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THE 45th ANNUAL EMMY AWARDS : Angela, Paula, Beavis: Must Be the Emmys : TV Review

September 20, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

A good sign. You know the Emmy telecast is changing for the better when Angela Lansbury appears on the same show--however fleetingly--with MTV's Beavis and Butt-head.

Pinkies up for Sunday's Emmy Awards, a gratifying glide of three hours that, in a dramatic departure from tradition, finished snappily on time. With ABC assuming the reins from Fox, Don Misher as executive producer and the regal Lansbury as host, the annual telecast rebounded from past debacles, including last year's ugly, self-devouring spectacle in which comic after comic spat punch lines at the very medium that was being celebrated.

Although on camera only for short bursts, Lansbury set an entirely different tone, and in her mouth even the obligatory platitudes and hyperbole ("this salute to the best of television's best") were pleasing. Lansbury was refreshingly straight and jokeless, unlike some of the comedians on the show who tragically succumbed to an impulse to try to be funny. Their efforts weren't rewarded.

Not that there wasn't sharp humor. Although awkwardly unfunny as a presenter, Garry Shandling was hilarious in a taped, behind-the-scenes piece focusing on "The Larry Sanders Show," his Emmy-nominated comedy series that appears on HBO. And Paula Poundstone's live "reports" from backstage during the Emmys were refreshingly spontaneous and amusing. At one point, she ventured into the lobby to interview a "seat filler," one of those people hired to occupy the seats of nominees and presenters when they go before the camera, so that TV doesn't pick up vacant spaces. The man had been filling the seat of John Larroquette.

"How did you get the job of seat filler?," Poundstone asked.

"I don't know," he replied. Soon, Poundstone was marching into the auditorium in search of Larroquette, and then carrying on a long-range conversation with the actor. It didn't appear rehearsed, but whatever the case, it worked.

The evening also featured a nice retrospective of last episodes of famous series as well as a look back at miniseries. The latter was a reminder of the dramatic decline of this expensive, long-form genre, a fact made all the more evident by the relative brevity of this year's miniseries nominees, even though the Emmy-winning "Prime Suspect 2" would be a highlight in any season.

Hardly a highlight of the program, though, was the state-of-television message pretentiously delivered by a dressed-in-saintly-white Barbara Walters, who went on and on about the "abundance" of television against a background of oozy music.

*

Based on the Emmys, much of the abundance is occurring on cable, which earned 76 nominations (although Beavis and Butt-head were tragically ignored). "HBO, thanks for really doing diverse projects," said Holly Hunter when accepting her best-actress Emmy for her work in HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."

Diverse indeed, from ambitious dramas to "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Dream On," which form the wittiest comedy bloc on TV. In one of the evening's ironies, the gigantically funny "Dream On" earned Betty Thomas a directing Emmy and David Clennon a guest actor Emmy for a poignant, bittersweet episode concerning AIDS, yet the series itself was left out of the comedy nominations. But of course, so were the worthy "Roseanne" and "The Simpsons," whose shift to the regular comedy series from the animation category proved costly.

In addition, some of "the best of television's best," as Lansbury put it, won't be on television any more. That includes Fox's now-defunct "The Ben Stiller Show," which beat out "Late Night With David Letterman" and "Saturday Night Live" for a writing award. In another irony, meanwhile, NBC's "Homicide--Life on the Street," the best cop drama in years, won executive producer Barry Levinson a directing Emmy and Tom Fontana a writing award for separate episodes.

Yet curiously the series itself--which has received a four-episode reorder from NBC but no definite return date--didn't get nominated. "We have to find a way to reignite the imagination of the American people," Fontana said. And reignite the imagination of the industry that serves them.

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