Tale of the tape favors ‘Wing,’ ‘Will’

Sheen, McCormack, Messing send best work, hope not to be overlooked again

Last year “The West Wing” set a record for most victories in one year by a primetime series when it nabbed nine statuettes. But it looked like everybody on the show ended up flying high except its key star. The program’s sweep jumped right over someone rather hard to miss: the president of the United States, in the form of thesp Martin Sheen.

Emmy’s skip over the top stars also occurred in the comedy races. Eric McCormack and Debra Messing congratulated their producers for winning the comedy series statuette, and they helped co-stars Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally celebrate their victories as supporting thesps. Indeed, it looked like everybody had won Emmys for “Will & Grace” except Will and Grace.

This year, however, Sheen, McCormack and Messing gave Emmy voters bravura videotape samples of their best work from the past TV season.

Emmy voters have always paid special attention to those tapes. They even did so last year, when they were no longer supervised by monitors during judging panels but were trusted to watch the tapes at home. Victories by two underdogs — Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Sela Ward (“Once and Again”) — proved that voters had done their industry duty.

A panel of journalists, acting as mock Emmy voters, viewed all of the tapes last year and backed up both votes. In previous years, when those same journos — from TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly and Newsday — had conducted mock panels to predict who’d win Emmys, they were never wrong.

This year those same pundits watched the tapes at home, just like Emmy voters, and report that Sheen’s episode is a standout. The thesp gave voters the season finale of “West Wing” in which the leader of the free world stands before the altar at the National Cathedral and chews out the sovereign of the universe for all of the suffering endured by innocent people.

McCormack and Messing made the same shrewd submission this year: a special, one-hour episode that looks back 15 years to when Will dated Grace, came out to her and broke her heart. The episode’s got drama and slapstick — and it may even have a quantitative advantage, being twice as long as the other half-hour nominees.

It was only a few years ago that one-hour shows were first permitted to compete against half-hours in the comedy categories — a rule change necessitated by David E. Kelley’s decision to submit “Ally McBeal” as a comedy. Some Emmy pundits believe Helen Hunt won two of her four Emmys because she had the one-hour advantage. (However, co-star Paul Reiser tried the same tactic, and it didn’t worked for him.)

So does the one-hour advantage really exist? The answer will be seen in how well the McCormack-Messing tape does against impressive half-hour submissions by such entrants as “Malcolm in the Middle’s” Jane Kaczmarek and “Frasier’s” Kelsey Grammer.

Stay tuned, as folks in the TV biz like to say. Emmy night typically offers more upsets than any other kudofest.

(Tom O’Neil is the author of Variety’s “The Emmys” (Perigee Books) and hosts www.GoldDerby.com, an online racetrack where experts size up the Emmy races.)

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