HBO and its acclaimed miniseries "Angels in America" sailed over all the competition last night to take top honors at the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, telecast live from the Shrine Auditorium on ABC. HBO's blockbuster "The Sopranos" was named best drama series. The lavish, six-hour "Angels in America" was chosen best miniseries.
The surprise winner for best comedy series was Fox's "Arrested Development," a kooky cult hit that has won tremendous critical acclaim but not, so far, very healthy ratings. Winning three Emmys -- including one for writing and another for direction of a sitcom -- may help force Fox to keep the series on the air. Traditionally, critical success counts for zilch at the Fox network.
A lively, almost lull-free show produced by Don Mischer, this year's Emmycast was hugely enhanced by having comic Garry Shandling as host. Shandling not only had plenty of jokes from the podium but also appeared in comedy sketches with the likes of Billy Crystal, Ray Romano and Chris Rock. The award for Best Reality Series -- won by CBS's "The Amazing Race" -- was presented by two "ordinary people" who had been flown to Hollywood and brought into the auditorium blindfolded and earplugged.
Shandling spoofed reality shows in his opening monologue, saying that while watching one of them, he was actually relieved to see a commercial: "Thank God, professional actors in a story!" Of the Emmy show, he called the presentation of the awards "the part that always slows it down" and promised to remain for "the whole six hours," though at just a hair over three hours, the show almost came in on time, a rare feat.
NBC won only as many awards as the Fox network -- three -- and two of those were for a show that has gone on to the Great Rerun Hereafter, "Frasier." Both stars, Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, won for their performances. Another win in the NBC corner was a prize to Allison Janney for her supporting performance on "The West Wing," the fourth time she's taken the prize for best actress in a series.
"Angels in America" had such a lustrous cast that it brought names more famous than usual to the Emmy show. Both Meryl Streep and Al Pacino won for their performances in the miniseries, which detailed the early years of the AIDS crisis and its effect on a group of disparate individuals. Streep said, "There are some days when I myself think that I'm overrated -- but not today."
James Spader was a surprise win -- beating out seeming shoo-in James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos" -- for playing a young ruthless lawyer in ABC's "The Practice." Though that series has been scrapped, parts of it will be recycled as "Boston Legal," and Spader will play the same role in that show that he played in "The Practice."
"Angels in America," based on a Broadway play, also won for its author, Tony Kushner, who finished his acceptance speech by saying to his companion, either at home or in the audience, "Someday soon we can get a legal marriage license and you can make an honest homosexual out of me." Mike Nichols won an Emmy for his direction of the epic, surrealistic drama, and Mary-Louise Parker won a supporting-actress Emmy for her work in the film.
"This could not have happened without HBO," Nichols said.
In the category of best supporting actor in a miniseries or movie, "Angels" took four of the five nominations. Not shockingly, it won, with the Emmy going to Jeffrey Wright for playing a wise nurse. (He won a Tony on Broadway in the same part.) In his acceptance speech, Wright said the AIDS crisis was anything but over and particularly serious in Africa.
The house band often sneaked in during long acceptance speeches as cues for those making them to shut up and head for the wings. But the orchestra relented as Wright spoke about AIDS. And it never even sounded a note during Al Pacino's acceptance speech (he contributed a ferocious performance as Roy Cohn to the film), apparently out of deference to Pacino's status as a movie star.
At the very end, the Emmycast suffered its worst snafu. David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," had finished his acceptance speech as the band cued him to stop. Suddenly Gandolfini stepped before the microphone, made a strange-sounding moan and tried to read something. But the director cut instead to Shandling, who wrapped up the show and said good night, leaving audiences in the dark on whatever it was the Gandolfini was trying to say.
Daffiest of all the acceptance speeches was that of Broadway star Elaine Stritch, who won for the HBO adaptation of her one-woman Broadway show, "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty." She meandered her way to the stage to keep the applause going. When it died down she paid brief tribute to the other nominees in her category and then said, "I'm so glad none of them won."
Stritch's remarks were so disjointed and semi-coherent that she became a running joke for the rest of the evening.
Drea De Matteo won for for her much-discussed, wrenching performance as Adriana, an informant for the FBI in "The Sopranos." She gave one of the shortest, simplest speeches of the evening. De Matteo is now in the cast of NBC's "Joey," a sitcom successor to "Friends" that airs Thursday nights.
Michael Imperioli, nominated three times for his portrayal of Tony Soprano's right-hand man -- and Adriana's husband -- in "Sopranos," finally won a best-supporting-actor prize. In his speech, he touchingly credited Nancy Marchand as one of his acting inspirations. Marchand appeared in the first seasons of the show but died before filming began on subsequent episodes. Imperioli has written scripts for several "Sopranos" episodes as well as co-starring.
"Sex and the City," another of HBO's big hits, won two prizes even though it concluded its run in the spring. Star and creator of the show Sarah Jessica Parker, now sashaying her way through trendy commercials for hair color, won a best-actress Emmy while Cynthia Nixon, who played her friend Miranda, was named best supporting actress. "I don't think I will ever have another job like this one," she said of the show. "I miss it."
Walter Hill, a veteran of such action movies as "The Warriors," received the Emmy for best director for yet another HBO production, "Deadwood," an unorthodox if not revolutionary dark western created and executive-produced by David Milch, alumnus of "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide."
Jon Stewart and his "Daily Show" were inexplicably cited for the second year by the TV Academy in the "variety, music or comedy series" category. The writers also won in their efforts. Stewart accepted the prize, calling it "awesome" and saying, "These guys are awesome," of the large group of writers behind him on the stage.
The production of the Emmy ceremonies was smart and slick, but the lack of any kind of musical number made the show seem kind of dry. Although the set was handsome, it looked like a lavish, life-size version of the children's board game Chutes and Ladders. But Shandling was at his best, and frequently provided just the boost to keep the show zippy. "This just came in from Fox News," he said, pretending to read a bulletin. "They have declared George Bush the winner in Florida."
Last night's Emmy show can be declared a winner itself -- for real.