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Bad-ass meth dealer a howl at TV critics association awards

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HOLLYWOOD -- He plays one of TV's darkest and most desperately dangerous characters, but Bryan Cranston is one crazy-funny dude.

As the Emmy-winning star of AMC's drug-war-driven drama Breaking Bad, Cranston plays high-school teacher turned crystal-meth cooker Walter White, a character who has become increasingly ruthless throughout the series' five-season run. But on Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, it was Cranston the jokester who brought the house down when he guest-hosted the annual Television Critics Association Awards.

The actor, whose early TV work was actually mostly in sitcoms -- including memorable guest spots on Seinfeld and The King of Queens, and a seven-season run on Malcolm in the Middle -- showed he might also be at home on a standup-comedy stage, opening Saturday's TCA Awards gala with 30-minute set that was equal parts mischief, mirth, self-deprecation and showbiz-industry skewering.

Cranston set the tone by welcoming those in attendance to the Beverly Hilton, "Hollywood's favourite place to die," and quipped, "For a change, it's good to see Hollywood actors being praised and pampered. It's about time."

"It's nice to be back at the TCA (Awards)," he continued. "You see old, familiar faces and new, fresh faces, and thanks to plastic surgery, you see old, familiar faces with new, fresh faces..."

His impeccably timed standup sequence poked fun at everybody from Merv Griffin (the Beverly Hilton's onetime owner) to Sarah Palin to the London Olympics' opening ceremonies to, of course, anybody or anything named Kardashian.

After the jokes, it was time to hand out the TCA Awards, and the big winners in this year's field were the Showtime cable drama Homeland (which airs on Super Channel in Canada) and the FX network comedy Louie, which each received two awards.

Homeland took home the TCA Award for outstanding new program, and series star Claire Danes was honoured for outstanding individual achievement in drama. Louie was named top comedy program, and its creator/producer/star, comedian Louis C.K., won for outstanding individual achievement in comedy.

Guest host Cranston's show, Breaking Bad, got the nod as top drama series, and PBS's Downton Abbey received the award for outstanding achievement in movies and mini-series. ABC Family's Switched at Birth was recognized as best youth program, and Fox's So You Think You Can Dance was named top reality-TV show. CBS's 60 Minutes, which is about to begin its 45th season, received the TCA Award for outstanding achievement in news.

The epic HBO drama Game of Thrones was honoured by the TCA as program of the year.

The long-running NBC sitcom Cheers received the TCA's heritage award; in his acceptance speech, former Cheers writer Ken Levine recalled how the series (which ran from 1982 to '93) laid the groundwork for what would eventually become NBC's Must-See-TV comedy dominance on Thursday nights.

"NBC had nothing else... kind of like today," Levine offered. "Seriously, it was either us or Pink Lady and Jeff."

David Letterman received the TCA's career achievement award. In a taped greeting from his show's studio in New York, Letterman said he was honoured by the recognition and would have liked to be at the ceremony, but "for those of you who are friends with me -- and that's a pretty short list -- you know that tonight's the night that I eat glass."

After the tape concluded, a Letterman lookalike named Jeff Peters bounded onto the stage to accept the trophy.

It was a funny moment, but as far as the comedy content was concerned, it was Cranston who owned the evening.

The TCA Awards are voted each year by the members of the Television Critics Association, a group that includes more than 200 reporters and critics who cover TV for print and online publications in the U.S. and Canada. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2012 C3

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