It's the yearly game

Kiefer SUTHERLAND but not Michael C. Hall? "Grey's Anatomy" but not "Friday Night Lights"? In what sort of world does "Monk" regularly get more attention than "The Shield," and where was "Brotherhood" or, for that matter, "The Wire"?

Parsing Emmy nominations is even more fun, and exasperating, than discussing the finalists for that other award show in February. It's a high-def, multichannel world out there, people, a vast and varied landscape of disturbing characters and mind-bending formats lurking right outside our very own homes. And every year, one wishes that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences would acknowledge this, would throw wide the doors and shutters instead of choosing to view its own industry through such strangely narrow windows.

Mercifully, this year's nominations reflect what is actually on television, as opposed to last year's necrophiliac indulgences ("The West Wing," "Will & Grace") and inexplicable big snubs ("Big Love," "Lost"). So the inevitable "but what about ... ?" has less genuine anguish about it.

All award shows have their limitations. There are 700 channels or 500 channels, or whatever, a lot of channels — and only five nominees for each of the 27 award night categories, after all. Heaven knows we don't want to add to this (then they'd announce the darn thing at 3:30 a.m.), so even in the best of worlds, someone's going to get left out. And it's not that any of this year's nominees are truly undeserving, but as television gets broader and better, as cable produces more original series and networks learn to stick by quality shows even without the numbers, default nominations are harder to justify. (And I say this out of love, Tony Shalhoub and Mariska Hargitay.)

Much will be made of this year's 33 first-time nominees, which include, gasp, several new shows. (Emmy tradition usually demands at least a year of service before any awards can be discussed.) Certainly it is nice to see format-busting, character-driven shows such as "Heroes" and "Ugly Betty" honored, but nominating breakout hits is hardly a matter of bravery, even in the entertainment industry. More gratifying were the 10 nominations given to "30 Rock," a critical hit with a mystifyingly small audience that one hopes will grow with this new attention.

But where were the nominations for "Friday Night Lights," another critically acclaimed show that could have used a little Emmy fertilizer to grow its audience? Minnie Driver, of the strange and often lovely "The Riches," gave dark dramedies reason to hope, but MIA was "Nip/Tuck," which pretty much redefines black comedy. (For those wondering, scheduling rendered "Big Love" ineligible for this year's nominations, so its exclusion was not the crime against God and Nature it might seem.)

There is no denying the bazillion-watt marquee value of the various acting nominees, and the female side of things cast a fairly wide net — Tina Fey got off to a self-admitted rocky start as "30 Rock's" Liz Lemon, but who doesn't love her now, and to America Ferrera and Driver — welcome, welcome to television. Don't ever leave.

Over in the men's rooms, however, things were a bit more staid — "Rescue Me's" Denis Leary was the most daring nominee, and with two previous nominations, he's positively mainstream.

Would it have killed them to acknowledge Kyle Chandler from "Friday Night Lights"? Or Jason Isaacs from "Brotherhood"? (Hey, he's a Brit and doesn't that fill some quota, anyway?) And frankly, if Hall's portrayal of good guy serial killer Dexter Morgan isn't worth an Emmy nomination, then, really, we might as well forget the whole thing. Instead we get James Spader, again, and Sutherland for the 2 billionth time.

For the most part, the anointed shows and actors could have been recited by anyone with access to a newsstand. "Grey's Anatomy," "Heroes" and "The Sopranos: The Return of the King" (oh, wait, wrong franchise) cleaned up with nomination numbers roughly matching the number of Entertainment Weekly cover stories. (Pity poor Sara Ramirez, the only female member of the "Grey's" cast other than Ellen Pompeo who didn't get an Emmy nomination or a spinoff. But then Ramirez has won a Tony.)

Of course, one assumes that those nominated in the same category as anyone from "The Sopranos" should just pull a Judi Dench and pass on the whole ceremony (maybe when best dramatic series is announced, Fox will just cut to a black screen). But who knows? With its daring nominations of "newcomers" such as Sally Field, Ricky Gervais and Alec Baldwin, the madcap academy could surprise us all.

The point of the Emmys is to acknowledge excellence. It says so right in the by-laws, or on the website, or somewhere. But real excellence is fluid, active, innovative in its form as well as its quality. Just like television. For better or worse, television doesn't look the same year after year. And neither should its awards.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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