Will ''ER'' win again? Can Garry Shandling catch a break? Find out what we think

No matter who ends up taking home the little statues for the 49th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, the real winners are Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show, whose 16 — count ’em, 16 — nominations (only ER has more) are ample proof that even those oft-out-of-touch Emmy voters concede that this HBO sitcom is the gut-funniest, best-executed show of the past year. So congrats, Garry/Larry — you’re the man, even if we both know there’s no way veteran voters are going to hand over more than a couple of prizes to a show outside the ABC/NBC/CBS loop. (Which is probably also why, by the by, Fox’s Party of Five didn’t get a deserved nomination for this season’s wrenching alcoholism story line.)

Of course, if Emmy nominations reflected quality regardless of a show’s network or length of time on the air, Sanders would be a shoo-in rather than the dark horse it remains. Then, too, the Emmy list would also include nods to fresh, smart shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Everybody Loves Raymond, as well as acknowledgments that series like NewsRadio and Friends continue to display first-class writing and ensemble acting well after their initial bursts of media hype.

It seems like every time the Emmys do something right — like this year’s addition of an Outstanding Commercial category — they persist in doing something wrong. The most glaring example of this is the Academy’s insistence on relegating two of TV’s best-written and performed shows — The Simpsons and King of the Hill — to the ghetto of animation categories.

Oh, I know it does little good to moan and sigh this way, and I’m more than willing to give the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences its due for its unexpected hipness in nominating Chris Rock’s remarkable HBO special Bring the Pain in the Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special category (even if Bette Midler’s disappointingly rote Diva Las Vegas is the sure-thing sentimental favorite to win). Still, any broadcast that allows its host network, CBS, to deploy Bryant Gumbel as master of ceremonies in order to plug his upcoming newsmagazine (what other reason can there be to subject the news-serious Gumbel to the indignities of Emmy banter?) has few of its priorities straight. You know darn well the Emmys would be a lot more interesting if the host were a more logical choice — CBS’ most nimble-minded new talent, Raymond‘s Ray Romano, for example.

The reason the Emmys don’t get as much respect as the Oscars isn’t because of a lack of quality in television — indeed, it wouldn’t be difficult to make an argument that the past TV year contained more nourishing entertainment than 12 months’ worth of movies. No, the Emmys’ problem is simple and unavoidable, built into the nature of the medium: Unlike the Academy Awards’ fresh-every-year list of contenders, the Emmys tend to reward the same shows year after year: ER, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, and Chicago Hope. My guess is that the Emmys will finally start giving boxes of awards to The X-Files, two years after the Golden Globes realized what was up.