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Favorites upset when voters feed underdog

'Law,' 'Fences,' Wagner wins make show exciting

Lindsay Wagner had bionic powers but even she would’ve been hard pressed to predict an Emmy for best actress in a drama series in 1977.

Wagner’s win is one in a line of upsets that make the show worth watching if only to see if a favorite will be knocked off or if an upstart will be walking proudly to the podium to receive hardware.

There have been other significant surprises over the past 20 years, but one of the most shocking came in 1993 when David E. Kelley’s upstart show “Picket Fences” defeated “Northern Exposure” for best drama. “Exposure” came into the evening with 16 nominations and walked away with zero, zilch, nothing, nada. Ouch.

“The win for ‘Picket Fences’ was a huge shocker,” says David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News. “Emmy voters are almost like the Balkans, splintering into different factions, and that worked against ‘Northern Exposure.'”

Howard Rosenberg, longtime TV critic and columnist at the Los Angeles Times, thought the voters made a wrong call there but understood how it happened.

“I remember the first season of ‘Northern Exposure’ was out of sight. I thought the first season had a certain ambiance that did something for me. ‘Picket Fences’ was one of those shows that aspired to greatness,” says Rosenberg, who readily admits he’s not a big Kelley fan. “Remember, they only have to submit one episode and that can be a dynamite episode.”

Staying in the drama category, a few years later “Law & Order,” a longtime nominee that had never won, defeated powerhouses “ER” and “NYPD Blue.”

A proper choice Rosenberg says, but it stunned the assembled crowd at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

“‘Law & Order’ is probably my favorite drama on TV,” he says. “I rarely remembering seeing an episode when I wasn’t mesmerized by it.”

On the comedy side, “The Wonder Years” defeated “Cheers” in 1988, and three years prior, “The Golden Girls” defeated “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show.”

It would be hard to argue that “Wonder Years” wasn’t a quality show and deserving of kudos, but like “Ally McBeal” recently, there were discussions as to whether the show was placed in the proper category.

“Was ‘Wonder Years’ really a comedy?” asks Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Phil Rosenthal. “It’s a drama. It ended up in that category because it’s a half-hour show. The Emmys have this uncanny knack to be susceptible to shows that touch us. ‘The Wonder Years’ had an easier time doing that than being a comedy.”

In 1989, Richard Mulligan (“Empty Nest”) took home honors for best actor in a comedy when he upset “Cheers” Ted Danson. It was Danson’s eighth consecutive defeat.

“If you look at the people who win in comedy, it’s the loudest people,” Bianculli says. “The subtle characters don’t always win. It’s a different kind of work.”

Says Rosenthal, “My only explanation is that Richard Mulligan must be a swell guy.”

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