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An Edge at the Emmys

Television* Voters look for emotional range and impact, but the only sure thing is unpredictability.

September 19, 2002|TOM O'NEIL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't write off Bernie Mac as one of those stand-up comics such as Jerry Seinfeld or Ellen DeGeneres who can't win an Emmy for acting. And don't dismiss the serious acting chops of "Alias" star Jennifer Garner just because she knows some sexy martial arts moves.

Both stars are among longshot nominees who could appear at the Emmy podium Sunday, if for no other reason than they were savvy--or lucky--enough to pick samples of their work from the past TV season that spotlight qualities Emmy voters prefer.

An analysis of recent voting patterns shows that judges gravitate toward performances with two key elements: emotional range and impact. Comedy or drama doesn't matter; mixing the two elements are key to winning. A third factor is face time; actors need to be front and center, which is one reason an ensemble show like "Friends" has never produced a lead actor or actress Emmy.

That said, it's worth noting that upsets are routine at the Emmys--more so than other show-biz awards--because of a unique voting system. Contenders are given a guarantee not made to nominees for Oscars, Grammys and Tonys: Their work will be evaluated by all voters (see related story, page 56). It means sentiment and promotion tend to play less of a role in Emmy voting than for the Oscars.

Adding to the difficulty in predicting winners is that this is only the third year for the current voting system. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences changed its rules three years ago, eliminating screenings of nominated shows and instead allowing academy members to watch tapes at home. It increased the number of participating members dramatically, and may have altered some voting patterns.

Now, seemingly low-key performers such as "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Patricia Heaton not only have a real shot at topping super-chic foes such as "Sex and the City's" Sarah Jessica Parker, but they do it often, as Heaton demonstrated ... twice.

This year Heaton could win for a third year in a row on the strength of her latest sample episode. Like her past two victorious entries, "A Vote for Debra" has emotional range and impact. Heaton handles the spectrum from laughs to tears as she campaigns for president of her kids' school governing board. When she loses, she finds out that her husband didn't vote for her. "How could you do that to me?" she roars at him, appearing wounded and betrayed. "I'm your wife! I don't care if my platform is anti-puppy, you have to vote for me!"

Impact without range is the mistake Emmy nominees often make, according to a survey of TV journalists who've scrutinized the Emmy contests for the last five years. It's probably one of the reasons Parker lost to Heaton last year. Parker opted for a darkly dramatic episode that didn't include her light comic skills.

This year, however, Parker's submission, "The Real Me," is funny (Parker is forced to wear skimpy underwear when she agrees to be a fashion-show model) and tragic (she falls on the runway).

Heaton and Parker face a formidable foe in Jennifer Aniston, who submitted the season finale of "Friends," which gives her two advantages: a baby (Emmy voters love performances with kids) and an hourlong episode to compete against half-hour rivals.

The one-hour advantage doesn't always work (Debra Messing's hourlong "Will & Grace" special lost last year to Heaton's half-hour "Raymond"), but Helen Hunt won two of her four Emmys for one-hour entries, one of them featuring a newborn.

Less clear in Aniston's case is what role sentiment may play; this upcoming season is expected to be the show's last, and voters may feel it's time to give it an Emmy in a lead performer category (Lisa Kudrow has won a supporting actress award).

The face-time factor could play a particularly key role in the race for lead actor in a comedy, which seems to be between Matt LeBlanc ("Friends") and Bernie Mac ("The Bernie Mac Show"), both of whom submitted what appear to be formidable episodes. LeBlanc's role as the ditzy Joey may have hurt his Emmy chances previously, but the actor displays a range of angst, joy, relief and heartache as he confesses his secret, doomed love to Rachel (Aniston).

Still, even with his expanded role last season, LeBlanc has only one-third the screen time on his submitted episode that Mac wielded in his self-titled series as he tries to dodge a cold virus. Mac dominates every scene, going from grumpy one minute to silly the next.

In the same way, Garner towers over rivals in the lead actress in a drama category. She's at the center of every scene in the "Alias" debut episode, which builds slowly, revealing a sensitive actress coping with the murder of a lover and betrayals of a father. Then she comes out swinging as an action hero.

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