Host Ellen DeGeneres strikes the right balance, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
Updated November 06, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Ellen Degeneres: Michael Caulfield/WireImage.com

The twice-rescheduled Emmys are a pleasant surprise

As a list of winners, it didn’t always add up: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and the writers of ”The Sopranos” get Emmys, but ”The West Wing” takes the Best Drama trophy? But in almost every other way, the 53rd annual Emmys, twice delayed in the wake of the terrorist attacks, was a pretty terrific production. Host Ellen DeGeneres had to strike the right balance between being funny and acknowledging that she was fronting a celebration of showbiz at a time when much of showbiz is insisting it’s irrelevant. She did it with such ebullient grace that she inspired a spontaneous standing ovation near the end of last night’s Emmy broadcast.

It might have been a well-meaning disaster, though, since the awards show began with a bawling version of ”America the Beautiful” by trumpeter-singer Phil Driscoll doing a shameless Ray Charles impersonation. But DeGeneres came out with the right kind of snappy humor — ”What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?” — and the voters came through with the kind of winners to warm a TV critic’s heart: Not just Gandolfini and Falco and (let’s remember the voting was done before Aaron Sorkin wrote his ”very special” post-attack episode) ”West Wing,” but also Doris Roberts (finally!) for her fabulous best-supprting-actress sitcom work on ”Everybody Loves Raymond,” ”Wing”’s Bradley Whitford for best supporting drama actor, and Judy Davis for her spectacular embodiment of Judy Garland in the TV movie ”Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

True, some of the winning choices were head-shakers. Hey, I like ”Sex and the City” just fine, but it ain’t better than ”Raymond,” ”Frasier,” ”Will & Grace,” or ”Malcolm in the Middle.” And Peter MacNicol’s twitchy ”Ally McBeal” performance wins as best supporting actor in a comedy, even over his nominated sometime-costar, Robert Downey Jr., who did the kind of light, airy work you rarely see on TV?

As for the Emmy production itself, I loved the evening’s two outstanding non sequiturs: announcing ”Carol Burnett Show” vets Tim Conway and Harvey Korman as presenters, but only Conway showing up; and a delightfully loopy Steve Martin bum-rushing the stage to accept the absent Judy Davis’ Emmy.

I must have missed the point of presenting a montage of countries who’ve expressed support in the wake of Sept. 11; I understand gratitude, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences isn’t an outpost of the United Nations. But I readily concede: Better a nod to our allies in prime time than, say, a shameless CBS plug for their upcoming ”I Love Lucy” anniversary special. Oh, wait, they did that, too. American showbiz: Love it or leave it — for the World Series. Put me in the former camp. I wasn’t even tempted to tune away to Fox until show-ender Barbra Streisand came out: Final-inning baseball suspense proved greater than figuring out figuring out whether Babs could be as boffo as baseball. Turns out she could be.

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