Handicapping the Emmys

A wish list for 2004.

The Emmy Award nominations were announced yesterday, providing few surprises—HBO crushed the networks, earning a total of 124 nominations; Angels in America was the single most-nominated program of the year; respectable, long-running series like The Sopranos and The West Wing dominated, with smaller nods to newer, quirkier fare like  Arrested Development  and Chappelle’s Show. But predictable as the 2004 Emmys list might be, it still leaves some room for fanciful speculation. What would happen if awards shows were actually a meritocracy, and not some inscrutable mix of logrolling, influence-wielding, and outright bribery? There’s no accounting for taste, especially that of awards-show voters, but after scanning the offerings, I’d like to offer up my own wish list of Emmy winners. These are not predictions, mind you. When the winged ladies are handed out on September 19, I’ll no doubt be shaking a fist at the screen. But in the meantime, here are my personal favorites, chosen randomly from among the nominated categories, in no particular order, and colored by extreme prejudice:

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: In an unintentionally comic juxtaposition, Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm finds himself up against a dead guy, John Ritter, who appeared in only three episodes of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter before his untimely death last fall. When I read this, I could only think what a perfect plot it would make for a future Larry David episode: the hopeless plight of competing with a beloved dead actor, and Larry’s increasingly difficult-to-conceal resentment that his moment in the sun was being overshadowed by awards-show piety. I wonder if he’ll have the courage and/or bad taste to take this real-life gag on as material next season. Of course, Ritter will win, though he might face stiff competition from another sentimental favorite, Kelsey Grammer of the late, lamented Frasier.

Outstanding Lead Actress In a Comedy Series: They’re going to give this one to Jennifer Aniston, as part of the inexplicable mass grief at the passing of  Friends  (in an oddly formal touch, her character is even listed in the Emmy nominations by her full name, “Rachel Karen Green,” as if she were a newborn baby or a presidential assassin). But I have a soft spot for Jane Kaczmarek as the mother on Malcolm in the Middle. No one else can telegraph that combination of suburban stability and sexy screwball loopiness. She’s the Jamie Lee Curtis of the small screen.

Outstanding Commercial? I didn’t even know that was an Emmy category. It probably gets short shrift on the telecast. I’d have to defer to Slate’s Seth Stevenson on this one, but of the nominees, the only one I regularly spare the mute button is the Citibank “Identity Theft Card Protection” campaign, in which victims of credit card theft channel the voices of those who are living large on their dime: An old lady cleaning her pool recounts her Vegas spending spree in a thuggish croak; a young black woman in a hair salon speaks in the nasal whine of a male computer nerd. The spots are simple and low-concept, but there’s something primally disturbing about the wrong voice coming out of the wrong body that makes these ads impossible not to watch.

Outstanding Costumes for a Series: That’s easy: the final episode of Sex and the City, “An American Girl in Paris: Part Deux.” (Like many Emmys, this one is given not to the show as a whole, but to a particular episode.) That muddy green millefeuille couture gown Carrie fell asleep in on Baryshnikov’s bed—you know what I’m talking about—was worth a statue in itself. Patricia Field has probably taken this prize home for five years running, but what the hell—has anyone else changed the way we dress like she has?

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie: Please, please don’t let it be Al Pacino as Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Pacino’s acting has long been veering toward the operatic, but late-period Al has become a sugar-cured Easter ham, complete with glazed pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. While he obviously relished playing the role of the hateful homophobic lawyer dying from AIDS, his scenes were the one part of the six-hour Angels telecast that I consistently counted on for a bathroom break. I would like to see Mos Def take this one, for his impressive performance * in HBO’s otherwise disappointing Something the Lord Made. But like the presidential race, this is really more of a negative vote for me: anyone but Pacino.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie: I’d like to say Judy Davis for her performance as Nancy Reagan in The Reagans, which was rumored to be extraordinary (if you saw her play Judy Garland in the 2001 miniseries Me and My Shadows, you know that Judy Davis is an infallible, otherworldly goddess to whom we should all tithe one-tenth of our earnings). But the problem is that, like many Americans, I never got a chance to see the bloody thing. After the wusses at CBS bowed down to pressure from Republican lobbyists and pulled The Reagans from its broadcast schedule, I was too disgusted with the whole affair to even follow the miniseries to Showtime, where it eventually aired to general critical acclaim. How do the networks ever expect to compete with cable if they’re going to blandify their content for every special interest group that comes along? So for this category, I’ll root for the lovely Helen Mirren, reprising her role as Detective Jane Tennison for the BBC Prime Suspect series.

Outstanding Main Title Theme Music: Of all the nominees in this category, there was only one tune I could hear in my head immediately: the haunting folk violin of the Deadwood theme song. I’ve never actually watched the show, because it’s on right after The Sopranos, when I just can’t take any more cursing, whoring, or mayhem. I always stay tuned through the end of the opening credits, though, to hear that catchy song.

