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ENVY AT THE EMMYS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOT ON THE HEELS OF A SUM-mer that saw audience levels sink to an all-time low, the broadcast networks could be in for more pain yet tonight at the 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

The Emmy telecast is designed to promote the start of the new fall season on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW. But tonight's program on Fox could wind up celebrating the cable industry instead -- all those regulation-free channels that have been thrashing the networks in the ratings in recent months.

Cable has come to be the place for quality TV series, and that claim isn't limited to such expensive premium channels as HBO and Showtime. Basic advertiser-supported outlets, such as TNT and AMC, which boast such hits as The Closer and Mad Men, respectively, should be among tonight's biggest winners. AMC's Broken Trail, a sprawling Western miniseries starring Robert Duvall, has 16 nominations.

In fact, it could be an all-out cable romp depending on whether Hollywood wants to give HBO's The Sopranos the sendoff it deserves despite creator David Chase's copout of a finale. The telecast will feature a musical salute to the series by the cast of the Broadway show Jersey Boys. (The production is based on the music of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, and Valli played a gangster in the HBO series.)

Here are my picks for who will win tonight, and they are decidedly cable-centric.

Full disclosure: I have recently screened many of the episodes entered in major categories. I received them from Tom O'Neil, columnist for the Envelope.com, a Hollywood awards Web site. In return, I share my picks with O'Neil, who posts them on his site.

The judges of the Emmys that will be awarded tonight are supposed to have voted on the basis of those episodes only -- not the overall performance during the year.

According to O'Neil, author of The Emmys, the definitive book on the history of the awards, fewer than 150 members cast the final votes in each category.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

ON TV The 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards show airs at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45)

Readers' top Emmy picks

Sun readers expect The Sopranos and The Office to win Emmys, in more than 1,100 votes cast by Thursday at baltimoresun.com.

Drama

The Sopranos

Comedy

The Office

Actor, drama

James Gandolfini, The Sopranos

Actress, drama

Edie Falco, The Sopranos

Actress, comedy

America Ferrera, Ugly Betty

Actor, comedy

Steve Carell, The Office

Supporting actor, comedy

Rainn Wilson, The Office

Supporting actor, drama

Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos

Supporting actress, drama

Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos

Supporting actress, comedy

Jenna Fischer, The Office

Reality-competition

American Idol

Miniseries

Prime Suspect

Up for awards: 'Sopranos,' 'Closer,' 'Monk'

DRAMA SERIES - Sopranos (HBO), Grey's Anatomy (ABC), Heroes (NBC), House (Fox) and Boston Legal (ABC)

My pick: The Sopranos

My reasons: Among the episodes entered by HBO is "Kennedy and Heidi," the one in which Tony (James Gandolfini) kills his nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), and then goes off on a hero quest that ends in the desert outside Las Vegas - with Tony high on peyote, sex and the sunrise. The hour was so shocking, rich and emotionally rocking that it left me exhausted. As compelling as Grey's Anatomy has been week to week, and as great a lift as the refreshingly original Heroes gave all of network TV, nothing on either series can compare with The Sopranos in an episode like this. Even though the series has won only once, and no other drama that has already ended its run has ever won, I'm betting on the bad guys.

COMEDY SERIES -Ugly Betty (ABC), 30 Rock (NBC), The Office (NBC), Entourage (HBO) and Two and a Half Men (CBS)

My pick: 30 Rock

My reasons: I probably should be picking Ugly Betty. It certainly was the most pleasant comedic surprise of the last season. But I have been pulling for 30 Rock since I saw its frenetic and daring pilot last year. That episode alone should earn an Emmy. And there's no better comedy ensemble right now than Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski.

ACTOR, DRAMA SERIES - Hugh Laurie, House (Fox); James Spader, Boston Legal (ABC); Denis Leary, Rescue Me (FX); Kiefer Sutherland, 24 (Fox); James Gandolfini, The Sopranos, (HBO)

My pick: James Gandolfini

My reasons: Acting awards are based on only one episode this year (up until last year, it was two). Gandolfini's episode is "The Second Coming," which included Tony knocking out the teeth of a rival wiseguy who menaced his daughter, and rescuing his son from a suicide attempt in the backyard pool where Tony once played host to a family of ducks. Gandolfini's range is extraordinary, and in this episode, he plays rage better than anyone this side of Robert De Niro. No contest. Even Hugh Laurie as the cranky Dr. House doesn't play in this league.

ACTRESS, DRAMA SERIES - Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters (ABC); Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer (TNT); Edie Falco, The Sopranos (HBO); Patricia Arquette, Medium (NBC); Minnie Driver, The Riches (FX); Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

My pick: Kyra Sedgwick

My reasons: This is the most competitive category of the night - with Field and Falco nearly as deserving as Sedgwick. In the end, though, no one on TV has done more with a character than Sedgwick. From the weird outfits, to the sugar-addicted jitters, Sedgwick has layered Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson with attitude, edge and endearing quirks.

ACTOR, COMEDY SERIES - Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock (NBC); Steve Carell, The Office (NBC); Tony Shalhoub, Monk (USA); Ricky Gervais, Extras (HBO); Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men (CBS)

My pick: Tony Shalhoub

My reasons: The weakest category by far. And even though Shalhoub is dancing the same few steps over and over in his depiction of defective detective Adrian Monk, they are still amusing. Monk is television's most beloved sleuth since Columbo, thanks to Shalhoub.

ACTRESS, COMEDY SERIES - Tina Fey, 30 Rock (NBC); Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives (ABC); Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine (NBC); America Ferrera, Ugly Betty (ABC); Mary Louise-Parker, Weeds (Showtime)

My pick: America Ferrera

My reasons: I would be OK with anyone except Louis-Dreyfus winning, but Ferrera will get the award for her performance as Betty Suarez. She was the most exciting newcomer on network TV with the exception of Masi Oka, who plays Hiro, on NBC's Heroes.

MADE-FOR-TV MOVIE - Inside the Twin Towers (Discovery), The Ron Clark Story (TNT), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (HBO), Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy (Lifetime)

My pick: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

My reason: The epic saga about mistreatment of Native Americans on the 19th-century frontier received more nominations than any other show. But did you notice? They are all cable productions in what used to be a franchise genre for network TV.

MINISERIES - Prime Suspect: The Final Act (PBS), Broken Trail (AMC), The Starter Wife (USA)

My pick: Prime Suspect

My reason: Is there any award Helen Mirren doesn't deserve to win? As Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, she was sublime in a finale that was everything The Sopranos' wasn't.

REALITY-COMPETITION - American Idol (Fox), Top Chef (Bravo), Project Runway (Bravo), Amazing Race (CBS), Dancing with the Stars (ABC)

My pick: American Idol

My reason: While there are Academy members who hate Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch so much that they will vote against any show on his network, there is no series that has done more for the TV industry than American Idol. It is time to give this series some love. But even here in the genre invented and honed on network TV, cable is making inroads. Look out for Project Runway - if not this year, then next.

David Zurawik

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