The 50th Annual Emmy Awards Sunday was an occasion to both honor TV history and to make it.
The record-breaking fifth consecutive “Frasier” victory provided a fitting historical first appropriate for the ceremony’s golden and nostalgia-heavy anniversary.
“Mad About You” star Helen Hunt also broke ground by becoming the first actress to take home the top acting award at the Oscars and the Emmys in the same year. Hunt won the Academy Award in March for her role in “As Good As it Gets,” and she received the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series.
The Emmy ceremony itself highlighted some of the funniest and most poignant moments in TV entertainment, alongside shocking historical news events captured on the small screen.
Memorable clips of the Challenger explosion, the lunar landing, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Kennedy assassination mingled with memories of the Who Shot J.R.? episode of “Dallas,” latenight emcee Johnny Carson and “The Flying Nun.”
The death Sunday of former Alabama governor George Wallace just as the telefilm about his life won three Emmy awards was another example of the strange relationship between news and entertainment.
The Emmy ceremony also was an eclectic mix of highbrow and lowbrow moments, mirroring the diversity and evolution of the medium and its myriad choices and channels.
The rare joint appearance of pioneering TV comedians Bob Hope, Sid Caeser and Milton Berle was sentimental and dignified. Chris Rock’s reference to President Clinton’s sexual cigar episode, David Spade’s joke about getting laid and the animated Hank Hill’s talk of peeing through 50 years of TV represented the newer, and coarser, TV generation.
Actress Christine Lahti, who won for outstanding lead actress in a drama series, delivered an appropriate piece of bathroom humor in reference to her Golden Globe win in January. Her acceptance of the Globe award was delayed because Lahti was stuck in the restroom, but she made sure not to repeat the embarrassing episode.
“Ok, you can unlock the bathrooms now,” she said during her acceptance speech. “The truth is, I haven’t had liquids in a week.”
While the Emmys were in many instances thick with sentiment, several sentimental favorites were passed over for awards.
The departed “Seinfeld” cast members, the late Phil Hartman and Christopher Reeve all came up empty-handed.
Aside from predictable winners like Hunt and “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer, there were surprise victors like supporting drama actress Camryn Manheim, who delivered the evening’s most genuine acceptance speech.
“I have always felt like such a misfit,” Manheim said after winning. “This is for all the fat girls.”
Other underdog winners included lead actor in a drama Andre Braugher, who recently left NBC’s “Homicide,” outstanding supporting comedy actress Lisa Kudrow of “Friends,” and David E. Kelley’s drama series, “The Practice,” which should get some much-needed exposure from the victory.
Canceled frosh drama “Brooklyn South” even picked up the Emmy for best drama direction, by Mark Tinker, and the departed “The Larry Sanders Show” took home a pair of trophies for comedy writing and directing, its second and third Emmys ever out of 58 nominations.
David Letterman, who has struggled against Jay Leno in the latenight wars, also scored his first victory for best variety, music or comedy series.
While unconventional hourlong comedy nominee “Ally McBeal” didn’t upset the more traditional comedy contenders, the ceremony wasn’t entirely without controversy.
HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” won for outstanding miniseries after vigorous opposition from the TV networks to exclude it from the category.
But HBO wasn’t the only cabler to take home Emmy awards this year.
In a sign of the changing TV landscape, cable tallied 27 wins across seven different networks, but didn’t yet challenge the broadcast webs, which garnered 50, including one Emmy for the WB netlet.