Critical kudos not always enough

Awards' history fraught with oversight, disagreement with critics

The nation’s TV critics have long had a love-hate relationship with Emmy.

Sometimes the scribes and Academy voters are perfectly in synch with their common love for small-screen underdogs.

During the 1982-83 season, for example, TV writers fell in love with a quirky little NBC comedy set in a Boston sports pub. Viewers ignored the program — until Emmy voters backed up the critical praise by showering the series with 13 noms and five awards, including best comedy.

The show, of course, was “Cheers,” and the combination of rave reviews and Emmy statuettes helped transform it from a Nielsen also-ran into one of the most successful situation comedies in TV history.

Critics and Emmy often don’t get along so well, however.

Not always in agreement

Over the past 50-plus years, the Academy has frequently ignored some of TV’s best-reviewed shows, choosing instead to honor popular faves or industry insiders.

“Friends,” “Roseanne” and “Maude” rank as three of the most groundbreaking comedies of the 1990s, ’80s and ’70s, respectively — but all the glowing notices in the world couldn’t persuade Emmy to bestow any of the trio with a statuette for best comedy.

Emmy psychologists regularly try to figure out why the Academy votes the way it does. In the case of “Roseanne,” for instance, most analysts believe voters put personality ahead of performance — dissing the show because of its star.

“People really didn’t like her,” says Entertainment Weekly TV critic Bruce Fretts. “She was a difficult person to get along with.”

That doesn’t explain the fate of Jason Alexander, the lovable thesp known to millions as George from “Seinfeld.”

“The guy played the most memorable character on the most popular sitcom of the ’90s and he didn’t win one single Emmy? That’s ridiculous,” says Alan Sepinwall, TV columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Emmy is also a creature of habit, particularly when it comes to the acting categories. Candice Bergen (“Murphy Brown”) and Helen Hunt (“Mad About You”) dominated the best comedy actress category in the ’90s, barely letting any other femme thesp sneak in during the decade. Both kept getting Emmys long after their respective programs ceased being relevant to most critics (and viewers).

Why does the Academy stick by old faves long after critics have given up or discovered new darlings?

Not bashful in bashing

“We’re more informed than they are,” says Fretts. “We watch TV for a living; they always seem to be a year or two behind. Long after critics have moved on, the Academy continues year after year.”

Sepinwall agrees, arguing Emmy voters are simply too busy to keep track of what’s on the small screen.

“In-season, people in the business have so little time to actually watch TV, they’re making their nominations based on name or show recognition instead of the quality,” he says.

One recent egregious victim of Emmy oversight (if you listen to critics) was “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

Not only did the Tom Fontana/Barry Levinson-produced skein fail to win a nod for best drama, voters virtually shut-out the program in all categories during its entire six-year run on NBC.

” ‘Homicide’s not getting more nominations and wins, particularly in the early years, was an embarrassment,” says Sepinwall.

“And, as usual, Emmy got it right too late. The year Andre Braugher finally won (1998), he had barely anything to do other than (his performance) in his submitted episode, which was still weak compared to some of the material in years when he lost or didn’t even get nominated.”

Emmy voters sometimes catch up to the critical consensus while a show is still in its peak. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was largely overlooked in its first two seasons, but now the show is a major player with voters. Likewise, “Will & Grace” was ignored in its freshman year, but this year has been recognized with 11 noms.

Alexander missing from list

That’s not to say the 2000 Emmy noms aren’t filled with plenty of oversights, at least according to the critics.

Many TV writers’ jaws dropped when the Academy nominated HBO’s “The Corner” for best mini, but failed to honor star Khandi Alexander, who was such a crucial part of the mini’s success.

“She easily gave the best performance of anyone on television this season but got passed over for a bunch of movie actresses, none of whom were remotely as brilliant,” says Sepinwall.

Fretts is peeved that Emmy voters have yet to take notice of “King of Queens,” the blue-collar CBS laffer starring Kevin James.

“They seem to have no idea it’s on the air,” he says. “I would put the acting on that show up there with any comedic cast on television. It hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves.”

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