The telecast was lackluster, but for once, there was genuine drama at the Emmy Awards last night.
HBO's acclaimed crime saga, The Sopranos, came into the telecast with more nominations than any series and was heavily favored to dominate. But as the evening wore on, acting award after acting award went to the competition. In four major drama categories - best actor, best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress - performers from ABC series beat out the favorites from The Sopranos.
But then, in the final and biggest award of the evening, the series that rewrote the rules of TV storytelling won the Emmy for best drama. The crowd at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles rose to its feet as the program came to an emotional conclusion.
Up until then, however, it had been an evening of upsets and legends at the 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards.
Tony Bennett, Robert Duvall, Helen Mirren and Sally Field were among the biggest winners, while The Sopranos managed only two major awards in three hours - Alan Taylor and creator David Chase for best directing and writing, respectively, in a drama.
"Oh, my goodness. I feel like I just stole a pile of money from the mob," Spader said, seeming confused by his victory.
But the pattern had started with the first major award when Terry O'Quinn of ABC's Lost beat out Michael Imperioli for best supporting actor in a drama series. (O'Quinn is a former Center Stage cast regular.)
His victory was followed by Katherine Heigl of ABC's Grey's Anatomy winning as best supporting actress in a drama. The women she bested included Aida Turturro and Lorraine Bracco of HBO's The Sopranos, almost everyone's favorites.
"My own mother told me I didn't have a shot in hell of winning," Heigl said as she accepted the award.
Though not as much an upset, ABC's other victory over The Sopranos came when Field of Brothers & Sisters won the Emmy as best actress in a drama over Edie Falco. Taken with Ugly Betty's America Ferrera winning as best actress in a comedy series, it was quite a night for ABC.
HBO, which came into the telecast with more nominations (86) than anyone else, wound up having a solid night overall. Ricky Gervais of HBO's Extras won as best comedy actor, while Jeremy Piven of Entourage took home the Emmy as best supporting actor in a comedy. The premium channel also won for best movie with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Nor was HBO alone in making it an impressive night for the cable TV industry. Several basic cable channels also stepped up their game.
AMC took home three major honors for Broken Trail, an epic Western starring Robert Duvall, who won as best lead actor in a miniseries. Thomas Haden Church took the trophy as best supporting actor, while the film was named best miniseries.
Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart won as best variety, music or comedy series, while Judy Davis of USA's The Starter Wife won as best supporting actress in a miniseries.
Public broadcasting made a stronger showing than usual thanks to PBS' Prime Suspect: The Final Act taking three awards, for miniseries writing, directing and acting. Mirren won the Emmy as best actress in a miniseries for her work in the franchise series.
In the final moments of the telecast, Mirren added to the electricity in the Shrine Auditorium as presenter of the award for best drama. Taking full advantage of the first-ever staging of the telecast in-the-round, she spun 360 degrees holding the envelope out to the audience with the words "The Sopranos" in full view.
NBC's Tony Bennett: An American Classic won three awards last night in the variety, music or comedy special category - including one for Bennett for best individual performance. NBC also had some winning moments last night - the biggest of which went to 30 Rock as best comedy series.
Hollywood showed more love for former Vice President Al Gore, honoring Current TV, his youth-oriented viewer-created video channel, with an Emmy for outstanding interactive programming. Gore won an Oscar in February for the global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
Looking at the telecast at large: Not to judge host Ryan Seacrest too harshly, but anyone expecting to find the kind of grace and wit that NBC's Conan O'Brien brought to last year's broadcast got up from the set sorely disappointed last night.
The utility-man performer was chosen as host for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with talent.
First, as host of American Idol, he works for Fox, which was the TV home of last night's show. More important, Idol drew as many as 30 million viewers a night - many of them members of the young demographic most desired by advertisers. The thinking by board members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was that Seacrest could help a show with an old audience instantly get younger.
Only Nielsen Media Research will tell whether it worked out that way when ratings are available this week.
The kindest assessment of Seacrest's performance is that he kept the telecast moving along at a fairly quick pace - though some will argue that credit for pace should go to the executive producer, not the host.
The harshest critiques, meanwhile, will use Seacrest's Emmy presence as the most recent evidence of the dumbing down and cheapening of American TV and its major institutions. Once upon a time, major TV awards shows were hosted by such giants of their eras as Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.
Seacrest was all self-deprecation in his opening remarks. He acknowledged that he isn't in the same league with O'Brien or the late Carson, but he asked, "Would any of them have shown up four hours early to host the red carpet awards show?"
Self-deprecation goes only so far.
Select Emmy Winners
For a complete list of Emmy winners, go to baltimoresun.com/emmys.
Supporting Actor, Drama Series:
Terry O'Quinn, Lost, ABC
Supporting Actress, Drama Series:
Katherine Heigl, Grey's Anatomy, ABC
Supporting Actor, Comedy Series:
Jeremy Piven, Entourage, HBO
Supporting Actress, Comedy Series:
Jaime Pressly, My Name is Earl, NBC
Broken Trail, AMC
Actor, Miniseries or Movie:
Robert Duvall, Broken Trail, AMC
Actress, Miniseries or Movie:
Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect: The Final Act (Masterpiece Theatre), PBS
Supporting Actor, Miniseries or Movie:
Thomas Haden Church, Broken Trail, AMC
Supporting Actress, Miniseries or Movie:
Judy Davis, The Starter Wife, USA
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, HBO
Variety, Music or Comedy Series:
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Comedy Central
Variety, Music or Comedy Special:
Tony Bennett: An American Classic, NBC
Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program:
Tony Bennett, Tony Bennett: An American Classic (2005), NBC