Outstanding Writing For a Drama Series: This is one category that, as a writer myself, I feel very strongly about. Of the five individual episodes nominated for this award, four are from the same show, The Sopranos. (The fifth is the pilot of Deadwood.) It would be easy to shrug and say, what the hell, some Sopranos script is likely to take the award, but one of those episodes is so head and shoulders above the rest—and indeed, so above anything I’ve seen on TV in recent memory—that I have to give it props here. “Long Term Parking,” written by Terence Winter, was the penultimate episode of the show’s fifth season—the one in which that terrible, horrible thing happened that broke any longtime viewer’s heart, and took the show to a whole new level of nihilist brutality. I always perk up when I see Winter’s name at the end of the Sopranos credits (and not just because he’s written for Slate). He’s my favorite of the show’s thoroughbred stable of writers, perhaps because his darkly funny sensibility complements that of Sopranos creator and fellow executive producer David Chase.  The Sopranos is much lauded for its bravura acting, and rightly so, but somebody has to put those words in James Gandolfini’s mouth, and nobody does it better than Terence Winter.

Please tune in Monday, when we’ll have the results of the contest to invent a Jeopardy! drinking game in honor of the now officially eerie 31-day winning streak of Ken Jennings (see Wednesday’s post below.) If you’d care to send in your contribution to this culturally significant event, I’ll be compiling and reading responses up through Sunday night.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

 A Jeopardy! Drinking Game?

As we experiment with where this new TV blog should go (besides away. It’s not just going to go away, OK?), Surfergirl is instituting a new occasional feature called KenJen Watch, in which we accompany turning points in the exploits of Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy! phenom whose seemingly endless tenure on the show is approaching Groundhog Day proportions. Yesterday, during his 30th straight day of play, KenJen finally broke the million-dollar mark, winning $32,000 in a single day for a grand total of $1,004,960. It’s becoming actually worrisome. At what point are special measures going to have to be taken?

In the past week, Ken’s been written up in the New York Times and appeared on both Regis and Kelly (where, when asked what he planned to do with the money, the strait-laced Mormon replied, “Roll around naked in it”) and the David Letterman show, where he read off a list of “Top Ten Ways to Irritate Alex Trebek.” Not included among those ways was the method KenJen’s actually been using to get Trebek’s goat lately: refusing to bet enough to beat the show’s one-day betting record of $52,000. He finally tied it the other day, and Alex begged him to bust out and wager one more dollar to make it $52,001, but KenJen was having none of it.

Things are getting strange on the Jeopardy! set. As Jennings’ winning streak drags on, little rituals between Ken and Alex are emerging; the two riff and joke with the punch-drunk loopiness of two undergraduates pulling an all-nighter. Perhaps out of sheer boredom, Ken has taken to signing his name in creative ways on the blue screen below his podium: in big pillowy letters, surrounded by zigzags, or carved into the shape of a skyline. Then there’s the “chat” section of the show, in which contestants bring in an anecdote to share with Trebek (who some viewers find chilly and smug, but who’s always struck me as a master of old-school courtesy and restraint.) Last night, a contestant named Max, an attorney from Las Vegas, talked about the time he ran with the bulls in Pamplona (evidence of a brutal self-destructive streak, sure, but probably not as bad as facing Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!). Another recent contestant told an inappropriately long story about her overweight pet cat. But when it comes KenJen’s turn to chat, Alex is now interviewing him, asking meta-Jeopardy! questions like: “If you’re a teetotaler, how come you know so much about booze?” Ken’s response: His wife has been quizzing him with cocktail-themed flashcards. “You owe her a big debt of gratitude,” says Alex, and cool as a cucumber, Ken counters with, “I’ll buy her a drink.” Big laughs from the studio audience (which, to be fair, is pretty easily pleased—they liked the fat-cat story, too). Alex tries to tie up the chat segment, saying, “I guess your wife’s no teetotaler,” and just as he’s turning back to the board to resume play, this tiny Ken voice pipes up offscreen: “Actually, she is.” Defending his lady’s Mormon purity even unto the breach! I wish I could agree with the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley that Ken is “the most annoying man in game show history” (because it’s always fun to heckle the TV screen), but I can’t help it: The guy is adorable.

I’ll be signing off now, because it’s almost time for tonight’s installment of Jeopardy! As a non-Mormon, non-teetotaler myself, I’m thinking of inventing a drinking game based on the show (if KenJen’s going to keep creaming them every night, we viewers have got to find some way to pass the time). Suggestions for rules of play are welcome: Write me with ideas at, and I’ll announce the winning game next week.  5:21 p.m

Correction, July 20, 2004: The Emmy article originally stated that Something the Lord Made was Mos Def’s film debut; his first film performance was actually in God Bless the Child. (Return to the corrected sentence.)