Hugh Laurie and Ali G set to crash 'Lost' Emmys party

Ian McShane is also in with a chance of winning one of American TV's biggest awards tonight. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles

Three prominent UK actors are up for awards. Ian McShane stands perhaps the best chance of winning for his widely praised turn in the gritty Western series Deadwood. Among those he is likely to eclipse is Hugh Laurie, who plays a brutally frank doctor in the Fox drama series House.

Meanwhile, Ali G, aka Sacha Baron Cohen, is nominated for comic acting in Da Ali G Show, and the show itself is nominated in the "variety, music or comedy" category. The feeling among US critics, however, is that the show is beginning to outstay its welcome.

The outcome in the major categories is scarcely in doubt. ABC's runaway hit of suburban anomie, Desperate Housewives, is set to dominate the evening. It is the odds-on favourite in the outstanding comedy series category (even though, strictly speaking, it is not a comedy), and no fewer than three of its leading players - Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman and Marcia Cross - are up for outstanding lead actress in a comedy.

Another ABC show, Lost, about a group of plane crash survivors on a tropical island, is expected to pick up dramatic honours - not least because ABC made sure it would not be in direct competition with Housewives.The Washington Post asked last week: has there ever been less suspense to the prime-time Emmy Awards?

This year presenters will be asked to wear magnolias, the state flower of two Katrina-battered states, Louisiana and Mississippi. If the outpouring of news coverage and celebrity fundraising for the hurricane were not enough, tonight's Emmys telecast from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles also has to contend with plummeting ratings and the ever more sarcastic putdowns of television critics bored senseless by what they see as an exercise in self-congratulation by shows that frequently do not deserve it.

US television critics have had enormous fun in the past few days pointing to their favourite "outrages" in the nominations list - railing at the television academy's failure to recognise the much-praised comedy Arrested Development, for example, or its lazy recognition of bit-part actors in tired old sitcoms such as Everybody Loves Raymond, which has just ended a nine-year run.

One of the most caustic, Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle, said the whole spectacle was so sorry he had actually lost his usual "kill-kill-kill" impulse. "Anger at the Emmys is pointless," he wrote. "The Emmys manage to defuse rage by having so many outlandish oversights that one cannot muster up the energy to scream bloody murder."

The award show producers, meanwhile, are racking their brains to find ways to keep the audience engaged. A new feature will have television stars singing the theme songs from favourite old shows, with home audiences encouraged to vote for their favourite performance. The segment, shamelessly stolen from Pop Idol and its US counterpart American Idol, may just be cheesy enough to make the whole glitterfest worth ogling at.

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