Picking the winners 'West Wing' looks poised for Emmy re-election as top drama

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- The trappings of glamour will be absent from the Emmy Awards: No fancy gowns, no cheering fans, a post-show ''Unity Dinner'' in place of the festive Governors Ball.

Intent on showing respect in the shadow of the Sept. 11 tragedy, nearly every feature of the ''53rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards'' (8 p.m. EDT Sunday, CBS) is different.

But one thing can't change in the ceremony delayed three weeks because of the terrorist attacks: The Emmys are a contest and there will be winners and losers.

In this now-solemn race, we're predicting NBC's White House drama ''The West Wing'' will triumph, perhaps matching its own record of nine trophies set last year.

HBO's mob drama ''The Sopranos'' received 22 nominations this year to ''The West Wing's'' 18 bids, but the latter has top honors including best drama series and best actor in its sights.

Ellen DeGeneres will serve as master of ceremonies, during which 27 awards in acting, directing and writing categories will be presented. Voting was completed Aug. 17.

''The West Wing'' already won four Emmys at a September creative arts ceremony, including trophies for casting, cinematography, editing and sound mixing. ''The Sopranos'' claimed a single award, for makeup.

In this new golden age of TV drama, weighing the chances of such superb shows can be difficult. But ''The West Wing'' clearly deserves re-election as top series.

It built on its first-year excellence with a high-powered story arc about President Bartlet's decision to hide a debilitating illness. It made the most of its talented ensemble cast while giving Martin Sheen, as the president, the chance for a memorable star turn.

A ''West Wing'' triumph would add a professional grace note to a difficult personal year for series creator Aaron Sorkin, who pleaded guilty in a drug possession case in June and entered a treatment program.

There were standout ''Sopranos'' episodes and performances -- especially from its leading ladies -- but the stakes and the drama didn't seem as high this season for mob boss Tony Soprano. Relatively conservative Emmy voters also are more likely to snub the violent, sexually vivid show in favor of the more staid ''The West Wing.''

Another factor weighing against ''The Sopranos'': No cable entry has claimed the best drama or best comedy series prize, and it's unlikely the network TV bias will be broken this year with a strong entry like ''The West Wing.''

It wasn't until 1999, in fact, that ''The Sopranos'' become the first cable series to even gain a nomination as best drama.

We're not alone in our predictions. Fellow TV observers at the Web site www.Goldderby.com, which handicaps Hollywood contests, give 2-to-5 odds for ''The West Wing'' in both the drama and best actor categories. The odds are 3-to-1 for a ''Sopranos'' best series win and 4-to-1 for James Gandolfini as best actor.

Among comedy series, ''Everybody Loves Raymond'' and ''Malcolm in the Middle'' are ranked as Goldderby leaders with 3-to-2 odds. Last year's winner, ''Will & Grace,'' comes in at 3-to-1.

The Emmy truth, according to Goldderby founder and ''The Emmys'' author Thomas O'Neil, is in the tapes. Each performer submits one episode he or she believes represents his or her best work for the season, while series offer eight episodes. Judging panels give awards based on those samples, not the entire season.

''If you want to predict who's going to win the Emmys, you have to see what's on those tapes. Stars live or die based on them,'' O'Neil advises in his online Emmy forecast.

Studying the submissions revealed one inescapable truth: Bryan Cranston, the masterfully befuddled dad on ''Malcolm in the Middle,'' was robbed of a nomination. His performance on the tape submitted by co-star and deserved nominee Jane Kaczmarek was award-worthy.

In another injustice, the WB's witty ''The Gilmore Girls'' was shut out of the nominations. Note to the TV academy: Youthful little networks can have darn good shows.

Now on to the nominees in the top categories and some more crystal-ball gazing. Heading into Sunday, NBC is the leader with 11 creative arts Emmys (Fox matched that number but won't be a major factor in the main ceremony). HBO has eight trophies, ABC has seven and CBS, PBS and UPN have five each.

n Best drama series: ''The West Wing,'' ''Law & Order'' and ''ER,'' NBC; ''The Sopranos,'' HBO; ''The Practice,'' ABC.

No recounts needed as ''The West Wing'' takes the award.

n Best comedy series: ''Everybody Loves Raymond,'' CBS; ''Frasier'' and ''Will & Grace,'' NBC; ''Malcolm in the Middle,'' Fox; ''Sex and the City,'' HBO.

In a perfect world, sophisticated cable charmer ''Sex and the City'' would be honored for a lovely year of laughs and tears. In the real world, we predict fresh-faced, inventive ''Malcolm in the Middle,'' the worthiest network entry, gets the gold.

n Best actor in a drama series: Andre Braugher, ''Gideon's Crossing'' and Dennis Franz, ''NYPD Blue,'' ABC; James Gandolfini, ''The Sopranos,'' HBO; Rob Lowe and Martin Sheen, ''The West Wing,'' NBC.

Sheen railing against God in the National Cathedral after the death of longtime confidant Mrs. Landingham was one of the indelible images of last season. Give the fictional leader of the free world an Emmy.

n Best actress in a drama series: Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco, ''The Sopranos,'' HBO; Amy Brenneman, ''Judging Amy'' and Marg Helgenberger, ''CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,'' CBS; Sela Ward, ''Once and Again,'' ABC.

What a dazzling contest between the ''Sopranos'' actresses. Watch-ing Falco dissolve as a psychiatrist brutally dissects her life, it's hard to believe she could lose. But Bracco's submitted episode, in which she is raped and then resists seeking mob vengeance, is superb. Her screen time generally may not qualify Bracco as a series lead, but her character's relationship to Tony Soprano is so pivotal to the series she gets the benefit of the doubt -- and the Emmy for great work.

n Best actor in a comedy series: Kelsey Grammer, ''Frasier,'' John Lithgow, ''3rd Rock From the Sun,'' Eric McCormack, ''Will & Grace,'' NBC; Frankie Muniz, ''Malcolm in the Middle,'' Fox; Ray Romano, ''Everybody Loves Raymond,'' CBS.

In a surprisingly weak field of submissions, the race is between Grammer and McCormack. The former was touching but not particularly funny in a midlife-crisis episode; the latter was funny enough but missed chances to make emotional hay out of his homosexual character's reluctant coming out. We'll call it for McCormack, who at least had the chance to play more shades than Grammer.

n Best actress in a comedy series: Calista Flockhart, ''Ally McBeal,'' and Jane Kaczmarek, ''Malcolm in the Middle,'' Fox; Patricia Heaton, ''Everybody Loves Raymond,'' CBS; Debra Messing, ''Will & Grace,'' NBC; Sarah Jessica Parker, ''Sex and the City,'' HBO.

Kaczmarek is a frantic wonder in a flashback episode recalling a series of childbirths and marital crises, but we found more range and charm in the flashback performance submitted by Messing. Her gawky, lovelorn college student was both funny and vulnerable as she discovers her would-be boyfriend, Will, is gay. How could academy voters reject her?

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