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Could the Emmys have gotten hip?

I'm about to reveal something that could be considered heresy in the land of too-hip-for-the-room TV criticism.

I thought this year's Emmy awards nominees were _ with some notable exceptions _ pretty cool.

Not a trendy point of view to take these days, when moaning and groaning about the state of modern television is the rule. Better to look ironically detached, while complaining that Emmy's major categories passed up NBC's canceled comedy Freaks and Geeks (like the rest of America) and the WB's horror/drama/fantasy Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Still, let's be honest, people. Even the best awards shows are often about established players.

Sure, Fox's Malcolm in the Middle should have gotten more of the big nominations. Yes, Buffy can be one of the most adventurous shows on TV. True, it's a crime that only four actors of color, including The West Wing's Hispanic-playing-an-Anglo Martin Sheen, were nominated (my biggest gripe: HBO's The Corner got a nomination as best miniseries, while its mostly black cast got nothing).

But Malcolm did get five noms, while Buffy got three and Freaks got two. And, much as anyone might want to grouse about their own pet picks, Buffy and Malcolm are shows the middle-aged Academy of Television Arts and Sciences isn't supposed to get.

In years past, that's made winners pretty predictable. NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz (four wins), 3rd Rock From the Sun's John Lithgow (four wins), Frasier's Kelsey Grammer (three wins) have been sure bets for years now.

But at tonight's 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards show, all bets may be off.

That's because the Emmy academy has allowed voters to watch the nominees' videotapes at their homes _ instead of gathering at a hotel for marathon viewing sessions.

The result, say academy officials, will likely be more participation from members and less predictable winners.

Thomas O'Neil, author of the book The Emmys and an expert on the process, fears the exact opposite. Judges will be tempted to skip watching the tapes, he says, picking performers they may have only heard or read about.

"Do you realize from now on we will have a popularity contest?" he told the Albany Times Union earlier this year. "There is nothing less at stake here than the next Hill Street Blues or the next Cheers." (Both shows were saved from cancellation by big Emmy wins.)

His argument might bear more weight if freshman drama The West Wing wasn't poised to emerge as the 800-pound gorilla of this year's contest. It heads into tonight's show tied with HBO's gritty Mob drama The Sopranos as most-nominated program, with 18 nods apiece.

Expect Emmy to side with The West Wing, as the academy's preference for broadcast shows tips results in their favor. Already, The West Wing has snagged four awards in creative arts categories announced last month that snubbed The Sopranos.

It has been a bumpy year for the Emmy academy, which saw nominee Chris Rock accidentally omitted from 120 ballots for one award. Twice-nominated Henry Winkler also lost his nod as best guest actor in a comedy when it was discovered that the show, an episode of NBC's now-canceled Battery Park, aired after the academy's deadline.

But first-time host Garry Shandling has an idea for juicing up the broadcast.

"I'm trying to convince (them) to not give out any awards this year and just give me the whole three hours," he joked during a press conference last month. "Just let me talk and talk and watch them waiting for the awards. That should be the real Survivor."

Barring Shandling's request, here's some handicapping on who might walk home with a little gold after tonight's show.

Outstanding comedy series

Nominees: Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS); Frasier (NBC); Friends (NBC); Sex and the City (HBO); Will & Grace (NBC).

Should win: Among this clash of comedy titans, picking a winner is tough. Raymond remains the best conventional sitcom on television. But Sex and the City gets this critic's vote; what other series could craft sidesplitting humor from high fashion and certain bodily fluids?

Will win: Raymond. Because it's about time. (And they can't possibly hand it to Frasier for a sixth time. Can they?)

Outstanding drama series

Nominees: ER (NBC); Law & Order (NBC); The Practice (ABC); The Sopranos (HBO); The West Wing (NBC).

Should win: Much as I love Martin Sheen's scenery-chewing antics, The Sopranos' diminished second season still edges The West Wing in my eyes _ mostly for its fierce determination to break every rule in television.

Will win: The West Wing. Because there's still some resistance to a cable show with explicit profanity and violence like The Sopranos, and it seems to be West Wing's year.

Outstanding lead actor, comedy

Nominees: Michael J. Fox, Spin City; Kelsey Grammer, Frasier; John Lithgow, 3rd Rock From the Sun; Eric McCormack, Will & Grace; Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond.

