You could almost hear America snoring during Sunday's 58th annual Emmy Awards, an arguably irrelevant three hours in which the TV industry chose to largely ignore -- at the beginning, anyway -- the current smallscreen zeitgeist in order to honor a collection of cancelled and little-seen shows.

You could almost hear America snoring during Sunday’s 58th annual Emmy Awards, an arguably irrelevant three hours in which the TV industry chose to largely ignore — at the beginning, anyway — the current smallscreen zeitgeist in order to honor a collection of cancelled and little-seen shows. A valiant, near-heroic effort by Conan O’Brien — and a final flurry of legitimately exciting wins — couldn’t overcome the ho-hummery of a night destined to bore from the minute the TV Academy announced its much-ridiculed list of nominees.

Still, things could have been a little more interesting had voters chosen winners from shows with audiences exceeding two million viewers. Until the final 45 minutes — when Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kiefer Sutherland showed up and buzz skeins “The Office” and “24″ snagged much-deserved wins — the typical reaction to winners was, “That show’s still around?”

The night started off promisingly enough.

O’Brien’s pre-taped romps with the casts of “Lost,” “The Office,” “24″ and “South Park”– plus a vicious spoof of “Dateline NBC’s” controversial Internet predator series — easily matched (and quite possibly outshined) Billy Crystal’s film parodies. O’Brien turned some of his best barbs on himself, lampooning everything from his sexuality to his pale skin.

When he declared “I’m an ass,” however, O’Brien went a tad over the line in self-mockery. Taking on his own network with a “Music Man” spoof about NBC being in fourth also produced mixed results: O’Brien was actually fine as a singer/dancer–and the bit was very funny for those sitting in the Shrine — but does Peoria really care about Nielsen ratings?

O’Brien delivered a dud-free five-minute monologue that augers well for 2009, when the “Late Night” host is set to take over for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

Eschewing most of his usual Conan-isms (the cat growling, the Kung Fu moves), O’Brien instead played it straight, delivering one solid joke after another. He also stayed away from political jokes — letting Stephen Colbert do so brilliantly a few hours later. O’Brien also thankfully made just one Mel Gibson quip.

Overall, there was a certain gravitas around O’Brien’s performance that wasn’t there four years ago, when he last had the gig.

Sadly, Sunday’s show wasn’t all about Conan: They had to give out awards, and that’s when things turned painful.

Instead of watching Sandra Oh or Chandra Wilson claim a prize for their work on the red-hot “Grey’s Anatomy,” viewers had to sit through Blythe Danner thanking Showtime for giving her barely-rated “Huff” two seasons. Rather than honor the night-in and night-out efforts of latenight hosts such as David Letterman or Stephen Colbert, the TV Academy gave the variety/music performance award to Barry Manilow — for a PBS pledge drive show!

At least Danner and Manilow showed up: Three winners — including Alan Alda — didn’t even bother to make the trip to the Shrine.

Producers were also obsessed with speeding things up, lest what’s likely to be TV’s least-watched Emmys go even a minute over three hours.

Push to accelerate the proceedings may have led to the night’s more noticeable tech snafus.

On several occasions, winners walked to the wrong spot on stage, leaving presenters awkwardly holding on to Emmys while the winners rambled on without their statuettes. And Martin and Charlie Sheen seemed to walk out a few beats too early, possibly stepping on an O’Brien quip.

Bringing out Bob Newhart in a box, and threatening to kill him if the show went over three hours, was inspired; putting Christopher Meloni on a Segway was not.

Indeed, both stunts, and O’Brien’s many references to the show’s length, simply served to reinforce the notion that the Emmys aren’t really that important –and that winners don’t deserve to give wholehearted acceptance speeches.

If producers truly wanted to keep things moving, they wouldn’t have spent time telling us who didn’t win in the guest acting categories. Equally needless: Shots of audience members watching shows on iPods and cellphones, a stunt that screamed of Emmy desperately trying to prove its hipness. (A later bit in which a “live” O’Brien was fast-forwarded via TiVo worked much better.)

It seems fitting that one of the night’s few “wow” moments came about two hours in, during the tribute to Aaron Spelling. The parade of opening titles from Spelling’s countless skeins, combined with the surprise of seeing all three original “Charlie’s Angels” reuniting to pay homage to their former boss, packed a wallop of raw emotion so sorely missing during this most monotonous of kudocasts.

A tribute to Dick Clark, intro’d by Simon Cowell, would have been better served by more clips of Clark interacting with people, rather than simply introducing musical acts.

But can somebody please tell Cowell black tie doesn’t mean showing off your chest hair.

The 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards

Awards show; NBC, Sunday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m.

Production

Broadcast live and on tape from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Executive producers, Ken Ehrlich and Jeff Ross; producers, Renato Basile and Michael Seligman; coordinating producer, Danette Herman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers: David Wild, Chris Albers, Jose Arroyo, Dan Cronin, Kevin Dorff, Daniel J. Goor, Michael Gordon, Tim Harrod, Berkley Johnson, Brian Kiley, Michael Koman, Brian McCann, Guy Nicolucci, Brian Stack, Mike Sweeney, Andrew Weinberg; production design, John Shaffner and Joe Stewart; music director, Tom Scott.

Cast

Host: Conan O'Brien
Performers: Barry Manilow

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