The 1998-99 Primetime Emmy Award nominations continued the 51-year tradition of correcting some injustices just as fast as it created others.
In addition, it gave critics of television’s lack of diversity even more ammunition by including only two ethnic actors (Jimmy Smits of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and Don Cheadle of HBO’s “A Lesson Before Dying”) among the 30 who were nominated in lead actor and actress categories.
The nominations suggested that Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters respond far more quickly to strong drama than smart comedy. The Academy gave HBO’s “The Sopranos” 16 nominations — the most of any drama — in its very first season of 13 episodes. At the same time, it failed to acknowledge the brilliance of ABC’s “Sports Night” (three nominations, none for acting or best comedy) or the comic smarts of NBC’s “Will & Grace” and took three seasons to finally reward CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” and series star Ray Romano with Emmy nominations that were earned when the show first went on the air.
And it will be at least another year before ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show” and star Carey get credit for their accomplishments.
The tidal wave of adulation for “The Sopranos” had especially great impact in the lead actress for a drama category, for which both Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco received nominations. Both were strong performers, but their nominations arguably might have been more logical in the supporting actress category. That, in turn, would have made some room for lead actresses Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Keri Russell (“Felicity”) to get the noms they had coming.
Cable channels also benefited from a halo effect — the presumption that cable movies are worthy of nominations largely because they are cable movies and there were so many good ones in years past. How else to explain nominations for such clearly unexceptional productions as A&E’s “Dash and Lilly” or TNT’s “Pirates of the Silicon Valley”? That same presumption of quality should have been extended to two “Hallmark Hall of Fame” productions (“Saint Maybe” and “Night Ride Home”) or a movie from Oprah Winfrey (“Oprah Winfrey Presents: David and Lisa”), all three of which were stronger candidates.
That same halo effect helped the lead actresses in cable longform programs take four out of five nominations in that category. It was a triumph of established stars over newcomers who gave possibly stronger performances.
The nominations to Ann-Margret (Lifetime’s “Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story”), Stockard Channing (Showtime’s “The Baby Dance”), Judy Davis (A&E’s “Dash and Lilly”) and Helen Mirren (Showtime’s “The Passion of Ayn Rand’) consequently were allowed to eclipse performances by Brittany Murphy (“Oprah Winfrey Presents: David and Lisa”) or Moira Kelly (CBS’ “After the Miracle”).
Critics of the level of ethnic diversity on television will undoubtedly point to this year’s low number of nominations for minority actors as additional evidence of TV’s bias toward white performers. In truth, however, the problem isn’t that too few nonwhites were nominated; it’s that there were too few from which to select.