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'24'-karat Emmys

The year's best television shows, including '24,' collect the Emmys, despite some early misgivings

By David Zurawik

Sun television critic

August 28, 2006

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The 58th Primetime Emmy Awards opened last night under a cloud of controversy surrounding a new voting system that resulted in some widely ridiculed nominees. Ultimately, however, the best talent won out - and viewers were presented with a witty telecast.

Fox's 24, the clock-is-ticking thriller that this fall will spawn a raft of imitators, took top honors as best drama, with Kiefer Sutherland, who plays federal agent Jack Bauer, winning as best dramatic actor. Jon Cassar also won as best director for his work on the series.

"What a nice evening this has been for us," Sutherland said as he accepted his acting award with understatement worthy of his taciturn character.

But 24 was not alone among the class acts that won last night.

NBC's The Office took the Emmy as best comedy series, with Tony Shalhoub, of cable channel USA's Monk, winning as best comedic actor. And HBO, the undisputed leader in quality TV, again swamped the competition for miniseries and made-for-TV movies thanks to Elizabeth I and The Girl in the Cafe, two standout productions. Helen Mirren won as best actress in a miniseries for her performance as the English monarch.

Andre Braugher, one of the few African Americans nominated for a major award, won as best actor in a miniseries for his performance in Thief on cable channel FX, while Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was awarded Emmys both for outstanding variety, music or comedy series and for best writing in such a series.

One of the only surprises was Mariska Hargitay, of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, winning for best dramatic actress over Kyra Sedgwick of cable channel TNT's The Closer. But a case can be made for either nominee.

A bit of history was made last night when Alan Alda was honored as best supporting actor in a drama for his role as a presidential candidate in NBC's The West Wing. The actor's win guarantees the show, which ended its run in May, a place in the record books - next to the network's landmark 1980s Hill Street Blues - as one of the two most honored dramas in TV history. Both The West Wing and Hill Street have earned 26 Emmys.

Two other winners also came from departing shows: Megan Mullally of NBC's Will & Grace won as the best supporting comic actress, while Blythe Danner of Showtime's Huff took home the Emmy as best supporting dramatic actress. Will & Grace signed off in May, and Huff was canceled last winter.

Last night's telecast began in high spirits with host Conan O'Brien of NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien leading a parody of "Ya Got Trouble," from The Music Man. All the trouble in his mock version was suffered by NBC, which has fallen to fourth place among the five broadcast networks.

O'Brien, loose-limbed and gangly, was just goofy enough in the musical number to summon memories of Billy Crystal as host of some of the more successful Oscar telecasts in recent history. Though not nearly as inspired as Crystal in his monologue, O'Brien did set a smart comic tone for the evening.

He deftly set up a running gag featuring comedian and TV pioneer Bob Newhart locked in a glass chamber with only enough oxygen to last three hours. The joke: If the telecast ran over, Newhart would die.

While the darkly comic premise featured a contemporary edge, the glass room recalled the earliest days of television when quiz show contestants often competed in such chambers.

It was a savvy choice by producer Ken Ehrlich. The awards show specialist also orchestrated an understated and touching tribute to Dick Clark, who suffered a stroke In 2004. Even the reunion of Charlie's Angels as the centerpiece of a tribute to producer Aaron Spelling, who died in June, played well.

While O'Brien turned in a solid performance, the funniest moments belonged to Stewart and Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central's Colbert Report, who presented the award for best reality series.

"Reality TV celebrates the human condition," Stewart said, mock-choking on the words.

"It warps the minds of children and weakens the resolve of our allies," Colbert countered, bringing forth a cheer from the crowd.

Even in this category, the most deserving show won: CBS' Amazing Race, which was given the Emmy over the far more popular Fox series, American Idol.

The awards show was criticized by the general manager of the NBC affiliate in Lexington, Ky., for including a spoof of a plane crash that mimicked the first episode of ABC's Lost, last year's winner as best drama. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the station official said it was insensitive of the network to use the parody, given the plane crash that left 49 dead in Kentucky yesterday.

The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has been widely criticized for implementing a new nominating procedure that added an extra layer of voting to the process in hopes of making the awards more inclusive and less predictable.

Good intentions aside, the experiment was dubbed a failure by industry analysts last month when the nominations were announced and such performers as Christopher Meloni of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Kevin James of The King of Queens were nominated as outstanding actor in drama and comedy, respectively. Their nominations came at the expense of critical favorites like James Gandolfini of The Sopranos and Jason Bateman of Arrested Development. The consensus: Such selections and omissions damaged the credibility of the awards.

But early on, the evening seemed to go in the right direction as one of the first Emmys was awarded to Alda, who was not present at last night's ceremony, for his portrayal of presidential candidate Arnold Vinick that put The West Wing in the record books.

The backstage look at life in the White House still trails three sitcoms, Cheers (28), Mary Tyler Moore Show (29) and Frasier (37), for most Emmys won by a prime-time series. Nevertheless, it was a fine sendoff to the series that debuted in 1999 and left the airwaves in May.

"It's fitting that The West Wing was the show to match Hill Street in Emmys, given that it had the same kind of heady, sophisticated writing and great acting," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. "Hill Street is the series that proved there was a network audience for such literate fare, and The West Wing took it to an even higher level. It set the telecast on a nice path."

The most important verdict on the telecast, however, will come when ratings for last night's show are announced. The expectation is that they will be among the lowest ever because the show aired in August - three weeks earlier than usual. The last August telecast of the Emmys was in 1992.

The reason for this year's early telecast is that host network NBC is starting Sunday night telecasts of the National Football League in September and did not want to pre-empt a game for the awards show - an indication of the low esteem in which the show is held.

ABC added insult to injury by scheduling Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl opposite the Emmys, perhaps as payback for what ABC executives saw as short shrift given two of its hit series, Lost and Desperate Housewives. Lost, which won last year as best drama, failed to make even the list of finalists this year. Low ratings this year will be particularly painful for the academy because last year's telecast, which was emceed by Ellen DeGeneres, managed to halt a precipitous decline that had seen the audience fall from 20 million in 2002 to 14 million in 2004.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com