The big picture, in focus

Special to The Times

FINALLY, after seven years of snubs, Kevin James gets some Emmy respect. And all he had to do was dangle upside down from a stripper’s pole.

The firmly mainstream “King of Queens” star landed his first nomination for actor in a comedy after handing over his show’s “Pole Lox” episode to an Emmy judging panel earlier this summer.

In that submission, James tries his hand as an erotic dancer to decidedly lowbrow but admittedly laugh-filled results.

That the episode won over the Emmy nominating committee was just one of many surprises resulting from the TV academy’s decision to overhaul its voting process this year.


In case you’ve been hiding under an old TiVo box for the last few weeks, critical reaction to Emmy’s procedural changes and the nominations they wrought has ranged from the barely muted to the downright indignant.

Among the other shockers: “Two and a Half Men,” TV’s top-rated sitcom, pulled in noms for comedy series and lead actor (Charlie Sheen) -- two things the show never managed when nominees were chosen by a popular vote of TV academy members.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the Emmys missed the mark by a wider margin than ever this year, despite promises that the nominations would put the awards closer to the target.

But did the academy really misfire?


Consider that the new process opened the door for deserving but low-rated contenders like Denis Leary, who grabbed an acting nomination for his work on FX’s “Rescue Me.” In the drama, Leary portrays an edgy New York firefighter and recovering alcoholic with a thing for his estranged wife and an ever-present chip on his shoulder.

And then there’s nominee Kyra Sedgwick, who on TNT’s “The Closer” plays anything but the typical police detective chasing felons through the streets of L.A. Swift pursuit is tough for a ditsy Southern belle with a terrible sense of direction.

Perhaps the most intriguing fallout from the new nomination system is that, for a change, many top races have no clear front-runners.

In drama, for example, expectations are high for newcomer “Grey’s Anatomy,” a rare Emmy bird that’s both a Nielsen hit and a favorite of critics and industry insiders.


Of course, upsets are routine at the Emmys, which are decided by a voting system that employs thousands of TV academy members who cast their ballots after viewing sample entries. That puts the burden on contenders to pick great samples, as “House” did during the nomination process, bumping last year’s champ, “Lost,” from the drama contest.

In one of the most interesting drama races in some time, relative upstarts “Grey” and “House” will square off against two formidable past victors, “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing,” and an overdue action series whose number might finally be called, “24.”

In the comedy contest, the competition is equally fierce. “Two and a Half Men” may top the Nielsens, but some critics say fellow nominee “Scrubs” is really the tube’s best comedy.

Don’t count out the never-Emmy’d “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” though.


Of course, the nominee with all the heat is “The Office.” The ensemble entry combines strong ratings, critical huzzahs and a star (Steve Carell) who has crossed back triumphantly to TV after shining in hit films.

If buzz shows like “The Office” and “Grey’s Anatomy” can make their way through the much-maligned Emmy nomination process, then maybe the system is working better than anybody wants to give it credit for.

But how to explain the exclusion of last year’s series champs, “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” from this year’s field?

There are logical answers to both, provided you decode one of the most complex nominating systems of any major award show. For “Desperate Housewives,” the show’s absence has less to do with Wisteria Lane-style skulduggery than the fact that creator Marc Cherry failed to grasp what the new Emmy nominating juries wanted to see.


“Marc insists that we submit comedic episodes in the comedy categories,” says star Felicity Huffman, who won for comedy actress last year but, like her show, was shut out this year.

“Desperate Housewives” ended the season with a 90-minute blockbuster showcasing what many fans consider the year’s most powerful acting from Huffman and costar Marcia Cross, but it wasn’t submitted to any Emmy jury. Instead, Cherry entered the season opener in the series race and Huffman submitted the episode in which she goes out boozing with the boss after work and dances the hoochie-coochie on the bar.

Similar miscalculation may be behind the omission of “Lost” in the drama-series contest. Some voters on that panel later said they felt truly lost watching the season premiere, “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” which was full of quirky, unexplained scenes and dangling plot lines.

“ ‘Man of Science’ probably left lots of Emmy voters scratching their heads,” admits senior writer Michael Ausiello. “Producers should’ve submitted the ‘tailies’ episode, ‘The Other 48 Days,’ which has a story arc that’s self-contained and accessible to everyone. It also happens to be the best ‘Lost’ episode of the season -- well-crafted, suspenseful and scary.”


If there’s a legitimate criticism of this year’s Emmy nominations, it’s that they failed to deliver on the promise of drawing in more contenders from such seldom-Emmy’d networks as FX, WB, UPN, USA, TNT, Sci-Fi, Lifetime and Showtime.

That’s something Emmy organizers say they’re already planning to address.

John Leverence, the TV academy’s senior vice president in charge of awards, says next year’s process will “include more finalists whose work will be seen by more voters. Our goal is to combine the wisdom of the masses with the judgment of the individual actually watching sample programs.”

How well will the Emmys be able to do that? As they say in the TV biz, stay tuned.


Tom O’Neil writes the Gold Derby blog for