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OLDER STARS, SAFE CHOICES EARN EMMYS

Were Emmy voters trying to deliver a message or just exhibiting the kind of oddball sense of humor that "Ally McBeal" has made famous?

Because a week before a TV season begins that focuses on beautiful high school and college-age stars, Emmy voters Sunday celebrated veteran actors who aren't exactly hunks and beauties.

Holland Taylor and Michael Badalucco, whose characters had an entertaining sexually-charged romance on "The Practice," were winners along with Anne Bancroft, Helen Mirren ("The Passion of Ayn Rand"), Peter O'Toole ("Joan of Arc"), Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue") and John Lithgow ("3rd Rock From the Sun").

None of them is likely to be seen on WB or Fox this season.

Until the final award, Emmy voters generally went with old and safe choices, including Helen Hunt, David Hyde Pierce, Lithgow, Kristen Johnston in the key comedy categories and Franz and "The Practice" in the drama category. All had won before, several last season.

Edie Falco's victory as Best Dramatic Actress as a mobster's wife on "The Sopranos" was a mild surprise. But the absolute shocker of shockers was "Ally McBeal" as Best Comedy.

The David E. Kelley series -- with fantasy elements that are being imitated by several new series this fall had a better rookie year than a sophomore season. But as "The Sopranos" discovered, Emmy voters are as resistant as NFL coaches to rewarding rookies.

Perhaps the voters got sick of honoring "Frasier" and just couldn't find it in their hearts to give Best Comedy to "Friends," the favorite of many after its fifth and best season.

Kelley clearly was the night's big winner, creating and writing both the Best Drama and Best Comedy and also being the subject -- along with wife Michelle Pfeiffer -- of several jokes by David Spade and others about how prolific he is as a writer. Kelley seemed genuinely surprised by his twin victories, cracking that he thought he was being called back after "The Practice" victory because a recount had "The Sopranos" winning Best Drama and not because "Ally" was a winner as Best Comedy.

In a sense, Emmy voters were predictable and unpredictable at the same time. The victories of Hunt, Franz, Pierce and "The Practice" were in keeping with this award show's annoying tradition of staying with winners.

And the victory by "Ally" was in keeping with the tradition of one huge surprise at the end of the show, whether it be victories by "The Practice" last season or "Law & Order" late in its run.

But Stanley Tucci as Best Actor in a drama for "Winchell," one of HBO's few misses?

"You made a mistake," Tucci told the audience. He is right.

Speaking of mistakes, after a decent dancing start by co-hosts Pierce and Jenna Elfman, their material got thinner and thinner as the night went on.

Martin Short, who seemed to be killing because some winners hadn't shown, had a very funny line about Shelley Winters and was entertaining enough for five minutes to be considered as a possible host next season.

There weren't many amusing or moving speeches, largely because even the winners of some of the bigger awards were hurried off the stage. The producers would have been smart to cut some of the pieces about the future of television and allow some winners to talk longer.

Instead, we had winners like Best Dramatic Actress Falco and Best Supporting Actor Badalucco so aware of the ticking time clock that they felt pressure to get off the stage.

Badalucco left them laughing, saying he'd write a letter to all he didn't get to thank. And Falco remembered to thank Buffalo native Tom Fontana, who cast her in HBO's "Oz" and several other shows before "Sopranos."

I was hoping that a "Sopranos" victory would have been the night's big surprise, but the voters apparently felt that giving Falco and creator-writer David Chase awards was enough. Besides, "The Practice" had a terrific season.

The result is that though "The Sopranos" won for Best Writing and Best Lead Actress and "NYPD Blue" won for Best Directing and Best Lead Actor, "The Practice" was named Best Drama.

And though Hunt of "Mad About You" won for Best Comedy Actress and "Frasier" won for Best Comedy Writing, "Ally" won as Best Comedy.

That's the nutty Emmys in a nutshell.

Without further ado, here are some more high and low moments:

Best Endorsement: After winning in a late-night comedy category, Chris Rock said Conan O'Brien should have won because he makes ten times as many shows in a season. High praise indeed.

Best Diversity Line: There were brief speeches from presenters African-Americans Don Cheadle and Halle Berry that seemed to peripherally address the issue of the lack of diversity in this year's new shows. But it was left to Bill Maher of "Politically Incorrect" to crack the most telling comment. After a gardener was shown in a piece about the future of TV, Maher cracked: "That's the networks for you. Even the gardeners are white."

Best Speech: Taylor, who said "Overnight" as she hit the stage, making a joke about how long it took her to get an award. She was a stitch. Runner-up: Lithgow, who always is a funny speech-maker.

Best Line: When Regis Philbin showed up as a presenter to do a parody of his summer game show hit, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Pierce delivered a line to Philbin that many Americans wanted to shout this August: "Go away."

It's Miller Time: The Miller family, father Walter C. and son Paul, both won directing awards. It couldn't have been scripted any better.

Bleepin' Fox: When "Frasier" writer Jay Kogen went too far and too long in his enthusiasm, his speech was actually cut off while he stayed on stage. And he was funny earlier.

Best Dress: Christina Applegate looked great in a wine colored dress, which made you understand why her Buffalo-based sitcom, "Jesse," is still on NBC. The network figures people will watch her doing anything.

Best Billy Crystal Imitation: A comic piece in which "Felicity" star Keri Russell was thrown into scenes of "ER," "The X-Files" and "NYPD Blue" had a Billy Crystal, Oscar show feel. It certainly was funnier than a bit in which Jon Stewart pretended to be a writer thrown off the "Felicity" staff for lying about his age. Since "Felicity" has so small an audience, the satire may have been lost on most of the audience.

Dying to Get Recognized?: All right, the show doesn't have to tell us who Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are when the camera hits them in the audience. But too often lesser-known stars aren't identified. On the other hand, everyone was identified in a piece about stars who died in the last year.

Best FM Radio Moment: Lara Flynn Boyle of "The Practice" appeared to have gone to the awards with old man Jack Nicholson. The jokes should last for days. Who can't hear Nicholson telling Boyle's parents: "You can't handle the truth!"

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