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And the Emmy For Vapid Self-Congratulations Goes To...

It happens every summer. I'll be sitting around the veranda of my fabulous Playa Del Rey estate, enjoying the warm, inviting sun, and sipping freely from my pitcher of strawberry daiquiries. A cabaña girl awaits nearby, a jar full of cocoa butter at the ready in the event my tender flesh begins to burn in the late July sun. A Sinatra CD -- something from the Capitol years -- is playing in the background. A filet mignon is sizzling on the grill. Life, it seems, could not be any better.

Until the Emmy nominations come out. And then, not all the daiquiries or the cabaña girls or the Sinatra CDs in the world can ease the pain.

Each summer, I sit back and reflect on the TV season that was. And in spite of the vast river of dross like Profiler or Fired Up or almost anything on Fox that discriminating viewers like myself have to wade across, I can always find a handful of shows worthy of any and all praise that can be heaped upon them, even if it is a gaudy trinket like the Emmy.

And each summer, when the Emmy nominations are announced, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences comes and goes tinkle on my little parade. Like the potato salad Aunt Millie serves every year at the family Fourth of July picnic, the Emmy nominations come along each July and kick me in the gut, and nothing -- short of inducing vomiting -- can make the agony go away.

This year was no different. Like many deranged sociopaths, Emmy voters keep committing the same sins year after year. And they'll continue to do so, until some right- thinking citizen shanghais the Emmy voters, drives them off to some remote cabin in the middle of the Canadian Rockies and knocks some sense into their noggins with a truncheon until they finally realize, "Hey, maybe nominating rubber-faced John Lithgow every year isn't such a swell idea..."

There are the sins of omission, of course. Andre Braugher -- recognized as one of the most interesting actors on TV by anyone with a functioning brain stem -- was snubbed. His fine show, Homicide, was passed over again so that Emmy nominations could be showered upon the creaking NYPD Blue, the lumbering Chicago Hope and the clearly not-as-good-as-it-used-to-be ER.

NewsRadio, a fall-down funny comedy if ever there was one, was not picked, nor were any of the members of its fine ensemble. And even though The Simpsons was making people laugh back when Mad About You, Third Rock From The Sun, Frasier and Seinfeld were just a gleam in Warren Littlefield's beady eye, Emmy voters still consider the show just some animated trifle and not one of the funniest comedies on TV.

There are the sins of commission -- namely, honoring the same old people with the same nominations for the same work that wasn't all that good in the first place. I have no doubt, for example, that Patricia Richardson is a fine human being and a swell co-worker and she probably shows up to work on time and never has a cross word for anybody. But does saying lines like "Oh, Tim!" or "What have you done now, Tim?" or "Tim, quit talking to Wilson!" week after week really qualify you for an Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy, let alone your third Emmy nomination?

Yet, you'll remember, Emmy voters are the same people whom John Larroquette had to beg to stop showering him with best supporting actor awards, thus fulfilling the chilling Biblical prophecy in Revelations: The beast shall reveal himself when Night Court wins a truckload of Emmys.

Then, there are the Emmy sins that are just plain stupid. Eriq LaSalle was one of the best things about ER this season. Many's the time he clearly carried the teetering medical drama on his formidable shoulders. Yet Emmy voters once again relegated him to the seedy backwaters of the "best supporting actor" nominations, even though he's clearly a lead actor on the series. Presumably, this was done so as not to steal any thunder -- or more specifically, votes -- from ER co-star Anthony Edwards.

Homicide features some of the finest TV ensemble work in episode after episode. And the show was rightly nominated for a Best Casting Emmy. Yet, none of the voters saw fit to heap honors upon any member of that well-assembled cast. Explain that one to me, Dr. Emmy.

And this year continued the ugly trend by Emmy voters of nominating the Oscars and Tonys and Grammys for multiple honors. In other words, giving an award to the best award show. I know people in 12-step programs who need fewer positive affirmations.

But setting aside all of these sins -- and indeed, they are many -- the most egregious offenses of this year's batch of Emmy nominees are the ones yet to come. I call this the Ellen Factor.

Ellen is a rather bland and inconsequential sitcom starring the otherwise talented stand-up comic Ellen DeGeneres. For those of you who were being held captive by a Peruvian rebel group this past year and couldn't make it to the TV set, Ellen, the actress, announced that she was a lesbian and that her character, also named Ellen, would also come out as a lesbian on Ellen, the show, which remains bland and inconsequential, lesbians or no.

Ms. DeGeneres received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy this year, her first ever. Now, as I said, Ellen DeGeneres is a very talented comic and probably a very nice person and I wish her nothing but the best in all her endeavors, but slap her in a sitcom and it's 22 minutes of her playing herself doing her stand-up routine. Which can be many things -- amusing, mildly entertaining, bland, inconsequential -- but "award-worthy acting" ain't one of them.

Let's face it. Ellen DeGeneres is not that skilled of an actress as even a cursory viewing of the ironically titled cinematic mishap "Mr. Wrong" will prove beyond all measure of doubt. Does that mean she doesn't deserve to be nominated? No... certainly not when she's vying for honors opposite a woman who has made a comfortable living saying lines like "Oh, Tim!" every week.

