation and a people."

Then there was Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, telling us the annual telecast was as important a "cultural touchstone" and "American institution" as baseball and Broadway. He said the telecast was Hollywood "standing up to fear and hate and celebrating the American spirit."

By the time we got to Larry King celebrating Hollywood and Wayne Newton for its USO efforts, it felt too self-serving. The many no-shows - from Gandolfini and Letterman to Mike Nichols and Judy Davis - also undercut the statements of unity and overstated claims of importance for the telecast.

One of the evening's best segments featured Rob Reiner memorializing television performers who died this past year. He smoothly set his remarks and the package of film clips featuring such artists as Carroll O'Connor in the context of the events of Sept. 11.

Falco thanked New York, which was nice. But the evenings' most apt remarks came from Heaton, who thanked the men and women in the armed forces who are overseas "for going out there and making this a country where we can sit here and do this."

It was exactly the tone and perspective that was otherwise so noticeably lacking last night.

THE TOP WINNERS

Best drama series: The West Wing, NBC.

Lead actor in a drama series: James Gandolfini, The Sopranos, HBO.

Lead actress in a drama series: Edie Falco, The Sopranos, HBO.

Supporting actor in a drama series: Bradley Whitford, The West Wing, NBC.

Supporting actress in a drama series: Allison Janney, The West Wing, NBC.

Best comedy series: Sex and the City, HBO.

Lead actor in a comedy series: Eric McCormack, Will & Grace, NBC.

Lead actress in a comedy series: Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS.

Supporting actor in a comedy series: Peter MacNicol, Ally McBeal, Fox.

Supporting actress in a comedy series: Doris Roberts, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS.

Best variety, music or comedy series: Late Show With David Letterman, CBS.

Best miniseries: Anne Frank, ABC.

Best made-for-television movie: Wit, HBO.

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