Emmys comedy, drama & longform: As good as it got

Today's multichannel universe compared to 3 network world of 50 years ago

In 1951, the Emmys had seven categories. Today it has 223. There are 85 for primetime, 60 daytime, 28 sports, 32 news and documentary, 10 international awards and 8 special. The number of channels continues to proliferate. But one thing remains constant — disagreement about the merits of the winners.

Fifty years ago, “I Love Lucy” was considered a shoo-in, when Red Skelton won (some say stole) the award from Lucille Ball. Ball, a second-billed or supporting actress in movies, mired in such mediocrities as “Lured,” “Easy Living” and “Miss Grant Takes Richmond,” finally became a superstar when she introduced “I Love Lucy” to an adoring public on October 15, 1951. The outcry at her Emmy loss was so violent that separate categories were established for male and female comedians.

Shows were live then (“Lucy” was the first sitcom filmed for a live audience), and actress Mary Astor, veteran of such productions as “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One” said: “Live TV never had slickness and polish. It was immediate — always could have been a little better. But what it had was the spontaneity, the right-nowness of theater.”

It also exploded with excellent scripts. Paddy Chayefsky wrote three for “Goodyear Playhouse” (“Marty,” “The Bachelor Party,” “The Catered Affair”) all of which became feature films. During its run (1948-58), Studio One presented 500 plays, helmed by such fine directors as George Roy Hill and Sidney Lumet.

Hallmark Hall of Fame has maintained that superior level, blending “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” with “Born Yesterday” and “Kiss Me Kate.” Julie Harris, George C. Scott, Orson Welles and Dame Judith Anderson were among the brilliant actors featured on the show. Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, which debuted October 5, 1951, starred James Dean in “The Unlighted Road.”

The year 1951, when the first color transmissions were attempted, also offered some ludicrous competitors in acting categories. Sid Caesar found himself competing with Charlton Heston; Imogene Coca with Helen Hayes.

It’s unthinkable now that directors had no category until 1954, when Franklin Schaffner triumphed in Studio One’s “Twelve Angry Men.” Writers won their own category in 1954.

Primetime censorship steadily relaxed and nearly disappeared with the advent of cable. “The Practice” (ABC), “Law and Order” (NBC) and “The Sopranos” (HBO), have a harsh streetwise edge, and pursuit of realism has blurred the lines between good and evil. Bad guys go free; good guys are destroyed. Sex (ignored or playfully implied at TV’s inception) is now blatantly spelled out in “Sex and the City.” “Ally McBeal” shows unisex bathrooms, Dennis Franz exposes his rear end. As Red Buttons, pioneering comic genius of early 1950s television, says, “Things you do on TV today would have gotten you stoned in the past.”

Freedom to speak out on social issues is embodied by Bill Maher’s hilariously blunt “Politically Incorrect,” and TV journalism — “60 Minutes,” “Dateline,” “48 Hours” — gives validity to Edward R. Murrow’s line, “TV is the greatest classroom in the world.”

Mild-mannered Mr. Peepers (Wally Cox) would have been shocked to see the unsweetened high school horror stories shown on Fox’s “Boston Public.”

“Mr. Peepers” also exemplifies 1951’s technical limitations. As author Rick Mitz, a sitcom specialist, says, “The scenery on the show was flimsy, the lighting was crude, and the actors had to run from set to set, changing their clothes behind the scenery in a mad dash to make it to the next scene.”

TV still does justice to classics, as in A&E’s tastefully produced “The Great Gatsby” and the exciting “Horatio Hornblower,” and there are even occasional attempts to do a drama live (“On Golden Pond,” “Fail Safe”).

Sitcoms like “Frasier” match the sophistication and wit of TV’s early classics. But sugar-coated views of family life, as in CBS’s “Mama,” have given way to cutting, corrosive examinations of family conflict in “Once and Again.” Milton Berle’s G-rated drag routines have been replaced by graphically truthful explorations of gay life, such as Showtime’s “Queer as Folk.”

For those who talk longingly of the “good old days,” it’s important to remember that not every show was of “Studio One” standards, any more than all of today’s product is high quality. “The Egg and I” laid a giant egg, as did “Young Mr. Bobbin.”

But the link between 1951 and the present is talent, which survives whether or not it is adorned with high-tech special effects.

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