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Going Out With a Bang & a Bleep

By Tom Shales
Monday, September 17, 2007

A surprise win for the comedy series "30 Rock," a rousing farewell to "The Sopranos" (including an Emmy for best drama series) and a moving tribute to the classic miniseries "Roots" elevated the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards on the Fox network last night -- but three instances of government-mandated censorship brought it down again.

Early in the program, comic actor Ray Romano and actress Katherine Heigl were both cut off when they apparently used four-letter words in remarks. The performers suddenly vanished for a few seconds and were replaced by static shots from elsewhere in Los Angeles's Shrine Auditorium, where the telecast originated. The program was on time-delay, which gives networks the opportunity to edit live shows.

An arguably obscene word uttered even spontaneously can earn a network and even performers enormous fines from the Federal Communications Commission, re-activated as a national censor under the Bush administration.

The third instance of censorship may have been political. Sally Field, making one of her long and rambling acceptance speeches (winning for best actress in a drama on "Brothers & Sisters"), was interrupted by silence when she used a God-related swear word in voicing antiwar sentiments. According to the Associated Press, she said, "If the mothers ruled the world, there would be no [expletive] wars in the first place."

If Fox censored Field for political reason, it would be an ugly first in the history of the Emmys.

Presenter Brad Garrett made smutty remarks from the stage earlier in the evening but he didn't use any forbidden words, so he survived uncut.

The evening was almost a shutout for CBS, which won only one Emmy among those given out last night -- "The Amazing Race" was chosen best reality competition. Otherwise ABC won six Emmys, NBC (the lowest-rated network last season) seven, HBO six and three to PBS (all for the imported miniseries "Prime Suspect: The Final Act").

Although "Sopranos" lost in some categories, Emmys went to David Chase, creator of the epic drama, for writing the much-talked-about series finale, and to Alan Taylor for directing an episode called "Kennedy and Heidi." HBO also won the Emmy for best TV movie: "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," a long-delayed adaptation about promises broken to Native Americans in the 19th century.

America Ferrera was named best actress in a comedy series for playing the title role in ABC's "Ugly Betty," and England's Ricky Gervais was chosen best comedy actor for his series "Extras" on HBO.

Accepting the best-comedy Emmy, series creator and star Tina Fey referred to the relatively low ratings for the show when she thanked "our dozens and dozens of viewers."

James Spader was a surprise winner as best actor in a drama for the ABC courtroom series "Boston Legal." It was a category that "Sopranos" was expected to take, and Spader said in his remarks, "I feel like I just stole a pile of money from the mob." He also touched on the arcane and mysterious apparatus behind the Emmy Awards when he said, "I have no idea who votes for these things or how you even secure a ballot."

Here and there, this year's Emmys reflected the changing landscape of television. One award was given to the Web site Current TV, which runs submissions from viewers. Al Gore, cheered at last spring's Oscar ceremony for his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," popped up at the Emmys as well, accepting the award for Current TV along with co-founder Joel Hyatt.

As the crowd's cheers for Gore persisted, Hyatt said to Gore onstage, "That's a nice tribute to you." Gore said such participatory channels on the Internet could help "reclaim American democracy by talking about the choices we have to make."

In addition, Emmys went to programs appearing on such basic cable networks as USA (Judy Davis, best supporting actress in a drama, for "The Starter Wife") and AMC, once called American Movie Classics, which won in three categories for its original western movie "Broken Trail," including Robert Duvall as best actor in a miniseries or movie.

NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" won for best writing of a variety, music or comedy series. As usual, a comic highlight of the program was the tapes submitted by the writing staffs of the nominated shows. Writers for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," named best variety or musical series a little later in the evening, had all their names inserted after the phrase "I don't recall," as repeated by former attorney general Alberto Gonzales in testimony before a congressional subcommittee.

Only the feet of writers for HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" were seen, glimpsed from under the doors of stalls in a men's room, a reference to the scandal that recently disrupted the political career of Sen. Larry Craig.

Jeremy Piven, who has won widespread praise for his performance as the hard-charging agent Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage," won for best supporting actor in a comedy series; Jaime Pressly, of NBC's "My Name Is Earl," won the female side of that category.

Ryan Seacrest, who hosts "American Idol" on Fox, proved a poor choice to emcee this year's Emmys; his material was weak, and Seacrest tried to keep up a hipper-than-thou attitude that fell flat. When he introduced former hosts in the audience, such as Ellen DeGeneres, many viewers may have wished that DeGeneres could grab the microphone and replace Seacrest before any more time was wasted.

For the first time, the show was staged "in the round," with the audience surrounding a circular stage in the center of the vast hall. The consensus among presenters and performers appeared to be that they didn't like having their backs to half of the audience. This gimmick probably won't be back next year -- and most likely, neither will Seacrest.

More than 60 other Emmys were awarded a week earlier at the "creative arts" ceremony, which cited technical achievement and bestowed awards in minor categories. Honored for guest-acting roles on drama and comedy series were Elaine Stritch for "30 Rock," Leslie Caron for "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," John Goodman for "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and Stanley Tucci for "Monk."

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