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The 50th Annual Emmy Nominations | Emmy Nominations

Newcomers Muscle Into Emmy Race

Television: Legal eagles from David E. Kelley serve notice against veteran series.

July 24, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," two legal series from writer-producer David E. Kelley, injected some new blood into nominations for the 50th annual nighttime Emmy Awards announced Thursday, infiltrating lineups of usual suspects that have dominated the voting for years.

Fox's "Ally," in particular, bucks tradition by becoming the first one-hour program to compete for best comedy, joining "3rd Rock From the Sun" and perennial nominees "Seinfeld," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Frasier," which could make Emmy history itself by being named the outstanding sitcom an unprecedented fifth time.

Beyond breaking a record the NBC program now shares with "All in the Family," "Cheers" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Frasier's" fifth consecutive Emmy would provide the Kelsey Grammer series additional ammunition as it prepares to fill "Seinfeld's" oversized shoes by taking over its key "Must See TV" Thursday slot.

"Seinfeld" and "Larry Sanders," meanwhile, are but two of many series and stars exiting the prime-time stage for whom the Emmys represent a sort of farewell, with Ellen DeGeneres (whose controversial sitcom was canceled by ABC) and "NewsRadio" co-star Phil Hartman, who died in May, among the slate of nominees.

Yet this year's ceremony will also feature an infusion of new programs and faces--such as "Dharma & Greg's" Jenna Elfman and "Ally's" Calista Flockhart--after many of the categories had become seemingly bogged down in repetition.

As it is, "Seinfeld" and "Law & Order" each garnered their seventh nominations in a row and, with the exception of "The Practice," all the drama series contenders have been nominated for at least four straight years--a testimonial both to the quality of those shows and to the dearth of breakthrough newcomers in recent seasons. In joining that august company, "The Practice" bumps another Kelley-created show, CBS' "Chicago Hope," a nominee for three years running.

Thomas O'Neil, author of the guidebook "The Emmys," thinks "Ally" is misclassified, calling its submission as best comedy "a clever ploy on [the producers'] part to avoid a more formidable fight in the drama category."

Kelley also avoided putting "Ally" in competition with "The Practice," a moderately rated show that stands to benefit more from Emmy accolades. (Producers determine the category in which they wish to submit a show. "Moonlighting" was the last one-hour program to seek a best comedy nomination, in 1985, before switching to drama in its second season.)

A proven favorite among Emmy voters who claimed two best drama awards as the creator of CBS' "Picket Fences," Kelley--who wrote every "Ally" episode this year, and most installments of "The Practice"--acknowledged Thursday that he's most pleased by the recognition afforded the latter, which has bounced around ABC's schedule and will move again, to Sundays, in the fall.

"A year ago, it was in very critical condition," he said. "When it was stuck on Saturdays, nobody expected the prognosis to be good."

The producer also defended "Ally McBeal's" submission as a comedy, saying in regard to its dramatic moments that "some of the most emotional characters on television" have been in comedies. The show already established some comedy credentials, winning the Golden Globe under that designation in January.

Led by first-year hit "Ally" and "The X-Files," Fox amassed 35 nominations, an all-time high for that network, putting it just behind CBS, whose total plummeted from 60 Emmy bids last year. NBC remained the Emmy leader, again followed by pay channel Home Box Office, whose miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" led all entries with 17 nominations, breaking "ER's" three-year streak as the most-nominated program.

The major networks had mounted a campaign to keep "From the Earth to the Moon" out of the miniseries category, feeling the 12-hour docudrama chronicling the space program was actually a series. Its nominations included a best directing nod to Tom Hanks, who also produced the $68-million project.

Those ill feelings may be defused a bit, given that producer Robert Halmi Sr.--who spearheaded the anti-"Earth" crusade--landed two of the other miniseries nominations for his lavish productions of "Merlin" and "Moby Dick," which aired on NBC and the USA network, respectively. TNT's "George Wallace," starring Hanks' "Forrest Gump" co-star Gary Sinise, and "Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City," which found a home on Showtime after PBS balked at bankrolling a sequel to its 1994 miniseries, round out the category.

The fracas surrounding "From the Earth to the Moon" stems in part from the fact that HBO has claimed the Emmy for best movie for five consecutive years, a sore point among the major networks. This year's nominations will do nothing to dispel the perception that cable in general and HBO in particular--with its bigger budgets and more provocative themes--makes more compelling movies than the major networks.

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