Vying for respect, awards mirror TV’s best

'Rerun' winners can frustrate newer shows' chances

And this year’s Emmy goes to … last year’s winner!

Don’t you hate when that happens?

It happened a lot at the 1999 Emmy broadcast, perhaps not coincidentally the lowest-rated since 1990. It’s little wonder that the Emmys, at 52, are sometimes considered the Rodney Dangerfield of awards shows, yearning for respect and buzz but dwelling deep in Oscar’s shadow. How could it be otherwise after a spectacle like last year’s ceremony, which played like a predictable rerun of so much of the last decade.

Been there, done that

Unorthodox wins such as “Ally McBeal” as the first hourlong best comedy were rare on a show that hit an awfully familiar beat time and again, with repeat wins by “NYPD Blue’s” Dennis Franz (his fourth), “3rd Rock From the Sun’s” John Lithgow (his third), “Frasier’s” David Hyde Pierce (also his third), “3rd Rock’s” Kristen Johnston (her second) and “Mad About You’s” Helen Hunt for a fourth consecutive year for what most considered a disappointing final season.

The true shocker, though, occurred at the end of the long night, when ABC’s “The Practice” won its second straight drama Emmy, upsetting the presumptive favorite, HBO’s breakthrough freshman drama “The Sopranos.” (The fact that David E. Kelley’s double-barreled win as producer of “Ally” and “Practice” made Emmy history did little to lessen the sting of the “Sopranos” snub.)

No pattern to land in winners circle

But why should anyone have been surprised? The Emmy is often unfair to the upstart — except when it isn’t.

For every “Moonlighting” or “Twin Peaks,” examples of genre-busting phenoms that earned the lion’s share of nominations in their debut seasons only to be snubbed, there are tales of triumph about the likes of “Hill Street Blues” and “Cheers” — each critically praised, each on the verge of cancellation after a dismally rated first year and each the surprise recipient of Emmy largesse: a record eight wins in “Hill Street’s” first year, five for “Cheers'” freshman season.

Both landmark series would go on to win multiple times, with “Hill Street” winning four in a row, tying the record set by “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the early ’60s, an achievement that stood until the ’90s, when “Frasier” — a spinoff of “Cheers” and a farcical classic in its own right — won for its first five years straight.

The reality of series TV, with the best or most popular shows and stars being nominated year after year, makes the Emmys generally the hardest to predict and to pigeonhole of all major industry awards. You never know when a show’s winning streak will stop and when a new favorite will enter the winner’s circle. Case in point: 1996, when the venerable “Law & Order” was finally named best drama in its sixth straight try, upsetting the trendier “ER” and “NYPD Blue.” Who knew? (That year, nine of the 10 series nominees in drama and comedy were repeats, so the answer is: No one knew, or could have been expected to know.)

“The difference between the Oscars and the Emmys is in the nature of what the industry is,” says Meryl Marshall, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which administers the Prime Time Emmys. “Repeating series are the backbone of the TV industry. You shouldn’t expect to see them disappear. It would skew the process negatively if we took out series that continued to thrive and in fact improve over time.”

There can, however, be something rather absurd in all those return visits to the podium. Some Emmy darlings have become personally embarrassed by the trend; “Murphy Brown’s” Candice Bergen, with five wins, and “Night Court’s” John Larroquette, with four, eventually took themselves out of the running.

And as with any awards institution, there are puzzling lapses on the Emmy tote board: Greats such as Jack Paar and Jackie Gleason never won, neither did “The Andy Griffith Show” and its title star (though Don Knotts won five supporting actor honors), and “Roseanne” was never even nominated for comedy series during its blockbuster reign.

One of Emmy’s most notorious failures has been the inability to embrace Fox’s subversive smash “The Simpsons” as an equal player in the ranks of comedy series. Instead, it has had to settle for acknowledgment in the animated categories.

Groundbreaking series

But when you look at the series that recur in Emmy annals, it underscores the impact they often had in defining or changing the face and voice of television. In drama, this includes influential series like “Playhouse 90” in the ’50s, “The Defenders” in the ’60s and the provocative Steven Bochco-David E. Kelley juggernaut that extends from the revolutionary “Hill Street Blues” and the slick “L.A. Law” through “Picket Fences,” “NYPD Blue” and “The Practice.”

Among the TV comedy winners, you can witness the evolution from ’50s star vehicles (“I Love Lucy,” “Make Room for Daddy,” “The Phil Silvers Show”) to the brash counterculture parodies of the ’60s (“The Monkees,” “Get Smart,” the variety series “Laugh-In”) and the social consciousness of the ’70s (the groundbreaking “All in the Family,” the tragicomic “MASH” and the indelible single-woman ensemble gem “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).

Another evolution the Emmys eventually had to acknowledge was the emergence of distinctive original cable programming, which first became eligible in 1988. This year’s Emmy host, Garry Shandling, is best known for his pioneering work in cable comedy on Showtime and on HBO, where his brutal and hilarious “The Larry Sanders Show” became the first cable series to be nominated for best comedy. (Shandling was nominated four times as comedy actor and won once in 1998 for writing.)

New players on the scene

Through the ’90s, cable began to dominate the TV movie categories, especially HBO, which has shows firmly entrenched in the drama and comedy categories (“The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City”). It’s a sign of the times that the most heated controversy at last year’s awards was the voters’ failure to reward “Sopranos” with a drama trophy (though creator David Chase won for writing and Edie Falco won the actress award).

Many think the negative reaction to the “Sopranos” snub and to the numbing number of repeat winners last year led to the TV Acad’s decision to abolish the old “blue ribbon” panel system of judging and to allow volunteers to watch nominees’ tapes from home this year instead of in a hotel over an August weekend. In sheer numbers at least, the judging experiment is a success. Some 3,500 members are participating in voting for this year’s televised categories, nearly triple the total of last year.

“What we’re trying to do is throw the doors open and bring in a new generation,” Acad president James B. Chabin told the Associated Press.

Probably the greatest challenge facing the Emmys these days is keeping current in the face of cable’s expansion and the arrival of new networks such as the youth-oriented WB (whose acclaimed cult hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” barely registers among Emmy voters).

After this year’s nominations, Hartford (Conn.) Courant columnist James Endrst suggested, “The medium has simply outgrown the show. … The sheer torrent of programming makes the already subjective task of picking a best anything all but impossible.”

The Academy’s Marshall admits, “Nobody can see it all. We are very dependent on one another, on word of mouth, on the press and on our fellow professionals” to select the best of TV.

As the producer of the Emmy telecast for five of the last six years, Don Mischer says, “I keep hoping for new faces, I keep hoping for the young shows. With the Oscars, you have a completely new creative slate every year. Here, we have recurring series five, six, eight years in a row. The same faces are going to show up, especially when the work is that good. The system is far from perfect, but we just have to deal with it.”

Matt Roush is senior TV critic at TV Guide magazine.

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