September 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Actually,” mused Survivor sage Rudy Boesch, sipping a beer at a Beverly Hills soirée following the 52nd Annual Emmy Awards ceremony, ”I don’t watch any award shows.” And who can blame him? Your average Emmy broadcast is usually duller than a barbecue at the Big Brother house. But this year, shockingly, the tube’s annual marathon of orations and ovations managed to qualify as must-see TV, achieving its biggest audience in 14 years. Host Garry ”Big Pussy” Shandling had viewers in stitches, best actor in a comedy Michael J. Fox had them in tears, and a new cast-a-wider-net Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voting system meant that the cavalcade of Emmy winners weren’t automatically recycled from last year’s ballot. (Frasier, anyone?) Indeed, HBO’s wins for its miniseries about a family of inner-city crack addicts (The Corner) and a comedy special starring a transvestite (Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill) were exhilarating signs of the times. ”I think the expanded voting pool certainly had a positive influence on the outcome,” says Academy chief Meryl Marshall Daniels of this year’s roughly 2,500 voters (versus the average 600 in past years). ”It was an outright triumph,” agrees Emmy historian Tom O’Neil, a longtime critic of the Academy, who points to best actress winners Sela Ward (Once and Again) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) as proof the new system works. ”These are classic Emmy underdogs who deserved to win.”

Some feel there’s still room for improvement: ”The thought that the new voting system might make the choices younger and hipper didn’t pan out,” says Emmy-winning writer-producer Jack Burditt (Frasier), who blames the unchanged nomination process. ”Even though every series is submitted for consideraton, not all come with tapes. So the really popular and traditional shows like The West Wing get the most nominations since they get more viewers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaks and Geeks were as good as any show this year, but they got shut out” of the top awards.

True, thanks to a nine-trophy West Wing landslide, edgy critical fave The Sopranos mostly slept with the fishes, and coitus-crazed Sex and the City couldn’t get a date, but nobody could have predicted that fresh faces like Wing‘s Allison Janney and Richard Schiff and Will & Grace‘s Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes would wind up rubbing out the usual suspects. Heck, an awards show this refreshing deserves some awards of its own. To wit:

To Shandling and his scribes for the much-improved writing on the show. ”He’s irreverent, but he also loves TV and is happy to be working in it,” says executive producer Don Mischer. On the other hand …

Shandling, for his serially criminal use of the word fantastic — a whopping three times during one introduction.

To Wayne Brady (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) for his misconceived musical tribute.

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