Should and will win: Forget about sympathy over his battle with Parkinson's disease. Fox has earned this award by almost single-handedly propping up the relentlessly mediocre Spin City (see how tough a job that is next month when Charlie Sheen crashes and burns after replacing him).

Outstanding lead actor, drama

Nominees: Dennis Franz, NYPD Blue; James Gandolfini, The Sopranos; Jerry Orbach, Law & Order; Martin Sheen, The West Wing; Sam Waterston, Law & Order.

Should win: Gandolfini. At times menacing, buffoonish, funny, smart and sleazy, his Tony Soprano is the deepest character on television.

Will win: Sheen. Because he's a showbiz veteran in the part of a lifetime. And he's the president, for gosh sakes!

Outstanding lead actress, comedy

Nominees: Jenna Elfman, Dharma & Greg; Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond; Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle; Debra Messing, Will & Grace; Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City.

Should and will win: Kaczmarek pulls no punches as Malcolm's Lois (no last names, please), a mom so harried she'll answer the door topless and so loving she'll help shave her husband's body hair. Let's see Debra Barone try that one.

Outstanding lead actress, drama

Nominees: Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos; Amy Brenneman, Judging Amy; Edie Falco, The Sopranos; Julianna Margulies, ER; Sela Ward, Once and Again.

Should win: One of The Sopranos' best moves this season was more screen time for Falco's Carmela Soprano, who is tough enough to take on the biggest gangster in New Jersey _ he just happens to be her husband _ but vulnerable enough to consider cheating on him, anyway.

Will win: Brenneman and Margulies will likely split the mainstream vote, while Falco and Bracco soak up the hipster ballots. Still, I think Brenneman will win out, mostly because Emmy loves a winner, and no new show conquered more ground last season than Judging Amy.

More Emmy Nominations:

MINISERIES: Arabian Nights, ABC; The Beach Boys: An American Family, ABC; The Corner, HBO; Jesus, CBS; P.T. Barnum, A&E.

TELEVISION MOVIE: Annie, ABC; If These Walls Could Talk 2, HBO; Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, HBO; Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie, ABC; RKO 281, HBO.

ACTOR, MINISERIES OR MOVIE: Beau Bridges, P.T. Barnum, A&E; Brian Dennehy, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Showtime; Jack Lemmon, Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie, ABC; William H. Macy, A Slight Case of Murder, TNT; Liev Schreiber, RKO 281, HBO.

ACTRESS, MINISERIES OR MOVIE: Halle Berry, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, HBO; Judy Davis, A Cooler Climate, Showtime; Sally Field, A Cooler Climate, Showtime; Holly Hunter, Harlan County War, Showtime; Gena Rowlands, The Color of Love: Jacey's Story, CBS.

SUPPORTING ACTOR, COMEDY SERIES: Peter Boyle, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Sean Hayes, Will & Grace, NBC; Peter MacNicol, Ally McBeal, Fox; David Hyde Pierce, Frasier, NBC.

SUPPORTING ACTOR, DRAMA SERIES: Michael Badalucco, The Practice, ABC; Dominic Chianese, The Sopranos, HBO; Steve Harris, The Practice, ABC; Richard Schiff, The West Wing, NBC; John Spencer, The West Wing, NBC.

SUPPORTING ACTOR, MINISERIES OR MOVIE: Hank Azaria, Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie, ABC; Klaus Maria Brandauer, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, HBO; James Cromwell, RKO 281, HBO; Danny Glover, Freedom Song, TNT; John Malkovich, RKO 281, HBO.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS, COMEDY SERIES: Jennifer Aniston, Friends, NBC; Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City, HBO; Lisa Kudrow, Friends, NBC; Megan Mullally, Will & Grace, NBC; Doris Roberts, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS, DRAMA SERIES: Stockard Channing, The West Wing, NBC; Tyne Daly, Judging Amy, CBS; Allison Janney, The West Wing, NBC; Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos, HBO; Holland Taylor, The Practice, ABC.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS, MINISERIES OR MOVIE: Kathy Bates, Annie, ABC; Elizabeth Franz, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Showtime; Melanie Griffith, RKO 281, HBO; Vanessa Redgrave, If These Walls Could Talk 2, HBO; Maggie Smith, David Copperfield, PBS.

VARIETY, MUSIC OR COMEDY SERIES: The Chris Rock Show, HBO; Dennis Miller Live, HBO; Late Show With David Letterman, CBS; Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher, ABC; The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, NBC.

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