The 50th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards

In recalling his favorite television moment, Emmy presenter Mark Harmon chose Mark McGwire's 62nd home run. As the actor detailed the event, the audience applauded, and it was clear that the moment had become as much a TV memory as a sports achievement. The 50th annual Emmy Awards accented those links between past and present, between the universal and the personal, and between the real world and TV-as-chronicler-of-our-time -- and those connections gave the kudocast a strong advantage over its Emmy predecessors.

In recalling his favorite television moment, Emmy presenter Mark Harmon chose Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run. As the actor detailed the event, the audience applauded, and it was clear that the moment had become as much a TV memory as a sports achievement. The 50th annual Emmy Awards accented those links between past and present, between the universal and the personal, and between the real world and TV-as-chronicler-of-our-time — and those connections gave the kudocast a strong advantage over its Emmy predecessors.

Sprawling in scope, the four-hour show was heavy on film clips, which placed historical moments side by side with some of TV’s goofiest fictional characters. Gilligan shared a moment with Martin Luther King Jr. in a montage chronicling the 1960s: absurd, yes, but somehow an accurate depiction of TV.

The 50th Emmys first and foremost celebrated TV’s ability to bring the world into our living rooms. The evening’s montages excelled at exploring the ability of TV to unite people on a grand scale, from conversations around watercoolers to town hall debates. (Special Film clip sequences were from Patricia Manze, James Moll, June Beallor.)

Exec producer Don Mischer, supervising producer Michael B. Seligman, coordinating producer Danette Herman, director Louis J. Horvitz and the team of writers clearly saw that this 50th anniversary was an opportune time to go after tears, celebrating TV’s most famous characters and news flashes — and they did so in graceful and educating fashion.

Show’s p.o.v. was decidedly baby-boomer, from voices of the Middle America fans-at-large to Michael Richards’ tribute to L.A. kid fave from the ’60s, Sheriff John.

In this no-host marathon, Bob Costas led off the evening by taking random categories and, true to his sportscaster persona, characterizing them as heated contests. The first presenter, Chris Rock, established a winning tone by delivering a comic zinger — a cigar as a comedy prop — as well as recounting his own personal recollection of TV. (In all, the evening’s Clinton joke total: Two.)

Comedians David Spade, Ellen DeGeneres and Michael Richards hit, respectively, with biting, personal and downright wacky routines.

David Duchovny and Garry Shandling extended a routine started on last season’s “Larry Sanders Show.” Inside, sure, but funny for those in the know.

When Milton Berle and Sid Caesar flanked a seated Bob Hope, the camera held steady and in their silence the audience’s ovation washed over them. Simplicity, once again, was a winner.

Acceptance speeches were mercifully short — Tom Hanks the best at merging the poignancy and the thank you’s. Drama supporting actor Gordon Clapp of “NYPD Blue” joked, “I don’t suppose I’ll bring together the country the way Mark McGwire’s homer did.”

So little time was spent on acceptance speeches that the weight of the montages was fully felt. Weakest were the over-sentimentalized: clips of various series’ final episodes, and a quick tribute to stars who have died since the last telecast.

The show also wanted the world to know television has a conscience. In presenting that seg, Tom Brokaw referred to television as “the common denominator” providing “preferred seating at historic occasions.”

Segments benefited from solid, if surprising, musical choices: a loop of U2 ran underneath a montage of the ’60s and the Who’s “Underture” from “Tommy” supported the 1980s. Tom Scott led the band through some quality funk as noms were announced.

The dance troupe Stomp gave a spirited percussion-and-movement perf synchronized to classic clips of, what else, dance and percussion, on a screen behind them. But in the attempt to find the best angle, the performance started to suffer as the dancers no longer jelled with the clips.

The giant “50” setpiece on the stage from production designer Roy Christopher bore a little too much resemblance to the Studio 54 logo, but the bare stage worked well in allowing presenters and winners to get on and off quick.

Entertain and inspire, DeGeneres said during her presentation, and the Emmy Awards drove home that point consistently without beating the viewer over the head.

Presenter Helen Hunt asked, “How responsible and creative will we be?” — a suggestion that television is a role model for children and adults alike (a notion that isn’t so apparent in the current primetime schedules).

But with this perspective in mind, a parent can take solace when a child says, “Lucy Ricardo is my role model,” a comment that there’s a timelessness to characters and that genius is easy to identify on the smallscreen. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, on this night, got that right.

The 50th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards

NBC; Sun. Sep. 13, 7 p.m.

Production: Aired live and taped from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Exec producer, Don Mischer; supervising producer, Michael B. Seligman; coordinating producer, Danette Herman. Director, Louis J. Horvitz. Writers, Stephen Pouliot, Bruce Vilanch, Billy Grundfest, Jon Macks

Cast: Production designer Roy Christopher. Special Film clip sequences, Patricia Manze, James Moll, June Beallor; lighting designer, Bob Dickinson; musical director, Tom Scott. Running time: 4 hours.

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