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Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Page updated at 10:08 A.M.

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
TV critics vote for merit, message

Critics chose "Arrested Development" (with Jeffrey Tambor, left, Jason Bateman) as best comedy, new program.
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So what if "Deadwood" was erroneously flashed onscreen as a winner and the mistress of ceremonies tripped when she walked onstage?

TV critics only cover show business; they obviously can't do it.

At the 20th annual Television Critics Association awards show Saturday night, members gathered to honor their choices for the best of the 2003-2004 season. I know, because I was there: president of the TCA and wearing skirts just a tad too long.

Unlike the Emmys or Oscars, the TCA votes in just 11 categories. The result is a short, punchy and eclectic list of winners that typically have little in common with other award events.

Only television critics, for instance, would have conferred this year's prize for outstanding news and information programming to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" — vaulting it over rivals like PBS' "Frontline" and ABC's "Nightline."

It was a decision made on both merit and message. As my cross-town rival, Melanie McFarland of the Post-Intelligencer, said when presenting the award, at a time when the mainstream media seem cowed, Jon Stewart and company embody "a core of truth."

The TCA also demonstrated its independence by embracing Fox's low-rated social satire "Arrested Development" for outstanding comedy and best new program.

The show virtually owes its survival to the support of critics, who lobbied all season for its return and were rewarded when Fox announced it would bring the show back this fall in the post-"Simpsons" slot at 8:30 Sundays.

Coming on the heels of last week's Emmy nominations, it's always interesting to see if critics will fulfill the stereotype of left-leaning elitists.

But liberal darlings "The West Wing" and "The Reagans," showered with nominations by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, were shut out of TCA voting. When entertainment and ideology conflict, we really do prefer the former.

That said, HBO's high-concept style continues to demonstrate a powerful hold.
The premium cable channel's awards included "The Sopranos" for outstanding drama; Ian McShane of "Deadwood" for outstanding individual drama performance; and "Angels in America" for best movie, miniseries and special, and for program of the year.

"The Sopranos" win resulted in the most peculiar moment of the evening. Unaware that she was supposed to accept on behalf of the show, co-star Edie Falco sprinted to the stage and improvised a Joycean monologue, minus the sex.

"This is good because it makes people think and thinking is good and thinking about the show is good and thinking about things in the outside world is good," she said in part.

On hand to receive both "Angels" awards was producing and directing legend Mike Nichols.

He reminded the crowd that the world had made some, yet not enough, progress since "Angels" first drew theater audiences with its themes of sexual identity, social oppression and the death of faith in the age of AIDS.

Also in a serious mode were winners Linda Ellerbee, who as producer accepted the children's programming kudos for "Nick News," and CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who took the heritage award for "60 Minutes."

Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" delivered a gracious tribute to her former boss, Don Hewitt, who could not pick up his career achievement trophy in person.

In the universe of awards shows, the TCA event occupies a place of prestige rather than pizzazz. It's not televised. It doesn't shower the guests with $20,000 goody bags. The critics must cajole talent to attend and pretend the no-shows don't matter.

At Saturday's ceremony, two absent winners proved that a no-show doesn't necessarily mean no show.

Stewart sent a tape of himself seated at "The Daily Show" anchor desk, expressing bewilderment at the idea of getting an award for news programming on the heels of last year's TCA award for best comedy.

"We're fake," he said. "See this desk? ... It folds up at the end of the day, and I take it home in my purse."

Stewart's turn was topped only by a clip from Ricky Gervais, who won outstanding individual achievement in comedy for his portrayal of a clueless boss in BBC America's "The Office."

Staying completely in character, Gervais noted that while his performance had merited attention, "The Office" lost in the category of best comedy.

"So," he said. "Me? Doing my part, obviously. The others? Well. Falling down somewhat. Ah, well. Time to move on. Cut the deadwood."

Although critics may not have voted political opinion on Saturday, events of the past year indirectly found their way into some speeches made by presenters and winners. There were references to the war, to free expression and to the inappropriate use of power.

Still, all these were subtle compared to Bill Maher, the TCA's special guest speaker.

The star of HBO's "Real Time" delivered a 15-minute monologue that dealt one scathing riff after another on the Bush administration, the Kerry-Edwards pairing and Abu Ghraib. At one point, he mocked those who timidly clapped with "hands under the table."

Maher also brought down the house with an updated reference to the cancellation of his old show by ABC following on-air remarks about the courage of 9-11 terrorists.

"It's funny," he said. "The only person prosecuted in the past three years for terrorism has been me."

Kay McFadden:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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