After getting swamped last year by HBO, network television staged a comeback last night at the 57th Annual Emmy Prime Time Awards. The first award of the evening went to Brad Garrett, of CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, and the last went to the show itself as Best Comedy.
It was a night of major awards for ABC, with Lost winning as Best Drama, James Spader of Boston Legal winning as Best Lead Actor in a Drama and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives winning for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
William Shatner of Boston Legal was also honored as Best Supporting Actor in a Drama, while J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, took the award for Best Directing in a Drama. The only major disappointment for the network was Housewives' losing to Everybody Loves Raymond as Best Comedy.
Cable's strongest performers included HBO's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which won three awards in the category of Best Movie or Miniseries. Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart took two top awards - one for writing and the other as Best Variety, Music or Comedy Program.
HBO dominated in movie and miniseries awards with S. Epatha Merkerson winning the Emmy as Best Actress in a Movie or Miniseries for Lackawanna Blues. But PBS beat out HBO for the prestigious award for Best Miniseries with The Lost Prince.
"Those network Emmys are a reminder of how remarkably cyclical television continues to be," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "We're always talking about the death of the sitcom or the demise of network drama, but they always come back."
With the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina leaving much of the nation in a somber mood, the producers of the telecast had their work cut out for them. The challenge: Create a festive and celebratory TV event, but don't ignore the feelings of millions who are still mourning the death and destruction in the Gulf Coast.
While there were no serious flaws, the telecast never seemed to find a comfortable groove, as it ricocheted from somber tributes to performers who had died in 2005, to such silly performances as that of Donald Trump of The Apprentice and Megan Mullally of Will & Grace singing the theme song from CBS' Green Acres as part of an American Idol-like competition.
Host Ellen DeGeneres, a native of Louisiana, opened the evening on a note of solidarity with Katrina's victims: "You'll notice some of us are wearing magnolias [the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi] in sympathy with the victims of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is my home, and I have family in Mississippi. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected."
A few minutes later, she moved into the audience and deftly handled a comic interview with Eva Longoria, poking fun at the fact that Longoria was not nominated as best actress in a comedy while three of her castmates on Housewives were.
As Longoria insisted to DeGeneres that she was not treated "any differently than any of the other girls," the camera pulled back to show her and DeGeneres sitting in the cheap seats in Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium.
But from there on out, DeGeneres was one of the least-visible hosts in recent history. In her defense, producer Ken Ehrlich said he wanted her to be low-key given the post-Katrina mood of the country.
"She knows that hosting an awards show is not about trashing and it's not about trying to score as a comedian. It's really more about bringing some fun and some dignity and some real credibility to the ceremony," Ehrlich said in an interview on the eve of the show.
Ehrlich's effort to elevate the tenor of the broadcast also included the addition of a series of brief monologues given by presenters remembering the first time they won Emmy Awards.
The memories served as reminders as to how many of pop culture's landmark moments were generated by television, such as Candice Bergen recalling the political fallout that was triggered in 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle spoke out against her characters' decision to have a baby out of wedlock on CBS' Murphy Brown.
David Letterman delivered a dignified and touching tribute to Johnny Carson, who died in January: "Every night in four different decades, Johnny Carson put Americans to bed, making them feel a little better about how the day had been."
But a tribute to the three network anchormen who left the airwaves this year seemed self-serving and long-winded on the part of NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather. The telecast would have been much better served with a tribute only to ABC's Peter Jennings, who died last month of lung cancer.
The funniest moment of the evening belonged to Comedy Central's Stewart, who brought the house down with his heavily edited comments on the federal government's slow response to Katrina - a performance meant to comically portray how censored his material would be were he on network instead of cable TV.
Though there were political statements last night, they were generally subdued: "This is a great honor, being nominated. That's beautiful. But this hurricane is happening right now, and trucks are coming back from the South saying people need diapers, supplies," said Patricia Arquette, who won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series for her work on NBC's Medium.
Last year, Emmy night was all but a tribute to HBO, as the premium channel's miniseries Angels in America won 11 awards and earned a place in the record books (alongside ABC's 1976 Eleanor and Franklin) as one of the most-honored programs in TV history.
The HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about AIDS won every major award for which it was nominated leading some analysts to see HBO's victory as signaling a sweeping change in the television landscape.
As the major networks, which once ruled the airwaves with a mixture of drama and comedy, seemed to be sinking lower and lower in their hunt for reality TV ratings, HBO had risen to dominance by focusing on quality drama.
But led by ABC, network TV bounced back in the past season with a number of surprise hits, including Housewives, a dark comedy about the private lives of five suburban women, and Lost, a daring drama about the survivors of a plane crash on a seemingly deserted island.
The cast of Housewives seemed to be everywhere last night - from handing out the first Emmy as a group, to appearing individually in comedic skits between awards, to Huffman's win for Best Actress in a Comedy Series.
"In the end, more than anything else, the Emmy Awards show is about promotion for the new fall season, and the networks - especially Desperate Housewives, Lost and ABC - certainly had lots of that," Thompson said.