`Angels' triumph

September 21, 2004

TELEVISION'S Angels in America earned a place in the record books Sunday when its cast and crew fluttered away with 11 Emmys, the most of any miniseries in history and surpassing even the acclaimed Roots. It was a well-deserved victory for the show about life, love, death and AIDS in America in the 1980s - and its awards weren't unexpected. Angels earned big raves from critics (and 21 Emmy nominations) not only for its smart and emotionally powerful script (adapted from Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play) but for the gutsy performances of its stellar cast, including Meryl Streep and Al Pacino.

If only the rest of television were a good as this Home Box Office epic. The premium cable channel has become the Tiffany network of the 21st century. Altogether, HBO took home 32 Emmys, by far the most by any network. And no wonder. HBO's Sunday night lineup has produced the most talked-about TV shows of the past half-decade, including The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Six Feet Under and more.

What became of the network that used to be called Tiffany? CBS won two Emmys. The biggest was for the reality show The Amazing Race, which features two-person teams flying around the world bickering and haranguing airline ticket agents.

HBO has adopted an unusual recipe for success (at least by TV standards): The network aims for quality. That's right. Executives at this upstart firm regard entertainment as some kind of art form. That's heresy to their competitors, who are focused mostly on finding the most debased idea possible for a reality show. (Fox's Trading Spouses seems well ahead in this race to the bottom but no doubt CBS, NBC and ABC will sink deeper soon.)

It's true that as a cable network, HBO doesn't have to appeal to a mass audience nor present original programming every night. But the fact is, HBO has it tougher. The network has to justify its monthly subscription cost. It can't get by with mere mediocrity. Its top-shelf shows might be the reason why so many people are buying big-screen TVs and TiVo recorders.

Television may still be the vast wasteland that Newton Minow described, but people often forget another point the FCC chairman made. "When television is good," he told a group of broadcasters in 1961, "nothing - not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers - nothing is better." Angels in America is proof of that in 2004.

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