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Finding Comfort in an Age of Distraction


Although the television year began with much of the country watching round the clock, commercial-free coverage of a national tragedy that would have been unbelievable, had TV not witnessed it, the 54th annual nighttime Emmy Awards focused on the medium's ability to tap into emotions and provide escape.

Television's role in holding the country's metaphorical hand in the weeks after the terrorist attacks was acknowledged when "America: A Tribute to Heroes," the celebrity-studded fund-raiser that was shown on every channel, was awarded outstanding comedy, music or variety special. Rudolph Giuliani presented the Governors Award for extraordinary achievement to the four major networks, whose cooperation made that program possible.

It takes nothing away from the quality of "The West Wing" and "Friends," winners for outstanding dramatic and comedy series, respectively, to note that they offered views of life in a fictional White House and a make-believe New York that were a soothing contrast to a reality that had never been more harsh. "West Wing" cast members John Spencer and Allison Janney also took home acting awards. The show itself won as best drama series last year and the year before.

"Friends' " first win as outstanding comedy series was a reflection of the show's popularity, which grew in the past year as it benefited from strong story lines (the pregnancy of Jennifer Aniston's character) and the sense of comfort the audience seemed to derive from spending time with likable, familiar characters. Aniston, who had never before received an acting award for her role as spunky princess Rachel Green, managed to thank a craft service person, even in a brief speech, when accepting as outstanding actress in a comedy series.

Arguably, the evening's biggest upset was Michael Chiklis' win as outstanding actor in a drama series for "The Shield," a gritty drama that has brought controversy to FX. Chiklis' first starring role was as John Belushi in "Wired," a 1989 movie based on Bob Woodward's biography of the comedian. At the time, it was considered a risky career choice to portray the dark side of the popular actor.

The night was supposed to belong to "Six Feet Under," since the HBO series set in the wacky world of bereavement services had received 23 nominations. But halfway through the more than three-hour broadcast (which uncharacteristically ran past its scheduled ending), only two nominees from the show to take the stage were Patricia Clarkson, who was named outstanding guest actress in an earlier ceremony, and creator Alan Ball, whose outstanding direction of a dramatic series was honored.

There was still cause for toasting later at the HBO party at Spago. The 10-part World War II epic based on the Stephen Ambrose book "Band of Brothers" won best miniseries and best directing in a miniseries or movie. Another HBO WWII story, "The Gathering Storm," won three, including one for Albert Finney for his turn as Winston Churchill.

Ball said he was glad "Six Feet Under," with all its tragedies and troubled characters, is on HBO. "No matter what we do on our show, something worse has already happened on 'Oz.' " As for adding an Emmy to the Oscar he previously won for "American Beauty," he held up the statue and said, "This is a lot more dangerous. You can bop someone with the Oscar. But you can put someone's eye out with this."

The conventions of televised award shows are as ritualized as Kabuki. The host strives to balance a snarky wit with some respect and sincerity. Presenters parade onstage, then share banter. The camera lingers on nominees in the audience as their names are announced. Winners thank everyone but their publicists, and the proceedings are punctuated with plangent clips. Even a visit from the Osbournes, this year's "it" family, didn't stray from the formula.

Oprah Winfrey was the first recipient of the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, bestowed by a reliable Tom Hanks, a movie star now active in television production.

Visibly moved by a standing ovation, Winfrey thanked the people who shared their stories on her talk show.

She said, "This award means, to me, that I will continue to strive to give back to the world what it has given to me, so that I may be even more worthy of tonight's honor."

TV creators and performers who died in the last year were remembered with photographs. A clip of Larry King with Milton Berle, known as Mr. Television, preceded a King tribute that established Berle as, clearly, first among equals.

Fortunately, none of the people television lost was called a hero. Two weeks after the airwaves were filled with a flood of electronic memories of Sept. 11, the Emmys had a sadder and wiser quality but in the end managed to do what a grieving nation has only talked about--move on.

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