Please let it end, please let it end, please let it--oh, it's over. "The 51st Annual Emmy Awards" actually stayed within its allotted three hours of air time last night yet seemed much longer. Though there were many surprises among winners and losers, the show came across as dry, limp, institutional and fueled by futility.

Contrary to expectations, HBO's hugely acclaimed "Sopranos" did not sweep the awards or win the Emmy as best drama series of the year, though everybody knows it was. Instead, perhaps feeling pressure to help broadcast TV save face, the voters of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gave one man an unprecedented one-two parlay. Producer-writer David E. Kelley won for best drama series for ABC's "The Practice" and then, seconds later, for best comedy series, Fox's "Ally McBeal."

HBO did win plenty of Emmys, though, including one for the hilarious and daring "Chris Rock Show." Rock, the hottest American comedian of the moment, was stunningly gracious in accepting the prize, saying the award should have gone to one of his competitors, NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

"Conan has the best show, really," Rock said. "I do 13 shows a year. He does 100." Rock had a good point. Many of the Emmy categories essentially mix apples and oranges. HBO produced just 13 episodes of "The Sopranos" but ABC had to cough up 22 of "The Practice."

If nothing else, the Emmys reestablished network identities. ABC was reconfirmed as the best network for drama, NBC held on to its crown as the king of comedy, and CBS--well, CBS won few Emmys and maintained its reputation as the network of not-much-really.

Executive Producer Don Mischer's goal with the Emmy show this year was apparently to eliminate any trace of entertainment. People used to complain about musical and dance numbers in awards shows, but without them these things become punishingly repetitious parades of thank-yous and hyperbole from the winners. Still, there were happy moments from such presenters as the dependable Garry Shandling, comic David Spade (making fun of the almost supernaturally prolific Kelley) and Martin Short, whose new daytime talk show begins this morning and who thanked "the great Shelley Winters, in whose Winter Garden dressing room I first became a man."

Short didn't win an Emmy and wasn't up for one, so he brought out the Tony he won last spring and continued his acceptance speech for that.

One certifiable emotional high point--virtually the only one--was the appearance of Robert Guillaume as a presenter. He is still recovering from the effects of a stroke and walked onstage with a cane to a standing ovation. He's expected eventually to return to his key role on the ABC comedy "Sports Night."

Holland Taylor, a die-hard veteran TV actress usually known for her comedy work, has been the bright spot in many an otherwise dreary sitcom for years and years and years. Finally last night she won an Emmy, for supporting actress on "The Practice." The first word out of her mouth: "Overnight!" She pulled out a piece of blue paper with a speech on it and said, "I'm so glad I wrote something. I'm so sorry I can't see it."

Academy "peer panels," who do the final voting, made many bizarre or just plain ridiculous choices, such as giving the best miniseries Emmy to "Horatio Hornblower," which aired on cable's low-rent Arts & Entertainment network. Did anybody actually see "Horatio Hornblower"? Unimaginatively, the Academy gave repeat awards to two actors on NBC's moronic comedy "3rd Rock From the Sun," a show that started as a hit but has since developed into a flop.

And naturally Helen Hunt had to win again, a fourth time, as best actress in a sitcom even though "Mad About You" fizzled out in its seventh and final season on NBC.

One wonders if the voters will find some loophole in the rules that'll allow them to give Hunt the award again next year, whether she works in television or not. Maybe if she just watches television she'll qualify.

It was the Fox network's turn to air the Emmycast and the joke was on Fox executives; they barely won any Emmys at all, although the last-minute award to "Ally McBeal" was a major prize and a major upset ("Frasier" usually wins, another Academy tradition). CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" won an Emmy for the second year in a row; it started winning, finally, once its ratings began to go into the East River.

Letterman himself was not present at the ceremonies.

Other than the sight of Keri Russell ("Felicity") in a long white sheath dress, the program was criminally short on visual appeal, its stage dominated by a giant rotating Emmy that looked more than ever like the evil pagan icon of some ancient extinct civilization. And in a way it is, because the network era of television is long since over.

Among the wisest words spoken were those of comic Dennis Miller in an otherwise torturous pre-Emmy show. Asked by Pat "The Idiot" O'Brien to talk about the future of television, Miller stated that viewership of the networks will soon be so "winnowed down" that a program with only two viewers will be able to win its time slot in the ratings. O'Brien looked mortified. He wasn't expecting such a thoughtful, and realistic, assessment.

CAPTION: "Dharma and Greg's" Jenna Elfman, left, co-hosted the Emmys; Helen Hunt won for lead actress in a comedy series.