The Emmy telecast's biggest challenge has always been overcoming the nature of the awards themselves, with the nominee rerun factor inevitably diminishing the suspense contained in major film and music showcases. Still, this year's telecast tacked on an extra degree of difficulty to its three-hour-plus plunge, adopting a rotating-host format that never caught its rhythm and resulted in one of the flattest Emmys in years.

The Emmy telecast’s biggest challenge has always been overcoming the nature of the awards themselves, with the nominee rerun factor (what, meaty James Gandolfini again?) inevitably diminishing the suspense contained in major film and music showcases. Still, this year’s telecast tacked on an extra degree of difficulty to its three-hour-plus plunge, adopting a rotating-host format that never caught its rhythm and resulted in one of the flattest Emmys in years.

Employing nearly a dozen comedy stars to anchor the show doubtlessly seemed like a good idea going in. But it yielded uneven results and paled next to recent Emmycasts solely hosted by Conan O’Brien and Ellen DeGeneres.

In the early going, especially, the show felt off kilter, highlighted by a recurring non-gag that involved having Wanda Sykes walk through the Shrine Auditorium, annoying both those in the audience and viewers at home. Really, was it worth rushing winners off the stage to make more time for this?

“‘Wanda at Large,’ on Fox, Friday nights!” she droned more than once, plugging her sophomore sitcom. (Sorry, but based on last week’s premiere ratings, I’m betting not for long it isn’t.)

Even the usually reliable Garry Shandling delivered a sub-par set to open the show, his Madonna-inspired lip-lock with Brad Garrett notwithstanding.

There were other excesses and misfires, too, beginning with budgeting a surplus of jokes about the California recall election that actually exceeded the number of candidates. Granted, it’s a given these awards are going to be a bit Hollywood-centric, but at a certain point you had to wonder if viewers in Montana and Alabama were going, “Huh?”

A few of the hosts did manage to stand apart, most notably Jon Stewart — a highly deserving double winner for “The Daily Show” — who congratulated TV news “on becoming us: Mindless ratings whores.” The night’s most anticipated moment, paying tribute to the late John Ritter, amounted to a too-brief clip package, which also applied to the Bob Hope memorial. Bill Cosby, meanwhile, was just odd enough in accepting the Hope Humanitarian Award to at least keep that interesting.

For all the planning involved, award telecasts generally sparkle most in their moments of true ebullience, best captured by the elation of first-time winners. Just compare watching Edie Falco and Gandolfini take the stage, to the surprise of no one, to “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing’s joyful reaction or that of Joe Pantoliano, who choked up after his win for “The Sopranos.”

It’s a testament to the talents of “The West Wing” cast and crew, in fact, that they could claim their fourth consecutive outstanding drama award and still look genuinely surprised — a legitimate response only because of NBC’s muted presence in major categories Sunday.

Then again, from the first batch of awards — with Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett repeating for “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and perennial favorite Tyne Daly making it an even six-pack of Emmys for her mantle — it was clear there would be enough of the same-old, same-old to keep the spontaneity to a minimum.

Executive producer Don Mischer has acquitted himself with honor overseeing Emmys past but simply couldn’t assemble much out of this mismatched set of building blocks. Of course, that didn’t stop outgoing Academy of Television Arts & Sciences chairman Bryce Zabel from congratulating the hosts with 40 minutes left in the show. Let’s hope he doesn’t become a TV critic.

A vagary of the Emmy rulebook dictates that the show isn’t eligible for an Emmy itself. If that’s been a shame at times before, this year, the organizers needn’t worry about any similar injustice.

55th Annual Emmy Awards

Special; Fox, Sun. Sept. 21, 8 p.m.

Production


~ Main Story
Winners

~ Backstage Notes

~ Cablers
~ 'Raymond'
~ CBS
~ Brady's Best
~ Arrivals
~ Creative Emmys

~ Full Coverage
Broadcast from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Executive producer, Don Mischer; supervising producer, Michael Seligman; coordinating producer, Danette Herman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Beth Armogida, Dave Boone, Bill Kelley, Carol Leifer, Jon Macks.

Crew

Production design, Roy Christopher; art direction, Stephan Olson; special film clip sequences, June Beallor, Mike Shapiro. 3 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Hosts: Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Garrett, Darrell Hammond, George Lopez, Bernie Mac, Dennis Miller, Conan O'Brien, Garry Shandling, Martin Short, Jon Stewart, Wanda Sykes.

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