Voters indeed had hard issues to ponder

This column was updated at 10:15 p.m.

With its challenge of sifting through old and new, no award-bestowing task is more thankless than that facing the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences each year.

Still, such difficulty shouldn’t spare the group from criticism when the Emmys stodgily remain behind the curve in the major categories. And that’s precisely what they did by ignoring the year’s two most provocative new series, HBO’s “Deadwood” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” in the best drama and top acting categories, despite a combined 16 nominations (including a pair for directing) in mostly technical areas.

As usual, the Emmy nominations unveiled Thursday are most notable for their oversights, despite some laudable breakthroughs. Those include recognition for two worthy if modestly rated new series, CBS’ “Joan of Arcadia” and Fox’s “Arrested Development,” as well as “The Reagans,” the movie CBS was too chicken to air; and HBO’s predictable but deserving slew for “Angels in America,” a Gulliver in a world of longform Lilliputians.

Clearly, producer David Milch’s HBO Western “Deadwood” — characterized by brilliant ensemble acting and language bluer than “NYPD Blue” — presented a conundrum to Emmy voters, as did “Nip/Tuck,” FX’s satiric take on the world of plastic surgery. To be fair, it’s not always easy to separate personal feelings from a stoic appraisal of quality, especially when a character’s big Emmy-worthy speech is delivered while receiving oral sex from a whore, as Ian McShane’s character, foul-mouthed saloon keeper Al Swearengen, did in “Deadwood’s” penultimate episode.

The academy’s mandate, however, is to honor the year’s best, and there was no finer or more talked about work this season than that delivered by McShane. Indeed, his influence could be seen each Monday around the Variety offices, where staffers who admire the show seemed to channel Swearengen by cursing at me, using a creative assortment of compound words. (At least, I hope this is attributable to “Deadwood.”)

Even with supporting actor nominations for Brad Dourif and Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane (and good luck finding a clip of her that won’t need to be bleeped seven times), “Deadwood’s” bevy of bids doesn’t compensate for its absence in key categories, where the choices can best be described as safe.

This is nothing new for the Emmys, which, even when first-year shows garner nominations, have historically proved reluctant to crown them. Consider “The Sopranos,” which has never won best drama and, with “The West Wing” coming off a so-so season (though not nearly as bad as some who have drifted away would have you believe), certainly appears to be the front-runner. The only problem is that any coronation will be about three seasons too late, just as programs such as “NYPD Blue” and “ER” were deprived statuettes in their first seasons despite dominating the critical and public discourse.

Finally, a thought about HBO’s embarrassingly bountiful harvest, which exceeds the nomination total for any two networks combined and comes dangerously close to transforming the Emmys into the since-defunct CableACE Awards.

Howl as broadcasters might, the truth is that the tallies would be even more lopsided in HBO’s favor if critics were handed a ballot, as evidenced by the muted presence of “Deadwood” and near-absence of HBO’s brilliant crime drama “The Wire.” Past nominee “Six Feet Under” also didn’t air during the eligibility window and would have likely further padded the pay service’s stats, even with a subpar run last season that has disappointingly extended into this one.

With their reliance on similarly themed procedural crime shows, the networks have taken themselves out of the Emmy voting — an understandable commercial calculation, based on the genre’s popularity, which comes with a trade-off when award time rolls around. As it is, programs such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and near-“CSI” spinoff “Without a Trace” nabbed top acting bids, which isn’t easy when the character’s dialogue is limited to “Why did you kill him?”

Recently HBO has been running a clever ad campaign about water-cooler TV, the idea being that its programs — even with their lack of mass exposure — have supplanted the major networks as the kind that people buzz about around the water cooler at work the next day.

That’s undoubtedly the case with “Deadwood,” which makes me wonder if academy members loiter around the water cooler much, or, barring that, what exactly they were drinking.

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