But I fear that when Ellen is handed her little Emmy knick-knack come this fall -- and believe you me, she will win -- it will not be because the Academy of Televisions Arts and Sciences thinks she's the best actress of the bunch. It will be because Hollywood will want to show how tolerant and open-minded it is.

And there's something about that kind of self-congratulatory smugness that sets my teeth on edge.

It was the 1994 Academy Awards and Tom Hanks had just won an Oscar for his role as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS in the somewhat overwrought "Philadelphia." Certainly, Hanks gave a fine performance and an even more moving acceptance speech, where he vainly tried to fight back tears. And then, the camera cut back to host Whoopi Goldberg, a self-satisfied grin plastered across her mug.

"It's times like this that make me so proud of what we do," the hubris-swelled star of movies like "Fatal Beauty" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" gushed.

Um, Whoop-ster? It was Tom who gave the award-winning portrayal of the gay lawyer. You starred opposite an audio-animatronic dinosaur in the direct-to- video "Thedore Rex."

But this year's Emmy awards could make Whoopi's quivering display of smarm seem as restrained and understated as a post-war Finnish existentialist movie. And Ellen DeGeneres is leading the pack. Apart from her best actress nomination, DeGeneres herself is up for an writing award, an award for hosting the Grammys and a award for her guest appearance on a very funny episode of The Larry Sanders Show, which parodied the whole hullabaloo about her coming out. That particular Larry Sanders episode received writing and directing nominations of its own. Ellen the show is up for a handful of technical awards, while Laura Dern was nominated for her guest role on the coming out episode.

Add it all up, and more than a half-a-dozen awards doled out on Emmy night will be directly or indirectly affected by the fact that Ellen DeGeneres announced her sexual preference and in the process, resuscitated her floundering sitcom. Which just goes to show you -- lesbianism is a growth industry.

But Ellen's not the only one who will reap a windfall when Hollywood tries to prove it's really not a cold and uncaring monster, but actually a sensitive, trembling soul looking to right society's wrongs. ER and Chicago Hope both tackled health care reform as a story line this year, and both will be rewarded handsomely for it. Gloria Reuben played a doctor on ER who discovered she was HIV-positive this year. Emmy loves HIV-positive doctors. And lest we forget, Michael J. Fox, nominated for Spin City, is very, very short.

All told, it adds up to a nightmarish evening for those of us who cringe at the thought of three hours of back-slapping self-congratulations and preening. It keeps coming to me, as if in a fever dream...

I see Gloria Reuben tearfully accepting her best supporting actress in a drama award for playing the impossibly noble HIV-positive doctor as the assembled masses don a vast sea of red ribbons. "By giving me this award, you've shown that an actress can play someone who's HIV-positive," Reuben will enthuse in a speech interrupted several times by standing ovations. "And that must make the people who are actually HIV-positive feel pretty darn special." The cameras will cut to the beaming faces of the crowd. Steven Spielberg will bite his lip. Susan Sarandon will nod her head approvingly. JM J. Bullock will be seen wiping a tear from his cheek. "I just had something in my eye," he will sheepishly tell reporters later.

I see Chicago Hope winning writing and directing and Best Drama awards for its courageous stand on health care. Show creator David Kelley will come to the podium with Chicago Hope guest star and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. "This award proves that even though Hollywood elites make millions and millions of dollars and need never worry about the cost of medical care, we still know a health care crisis when we see one," a jubilant Kelley will say. Thunderous applause and audible sobs will ring out through the auditorium. Senator Kennedy will eat a pastrami sandwich.

I see Dennis Franz accepting his best actor in a drama Emmy. "I want every fat, dumpy-assed guy in America to know that Hollywood feels your pain," Franz will shriek, holding aloft his Emmy, as Dom DeLuise will comfort a visibly moved George Wendt.

I see Kelsey Grammer clutching his Emmy and thanking the red-eyed, sniffling audience for "giving this pathetic rum-head another chance to do good" and for "telling other pathetic rum-heads that they, too, can overcome their problems if they just rely on determination, perseverance and a crack writing staff to come up with more material showcasing David Hyde Pierce."

And finally, I see Ellen DeGeneres pushing a wheelbarrow full of Emmys up to the podium, as members of the audience begin fainting from pure self-adulation. "You've made it cool to be a lesbian," DeGeneres will say, before a choked-up Oprah Winfrey can run across the stage to bear-hug the beloved actress. Faye Dunaway will be seen handing out tissues to the likes of John Ritter, Bob Saget, Angela Lansbury and Richard Gere. Emmy host Bryant Gumbel -- his cheeks dampened by tears -- will barely be able to thank the audience for their super-human tolerance and all-around goodness before he, too, will be overcome by it all. Finally, the applause and the weeping and the gnashing of teeth will become so great that it will cause the support beams in the Shrine Auditorium to buckle and break, crushing all of those in attendance.

Who says my fever dreams don't have happy endings?


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