Minimal HBO! Jews on TV!

And other breakthroughs at this year’s Emmys.

Conan O’Brien put life in the Emmy party

The Emmys were totally great last night and, dare I say it, groundbreaking. As Conan O’Brien pointed out, he was the first Catholic ever to host the show. Hollywood had defied the powerful Lutheran mafia. And Brad Garrett, the burly and fantastic actor who won for his best-supporting performance on Everybody Loves Raymond, reflected, “I just hope this award breaks down the door for Jewish people trying to get into show business.”

The show was groundbreaking, too, in the sense that it spited the funereal bookmakers and rewarded only the liveliest, best-wrought shows on television: The West Wing, 24, Saturday Night LiveSex and the CityLate Show With David Letterman, and, yes, Everybody Loves Raymond. The anticipated apotheosis of Six Feet Under came down to just Alan Ball, the man alone, for best direction. After living fast, maybe the show will die young—and one season in the not-too-distant future we’ll see a quiet, dignified burial for the downer show. (The Sopranos, with its staggered micro-seasons, didn’t qualify for nominations this year.)

Clean, well-won Emmys went to Allison Janney, John Spencer, Jennifer Aniston, and Ray Romano. Stockard Channing took two, one of which was for her powerhouse performance in NBC’s The Matthew Shepard Story. Among TV movies—hooray—HBO’s The Gathering Storm (the Winston Churchill biopic) beat the bewildering mockumentary The Laramie Project.

The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles had a recessive pastel-and-metallic color scheme, a low-key break from the orange-blue lightning that has zapped our pupils so often on television this year. Vintage TV sets played behind Conan, though the olden-times theme was understated, even underthought. Occasionally the sets showed title sequences from chestnuts like Bonanza or I Spy, but the iconography was easy to miss.

As host, too, Conan overdid nothing, playing the Shrine like it was just another NBC set. His pretaped gags were light, easy, charming—especially the perfectly paced opening, in which Conan overslept at the Osbournes’ and, after a family shouting match, hitched a sedated ride to the show with Ozzy only to land on the set of The Price Is Right. When, later, the producers contrived to get Conan and Garry Shandling, in matching white linen, to ride double on a white horse along a beach, it was hard not to smile. I even looked for signs of splicing, and it appeared legit! Wind in their hair, they both seemed overjoyed.

The women’s clothes, more garden party than red carpet, provided no occasions for gasps—the actors wore colors and florals; the writers and producers wore black—though I hope someone in menswear tallies the number of white ties, white vests, and high jacket stances in the room. More than one jacket was buttoned at Beatles-height. I did like Courtney Cox’s periwinkle flapperlike dress, which suited her undernourished frame, as well as Oprah Winfrey’s grande-dame yellow-cream cake. Holding an Emmy, as Hollywood people must know, also shows off the impressive striations in high-end female arms: SNL’s head writer Tina Fey and ripped, Zone-dieted Jennifer Aniston maximized this effect.

Oprah won the new Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, about which Tom Hanks said: “We are, after all, only human. Some are more human than others.” (Skip the audio clip.) On tape, Diane Sawyer said of Oprah, no kidding, “She is one rockin’ girl. Who loves you, baby?” (Destroy the audio clip.) TV writers, who are allegedly ignored but actually get plenty of industry props, enjoyed especially lavish attention last night for doing their quiet duty, which was represented as near-religious calling. Steven Spielberg may have thanked the men of Easy Company for his Band of Brothers Emmy, but the GIs themselves thanked, tears in eyes, the writer Stephen Ambrose. And John Spencer spoke of The West Wing auteur Aaron Sorkin in presidential terms. “We work so hard to serve this writing,” he said, choking up. “I don’t know how he does it.” Tina Fey, who writes and acts, may have gotten the last word: “It’s time we turn our attention away from the actors and turn our attention to the writers, who secretly hate them.”

All in all, an excellent night at the Emmys—very little art and a lot of entertainment. Moreover, the serious, film-studies Six Feet Under crowd is probably better off remaining aloof from all this hokey peacock-ing. While NBC strutted, in fact, that other channel carried on, broadcasting an excellent new episode of The S-s, where the “ineligible” Tony, et al., did not seem to care about the down-dial hoo-ha in the least.