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One step forward, two steps back

Emmy nominations did have some surprises — but not all pleasant ones
/ Source: contributor

Glancing quickly at the Emmy nominees, it might seem that not much has changed at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — that, in spite of a recent rules change designed to broaden the field of nominees, voters stayed in their comfort zones, sticking with known quantities and old favorites.

And to some extent, it's true. Emmy voters did reward older shows, and overlook the offerings of smaller networks, in their usual fashion.

But the list of nominees does feature a few surprises … particularly in what isn't on it.

The noms for "The West Wing," by now de rigueur, probably won't shock anyone. The White House drama gets a handful every year, and its final season marked a return to stronger creative form, bringing the Bartlet administration to a close while contending with the untimely death of John Spencer.  Ditto the rubber-stamping of Allison Janney as a nominee for lead actress; they'll probably continue nominating her for the award well into the next decade.

But the other candidates for Best Drama spice things up a bit — not so much "The Sopranos" (a lock for a nomination when it's eligible) or "24" (always compelling, in spite of plotting that verges on the fantastical), but it's interesting to see two very different medical dramas filling the other two slots. "House," despite a certain predictability, turned in a strong sophomore season, but the real story here is "Grey's Anatomy," a mid-season replacement from last year which, by the time it ended its first full season on ABC, had become one of the hottest water-cooler TV topics going.

But here's the real twist: "Lost" is … lost. Last year's winner for Best Drama didn't get a nomination this year — in that category, or in any of the major acting categories (Henry Ian Cusick eked out a Guest Actor nom for his work as "Desmond"). 

Also throwing a shut-out after a freshman triumph: "Desperate Housewives," a darling in the comedy categories after its first season, all but ignored after its second. Felicity Huffman took home Emmy gold last year; this year, she's not even on the list, and it's up to Alfre Woodard to repeat for the show in the Supporting Actress category.

So, it might seem like Emmy voters actually paid attention this year — acknowledged that certain shows had weak seasons, rewarded others for quality, and gave some new acting talent a chance. It's about time "The King of Queens" got some love from the Emmys, and with "Everybody Loves Raymond" out of the way at last, Kevin James gets the show on the board with a Lead Actor in a Comedy nomination.

It's also nice to see more underrated comedies getting some attention — "The Office," recently emerging from the shadow of the UK version to become a beloved original in its own right, is in the hunt for Best Comedy, as well as Lead Actor ("40 Year Old Virgin"'s Steve Carell).  And the late lamented "Arrested Development" picked up a few nominations too.

Unfortunately, while some nominations seem right and fitting, others seem inexplicable — or downright lazy.  Everyone knows Emmy loves departing shows, and loves recognizing them — and the actors in them — for their yeomen service, so the acting nominations for "Six Feet Under" make sense.  Francis Conroy turned in five seasons of wonderful work, and while Peter Krause's range is not the greatest, he did do a great job with "conflicted and self-centered." 

But the noms for "Will & Grace" can only be explained by nostalgia — or deafness.  Megan Mullaly and Sean Hayes each picked up their umpteenth nominations, for character portrayals that descended into tedious caricature years ago, and Debra Messing is in contention again too, even though she was widely regarded as that program's weakest link.  And while the nods for "Two and a Half Men" are a surprise, it's … not a pleasant one, particularly given that more deserving nominees (the cast of "Everybody Hates Chris," for example) got crowded out as a result … and that gifting Charlie Sheen with an award at this juncture is probably not wise from a PR standpoint.

Again, it's not what's on the list of nominees — it's what's not. Yes, it's nice to see an actress from an underperforming drama rewarded for her work in spite of the show's fate (Geena Davis on "Commander In Chief"), but "Everwood," recently sacked by The CW, has always suffered borderline ratings — and has always featured outstanding acting across the board, and it's nowhere to be seen. 

Yes, Kyra Sedgwick does strong work in "The Closer" — but so does Lauren Graham on "The Gilmore Girls."  So does Kristen Bell as the titular "Veronica Mars." 

Yes, Denis Leary is great as firefighter Tommy Gavin in "Rescue Me" — but his supporting cast is even greater.  God bless William Shatner, truly, but how does he get chosen over Jack McGee?

Yes, the White House is fertile dramatic ground — but look at the number of nominations for actors playing presidents or presidential candidates: four total (Martin Sheen and Alan Alda for "West Wing," Geena Davis, and Gregory Itzin for "24" — and that's not even counting the nom for Itzin's First Lady, Jean Smart, or for former "West Wing" First Lady Stockard Channing for "Out of Practice"!).  So … why isn't Mary McDonnell on the list, for her portrayal of President Laura Roslin in "Battlestar Galactica"?  Because the Emmys have a long history of ignoring sci-fi and fantasy shows, that's why.  "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Farscape" toiled in Emmy obscurity for years, so in the end, this oversight is fairly predictable.

The Emmys should get credit for trying. It's clear that the Emmy PTB want a broader range of nominees, and they did make changes designed to facilitate that — but it's not clear that those changes had much effect, or more accurately, that they had the desired effect.  It's certainly a more varied assortment of candidates this year, but alas, "different" doesn't always mean "better" — and for every well-thought-out choice (Lisa Kudrow in "The Comeback"), there's a tired one (Jane Kaczmarek for "Malcolm in the Middle"), or one that doesn't quite work (Sandra Oh is great on "Grey's Anatomy," but shouldn't she get the nod in the Lead Actress category instead of Supporting?).

And saluting older or retiring shows is a nice gesture, but Emmy voters often don't seem to grasp that those shows have gone off the air for a reason — often a decline in quality and viewer interest, specifically — and awards aren't about honoring the dead. They're about recognizing excellence.

The latest round of nominations is a step in the right direction; let's hope the ATAS continues trying to perfect the system — and that the voters do right by the categories when the ceremony rolls around.