This much we learned about Garry Shandling Sunday night: He's got no problem talking about his sexual inadequacies in front of 21.6 million viewers, there still are visible scars from the repeated times Emmy stomped him like a male Susan Lucci, and ABC suits oughta be thanking him right now. Big time.

In what's being trumpeted as one of the most tolerable ceremonies in a decade (by Emmy standards, a glowing review), Shandling's wit and the producers' quick cutting for time helped ABC scored big with the 52nd Annual Prime-Time Emmy Awards Sunday night, as the show drew its best audience in at least 14 years.

The three-hour telecast, which featured a landslide win by Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing, was watched by an average of 21.6 million viewers, according to preliminary numbers, its best tally since Nielsen began reporting the viewer figures in 1986. The telecast scored a 14.2 household rating and 23 share, just shy of ABC's previous Emmy ratings record set in 1996. And in the all-important adults 18-49 demographic, the ceremony had its best numbers in six years--an 8.7 rating and 21 share.

(A ratings point represents 1,008,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation's estimated 100.8 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of turned-on TVs tuned to a particular show.)

ABC estimates that some 46 million viewers watched at least a portion of the telecast, which featured the self-deprecating humor of Shandling, emotional acceptance speeches from Michael J. Fox and Jack Lemmon, and some daring fashion statements (read: lots o' flesh) from the likes of Geena Davis and Lucy Liu.

It's a promising upswing for the once-staid and predictable awards show, which last year on Fox saw its lowest numbers in almost a decade. Among viewers, ABC's telecast was up 23 percent from Fox's 17.5 million--due in part to the show's mundane delivery and laundry list of repeat winners.

And, unlike past telecasts, this year's Emmycast appears to have avoided the wrath of most critics, who piled praise on the ceremony's producers--and, most importantly, Shandling--for keeping viewers awake during the three-hour spectacle. Emmy may have been unkind to Shandling during his critically acclaimed run on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, but Shandling was extremely kind to the awards show.

With that, here's a short rundown on the critical post-mortem:

Los Angeles Times: "Some people won some Emmy Awards Sunday night, but I forgot who and what for. I was too busy enjoying the show-within-a-show, starring [Shandling]. Sunday night, [he] thrived in a reprised, pseudo-Sanders role, vamping in his inimical, self-flagellating fashion in backstage sketches with Calista Flockhart, Sarah Jessica Parker and David Duchovny, among others."
Washington Post: "[Shandling's] lovably needy and neurotic persona seemed perfect for the show and kept retrieving it from the doldrums. The Emmycast took a quantum leap forward in quality, and Shandling's adroit host brought back fond memories of Johnny Carson's magnificent reign as host."
Boston Herald: "Not so great was comic Garry Shandling's opening monologue. He had a few good jokes--mostly about his inadequacies--but Shandling paced the stage nervously and seemed jittery."
Chicago Sun-Times: If Garry Shandling doesn't get a crack at hosting the Oscars someday, something is horribly, horribly wrong. He and his writers presided over the best Emmy telecast in more than a decade. It was smart, funny and knowing--fun for Hollywood insiders and occasional viewers alike--and it didn't run much over its three-hour time slot, thanks to some admittedly cold-blooded cuts late."
San Francisco Examiner: "There was an even more glaringly frustrating element to this year's awards show, and it happens time and again: The show slumps in the middle, and all the awards we've waited three hours to see are rushed at the end, causing anxiety, confusion, embarrassment and bad television along the way. Thank God for [Shandling], whose obsessive behavior fits perfectly on the Emmys and who managed to salvage a night with few bright moments."

Unless you're a Sopranos fan, it gave reason to believe these awards might start getting better with age.

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