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By Belinda Acosta

AUGUST 7, 2000:  Last week I went over the drama series and performers nominated for the 2000 Emmy Awards. From those nominees, I selected my own favorite, "Clare's Choice," named for the patron saint of television. This week, the focus is on comedy. The comedy series nominees seem thin, mostly because all of the categories have repeat nominees, including the previous year's winner. The exception to this is the absence of Kristen Johnston -- who won the supporting actress category for 3rd Rock From the Sun in 1999 -- and Ally McBeal.

Not only was McBeal not nominated for the best comedy series category it won last year, but Calista Flockhart, who plays the title character, was not nominated, nor was anybody else from the cast except Peter MacNicol (who plays John Cage). Perhaps that was a wake-up call to David E. Kelley and the rest of the McBeal team to turn out of the narrative skid it careened into last season. In fact, in the newest issue of Entertainment Weekly, Kelley promises a more mature Ally in the future.

"It's time for her to get a grip," Kelley says in the August 4 issue of the magazine. "A lot of that neurosis that was once fun and entertaining could cross the line into becoming sad or pathetic."

That's an understatement. Strangely, Kelley seems to have lost touch with what made Ally McBeal appealing in its early days, adding that Ally's dream sequences will be less frequent in favor or showing off her courtroom skills. However, the real antidote to Ally's wacky ways appears to be love interest Brian Selig, played by Tim Dutton, and a "life-changing turning point in the season premiere."

But enough about Ally McBeal. If David E. wants my advice, he can have his people call my people. Onward to the Emmy and Clare's Choice nominations.

• Best Comedy Series: Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS), Frasier (NBC), Friends (NBC), Sex and the City (HBO), Will & Grace (NBC).

• Last year's winner: Ally McBeal

Well, pencil out Frasier and Friends. Last season's Frasier, with the exception of the season finale, which finally took Niles and Daphne off the unrequited love merry-go-round they were stuck on for ages, was fairly ... I was going to say lackluster, but then memories of three episodes leapt to mind. In one of them, Kim Coles appeared as a substitute producer who ends up taking over Frasier's show, and in the other, Jean Smart plays a former high school prom queen who turns out to be a raging harpy. The third featured an opening sequence harkening to those Dick Van Dyke Show scenes in which Rob has one innocuous mishap that escalates into some outrageously funny predicament. Here, it was fussy Niles, becoming obsessed with removing lint from his trousers and ending up setting his brother's sofa on fire. It was a bit over the top, but the gag, all without dialogue, was very well done. Friends is consistently entertaining, particularly since Jennifer Aniston hit her stride as Rachel Green. And though Sex and the City and Will & Grace are both bright and funny, I think Clare's choice has to be Everybody Loves Raymond. Why? Because it's the only show of the group where I found myself laughing out loud. As a domestic comedy, it's consistently surprising. It's also consistently overlooked by Emmy, so it's time for a trophy for this Ray Romano vehicle. Yes, Clare's choice is Raymond, though I predict Emmy will reward Frasier.

• Best Actor in a Comedy: Michael J. Fox, Spin City, (ABC); Kelsey Grammer, Frasier (NBC); John Lithgow, 3rd Rock From the Sun (NBC); Eric McCormack, Will & Grace (NBC); Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS).

• Last year's winner: John Lithgow, 3rd Rock From the Sun

Will Emmy give a sentimental nod to Fox who left his series following his announcement that he has Parkinson's Disease? It's not unlikely. Though Emmy is just as likely to give a repeat nod to John Lithgow, or return to rewarding Kelsey Grammer. That leaves McCormack and Romano, the two weakest nominees in this category. Between the two, Clare likes Romano, but loves McCormack. I predict Emmy will go with Lithgow.

• Best Actress in a Comedy: Jenna Elfman Dharma & Greg (ABC); Patricia Heaton Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS); Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle (Fox); Debra Messing, Will & Grace (NBC); Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City (HBO).

• Last year's winner: Helen Hunt, Mad About You

Clare would trade the plucky Leah Remini from The King of Queens (CBS) for the vapid Elfman. Jane Kaczmarek and Debra Messing have similar qualities in playing broad, screwball comedy. But my vote is torn between Patricia Heaton and Sarah Jessica Parker. Heaton's subtle performance is overlooked as a hollow straight man for Romano. On the other hand, Parker glimmers as Sex and the City's bright, funny, and at times heartbreaking Carrie Bradshaw. Since Emmy is loath to recognize cable series, on that condition alone, Clare's choice is Parker. Emmy should recognize Heaton this year, but if mediocrity rises to the top, as it inevitably does, the Emmy could go to Elfman. However, I think Messing is a better choice, if Parker is shut out of consideration.

• Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy: 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).

• Last year's winner: David Hyde Pierce, Frasier

David Hyde Pierce has an Emmy or two, so enough already. Peter MacNicol has the misfortune of being in a show that gets on my last nerve. That leaves Peter Boyle and Brad Garrett (both of Raymond) and Sean Hayes of Will & Grace. Garrett had a good year, surviving a bull attack and reduced to recuperating under his parent's roof, but Peter Boyle as cranky Frank Barone still slays me. I adore the petulant twinkle of Hayes' Jack McFarland, even when it percolates over the top. However, Clare's choice is Boyle. I think Emmy may go with Pierce.

• Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy: 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).

• Last year's winner: Kristen Johnston, 3rd Rock From the Sun

I know I said Aniston had a good year as Rachel, but let's face it -- if Aniston's Rachel and Kudrow's Phoebe met Cattrall's Samantha and Mullally's Karen in a Celebrity Death Match bout, who do you think would end up skewered like a couple of martini olives, hmm? I think the present season has been Cattrall's, and she's already my nomination for next year. That leaves Mullally and the grand dame of the entire group, Roberts, another overlooked member of the Raymond cast. It's a tough choice, but Clare's choice is Mullally. No, Roberts! No, Mullally! Roberts! While I struggle with this choice, I think Emmy will go with Aniston. As always, stay tuned.


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