Al Pacino: Kevork Djansezian/AP/Wideworld
September 20, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW’s TV critic reviews the Emmys ceremony

Who’d have thought the Emmys could be so surprising, so loosey-goosey, yet so comforting, all at the same time? Quality was rewarded in every single major category. Angels in America, to be sure — the magnificent translation of Tony Kushner’s epic theater spectacle to the small screen was not merely the year’s best miniseries but the finest piece of serious television entertainment this side of The Wire. The miniseries’ multiple wins afforded us the spectacle of eloquent acceptance speeches by the likes of Meryl Streep, director Mike Nichols, and Kushner, as well as endearing natterings from Al Pacino — even the orchestra seemed too intimidated to try and play him off the stage with exit music.

For Arrested Development to win as best comedy and get awards for writing and directing — well, it was a TV critic’s dream that this canny, often scabrous sitcom with mediocre ratings could be recognized by peers who usually go for the safest, most traditional comedies. Among other comedies, Sex and the City dominated, with an exceedingly well-deserved win by Cynthia Nixon as a supporting actress and a lead-actress Emmy to Sarah Jessica Parker for a season that, while not the series’ best, gave her a graceful exit. So that was nice. And I’m glad Kelsey Grammer won — Arrested‘s Jason Bateman should have been nominated in that category, but Grammer, who graciously acknowledged the death of the sentimental favorite, John Ritter, put on a few great performances in Frasier‘s final season.

Drama? Bravo to The Sopranos in the series category and Michael Imperioli as best supporting actor. But lead actors James Gandolfini and Edie Falco were robbed by, respectively, James Spader (hey, heaven knows he livened things up on The Practice and was his usual amusingly mannered self as a presenter) and The West Wing‘s Allison Janney, copping the award after that series’ worst season ever. Janney has now won in four out of five nominations; she was so shocked (literally speechless) that she called up fellow nominee Mariska Hargitay because — well, because she said they both had green dresses on — and then feebly asked the rest of her nominees to join her. It was a weirdly halfhearted gesture. (None of the others ascended the stage, and Hargitay only ended up looking embarrassed.)

And woo-hoo to The Amazing Race for winning for the second year in a row in the reality-competition category, beating what I thought was an easy winner, The Apprentice. Never underestimate, I guess, the disdain the Hollywood Academy voters have for a fatuous Manhattan-based real-estate magnate.

As host, Garry Shandling was as adept as ever at making himself look like a vain jerk — it’s his most endearing trait, and those of us who still get misty-eyed over the loss of his Larry Sanders Show were treated to a fine, tiny continuation of his ”flirtation” with David Duchovny. Shandling’s diatribe against reality TV was terrifically pointed and justifiably mean. But then the idea he or someone producing the Emmys had to bring on a couple of regular citizens to present the reality award turned into a startlingly sweet moment: These two innocents seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to be included in showbiz for a few brief moments.

Elaine Stritch’s win for the HBO film of her one-woman theater show At Liberty was both well-deserved and predictable. (Also predictable was her acceptance — this is, after all, a woman who knows how to deliver a playing-to-the-back-rows speech.) But the night’s most well-deserved and unpredictable win was snagged by Walter Hill, who directed the pilot for the HBO western Deadwood. Hill, a veteran feature-film gunslinger, deserved the Emmy as a small substitute for the Oscar he’s likely never to win.

And speaking of predictability, while I like the bristling undercurrent of anger that’s running through The Daily Show With Jon Stewart these days, couldn’t the Academy have taken the time to watch Chappelle’s Show and admit that Dave Chappelle and his crew did the funniest, riskiest comedy in the variety category this past year?

It’s remarkable, though, that the Emmys were as painless and unobjectionable as they were. Really, the only time I threw a shoe at the TV screen was when ABC had the appalling gall to introduce presenter Barbara Walters as ”the foremost television journalist of all time.” Hey, I have my quibbles with Edward R. Murrow, too, but he sure as hell wouldn’t be quizzing Mary Kay Letourneau, as the eternal cheap-shot artist Walters is doing this Friday on one of her interminable 20/20 swan songs.

Oh, and to the E! channel: Two thumbs up on the decision to have Walters’ View costar Star Jones replace Joan Rivers on the red carpet. Jones’ nonstop butt kissing (Star to Donald Trump: ”How are you, my brother?”) combined with ceaseless plugs for her upcoming nuptials, made her the most riveting narcissist of the night.

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