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HBO's 'John Adams' makes history

The Baltimore Sun

History was made on several fronts at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards last night.

The HBO miniseries John Adams surpassed the 2003 HBO production Angels in America to become the most honored long form program in TV history. Meanwhile, AMC's Mad Men, a stylish series about life on Madison Avenue in the 1960s, became the first basic cable program to win as best drama.

And then came writer-actress Tina Fey and the series she created, NBC's 30 Rock, dominating the comedy category like no other sitcom in years as it took home awards for best writing, best actress, best actor and best comedy.

While Fey was undoubtedly the single most celebrated performer at the Emmy telecast, it was the record tally of Emmys by Adams and the win by Mad Men that had historians buzzing.

The miniseries about America's second president and his wife, Abigail, had won five Emmys, including the one for best miniseries. Combined with the eight it took home last week at the Creative Arts Awards portion of the competition, it was guaranteed a spot in the record books, topping the 11 won by Angels and Eleanor and Franklin, a 1976 miniseries about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Roots, an epic miniseries about an African-American family's journey through slavery, won nine Emmys in 1977.

"Surpassing Angels in America is a huge and historic accomplishment," said Tom O'Neil, author of the book, The Emmys. "HBO's $100 million production was a massive gamble considering Adams - let's face it - was one of our least sexy U.S. presidents. But what the miniseries might have lacked in cool factor, it obviously made up in artistic achievement, according to the TV pros who vote for the Emmys."

Just as Angels in America and Roots spoke to profound social issues, John Adams arrived during an election cycle in which Americans are grappling with the question of what kind of president they want to lead the nation out of one of its most challenging periods since the 1930s.

In addition to best miniseries, Adams also won for best actor (Paul Giamatti as John Adams), best actress (Laura Linney as Abigail Adams), best supporting actor (Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin), and for screenplay by Kirk Ellis, who offered a political jab in his acceptance speech by praising the Age of Adams as a "period in our history when articulate men articulated complex thoughts in complete sentences."

The success of John Adams, which entered the competition last night with 23 nominations, was part and parcel of HBO continuing its winning ways.

HBO came into the evening leading all networks with 85 nominations, and is said to have mounted a major campaign to bring home trophies in hopes of winning back some of the prestige lost since The Sopranos went off the air, leaving HBO without a hit series.

The HBO winners were a who's who of Hollywood's best talent in front of and behind the camera. It included Dianne Weist as best supporting actress in a drama for her work on In Treatment and Jeremy Piven as best supporting actor in a comedy for his performance in Entourage.

But NBC's 30 Rock more than saved face for the networks. The show won best comedy series. Alec Baldwin won for best actor in a comedy series, while creator Tina Fey took home best actress in a comedy and also the comedy writing award.

While it was exciting to see history being made, as entertainment, the telecast emceed by five reality hosts was without a doubt one of the worst in history. It was tedious from the moment Tom Bergeron (Dancing with the Stars), Howie Mandel (Deal or No Deal), Jeff Probst (Survivor), Heidi Klum (Project Runway) and Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) hit the stage and did 12 minutes of chatter about not having an opening monologue or remarks.

The segment ended with two of the reality guys ripping off Klum's tuxedo to reveal a skimpy showgirl outfit. Yawn.

The boredom was momentarily relieved only a couple of times.

The first involved presenter Ricky Gervais (Extras) going after Steve Carell (The Office), who was in the audience. Last year, Gervais won an Emmy but was not in attendance, so Carell accepted his award. The "joke" was that Carell would not give the award up and Gervais went down into the audience to get it.

Gervais said, "This is live, and I can do anything." For five seconds, the malaise almost lifted. Almost.

A bit re-creating the 1960s comedy sensation Laugh-In was an outright embarrassment. But a montage remembering TV performers who died this year did have a few touching moments, including footage of Baltimore's Jim McKay at the Munich Olympics and NBC's Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

As usual, the acceptance speeches were a mixed bag. For example, an Emmy from 1968 was awarded to comedian Tommy Smothers for writing in his landmark and highly controversial Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

In his acceptance speech, Smothers, who was frequently censored and ultimately canceled in the 1960s by CBS for his politics, looked as if he was going to shake the cobwebs out of the room.

"It is hard for me to remain silent," he said, "when I am told that peace is only attainable through war. ... There is nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action."

But because he declined to be specific in his condemnation, the statement lacked any real knockout power.

One of the most graceful moments came from Linney, who said, "I will look at this Emmy and be grateful for the community organizers who helped form our country."

She not only correctly identified the role John and Abigail Adams played in Colonial America, it was also a clever reference to vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin mocking community organizers at the Republican National Convention.

Both Steve Colbert and Jon Stewart generally avoided politics in accepting their awards for best writing and best show in variety, music or comedy series.

In addition to Mad Men winning as best drama, Baltimore native Matt Weiner, creator of the series, took home the award for best writing in a drama for the episode titled "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." In his acceptance speech, he thanked another Baltimore native, Robin Veith, who was nominated with Weiner for an episode that they wrote together, "The Wheel."

Along with Glenn Close winning as best drama actress for FX's Damages and Bryan Cranston winning as best actor for AMC's Breaking Bad, it was clearly a breakthrough night for basic cable as well.

"The victory of Mad Men marks a clear power shift away from the broadcast channels," O'Neil said. "That shift has been appreciated for some time by viewers, but not yet formally acknowledged by the establishment until this victory by Mad Men."

select winners

Drama Series: : Mad Men, AMC

Comedy Series: : 30 Rock, NBC

Actor, Drama: : Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

Actress, Drama: : Glenn Close, Damages

Supporting Actor, Drama: : Zeljko Ivanek, Damages

Supporting Actress, Drama: : Dianne Wiest, In Treatment

Actor, Comedy: : Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock

Actress, Comedy: : Tina Fey, 30 Rock

Supporting Actor, Comedy: : Jeremy Piven, Entourage

Supporting Actress, Comedy: : Jean Smart, Samantha Who?

Miniseries: : John Adams, HBO

Reality-Competition Program: : The Amazing Race, CBS

Writing, Drama Series: : Matthew Weiner, Mad Men ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes")

Writing, Comedy Series: : Tina Fey, 30 Rock ("Cooter")

Variety, Music or Comedy Series: : The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Comedy Central

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