Do Emmy voters prefer kinder, gentler dramas?

In the Emmy race for best drama series, the victories by “The Practice” and “The West Wing” over “The Sopranos” in 1999 and 2000 posed a fascinating question: Are Emmy voters afraid of the dark?

Bleak, gritty programs like “NYPD Blue” and “Northern Exposure” have claimed the category in the past — but only after a while; both didn’t prevail until their second seasons. Meantime, more traditional skeins like “ER,” “Law & Order” and “Picket Fences” struck Emmy gold instead.

“When it comes to the Emmys, familiar series like workplace franchises have a better chance,” observes TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “Emmy voters respond to the emotional buttons pushed in a show like ‘ER’ or a courtroom drama with its pitched rhetoric.”

As a result, Roush expects that “ER” will be nommed again; ditto for “Practice” and the courtroom drama that holds the record for the longest continuous run by any series in a top race (nine years): “Law & Order.”

The latter’s noms “are almost by rote at this point,” Roush adds.

USA Today’s Robert Bianco thinks past Emmy champ “NYPD Blue” just had a superior year and deserves a bid, but he notes, sighing, “It’s probably not going to make it into this Emmy race since it was snubbed last year. Once you fall out, it’s hard to get back in.”

Among new skeins, Bianco is rooting for “Gilmore Girls.” “It was one of the standout shows of the past season, but it may be considered too sensitive — not serious enough.”

Another notable new show — “Queer as Folk” — may have the opposite problem. It’s so sexually graphic, Roush says, “it’s not only in your face — it’s up your ass.”

Roush and Bianco agree that “Queer’s” best shot at an Emmy nom is probably in the race for best supporting actress — a bid for Sharon Gless.

“She’s a longtime Emmy favorite and is doing bravura work as a mom on the show,” Roush says. “Again, familiarity helps.”

Emmy voters are intimately familiar with the programs of past Emmy-grabber David E. Kelley, who has a new skein that should do well: “Boston Common.”

“It deserves to be recognized,” Bianco says, especially its star Chi McBride, who portrays a besieged high school principal with panache.

What about the year’s biggest breakout ratings hit — “C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation”?

“It’s a fun, formula show, but it’s not Emmy-worthy,” Bianco says. “If it’s nominated for best drama series, I’ll scream.”

“The biggest Emmy puzzlement this year is how ‘Once and Again’ will do, Roush says. “It’s one of TV’s best shows, but ratings are terrible — and it’s considered odd. It’s a family drama that’s very intimate and sometimes painful to watch. It doesn’t have the same plot hooks that most drama shows have. (Star) Sela Ward will probably be nominated — we can count on that because she’s an old Emmy favorite — but the show deserves more than just her acting nomination.”

Roush and Bianco are also rooting for another very dark show — one, in fact, starring a hero who takes on demons of the night: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The campy WB cult hit has long been a critics’ darling spurned by Emmy voters. What about this year?

” ‘Buffy’ has so little chance it’s ridiculous,” Bianco says. Roush agrees that its chances are slim, but he holds out some hope since its scribe Josh Whedon was nominated last year.

“Maybe voters are finally tuning it in,” he says. “My guess is that the show is too young for them, though — and too dark in a supernatural way. If nothing else, its star Sarah Michele Geller should finally be nominated for acting. It’s embarrassingly overdue.

“This year’s Emmy race will probably end up looking a lot like last year’s,” he adds, expecting a White House vs. mob showdown between “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos.” The two skeins tied with the most nominations last year — 18 — but the presidential skein won, setting a new record for most Emmy wins in a single year (nine). “Sopranos'” only victory was for best actor James Gandolfini, who told the Associated Press that the reason the HBO series didn’t do better was because: “It’s too dark.”

What about this year?

“We’re optimistic,” says HBO prexy Chris Albrecht. “Emmy voters obviously like ‘The Sopranos’ because they keep giving it a lot of nominations, but — let’s face it — when it comes to naming winners, some voters just aren’t going to pick a show about violent gangsters who say fuck. We’ve won Emmys for acting and writing already, though. Maybe it’s finally our year for the top one. It took some other dark shows like ‘NYPD Blue’ a while before they won it.”

Tom O’Neil is the author of Variety‘s “The Emmys” and host of the awards watch Web site www.goldderby.com.

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