Neil Patrick Harris might be the human bailout package for fatigued awards shows. After acing the Tonys in June with an effortlessly in-charge turn at the mic, the star of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” went one better for the network as host of this year’s Emmys. After two years of flavor-free kudocasts piloted by reality-show recruits, it was a relief to have someone at the podium whose own sly enjoyment proved infectious. Outside of Christina Hendricks emceeing in-character as “Mad Men’s” Joan Holloway and performing musical interludes on her accordion, it’s hard to imagine a cooler breath of fresh air enlivening these proceedings.
Doubling as a producer on the show, the host brought along one of his “Mother” scribes, Joe Kelly, as head writer, and gave prominent placement to a riff from “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” the Joss Whedon Web comedy in which Harris plays the title role. The bumbling evildoer hijacked the broadcast during the Ernst and Young spiel explaining vote tabulation, landing some funny digs at the shifting landscape between TV and Internet viewing.
Harris also returned to the well that yielded his clever Tonycast closing number, opening with “Put Down the Remote,” a slick Rat Pack-style ditty penned by the same composing team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, that managed to acknowledge pretty much every network in TV land in the lyrics. (The song’s segue from Hendricks to fellow “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm was priceless.)
But Harris’ unforced wit and ability to maintain energy in the awards-show hot seat suggests a supreme ease in the emcee role that goes far beyond the safety net of trusted collaborators. He may be the new Johnny Carson.
The suave cockiness of his opening number shifted nicely to deadpan self-deprecation early on, when Harris lost the supporting actor in a comedy nod to Jon Cryer. “Well, the night could have gone in two directions,” mumbled Harris, before tearing up his cue card. “It is now going in the second direction. The host lost. It’s not awkward. I won’t let it get awkward. We’re just going to go a little bit faster now.” He later cut to Cryer in the press room and insisted on seeing the envelope for confirmation.
Some of the inter-award segs worked better than others: The hyperviolent “Family Guy” Emmy-lust clip was a blast; Maks and Karina shaking it to bad ’90s Euro technopop, not so much. Women seemed more inclined to prank themselves than men, from Sarah Silverman with a full mustache to the supporting actress in a comedy nominees all wearing goofy eyewear. (Apparently the idea was Amy Poehler’s, so she got the cool pirate patch.)
Among the acceptance speeches, Kristin Chenoweth scored a laugh with her plea for a job. The Kanye jokes started on the red carpet and continued through the ceremony, but “Grey Gardens” winner Ken Howard’s was the classiest reference: “I’ll make my speech as brief as possible in the hope that it won’t be interrupted by a congressman or a rapper.”
Most gracious speech was Jessica Lange’s, also for “Grey Gardens”; she warmly shared the spotlight with co-star Drew Barrymore and concluded with a simple dedication “to mothers and daughters.”
The show was split into separate blocks by category, frontloading the comedy awards and saving — what else? — drama for last. Montage recaps of the year in each genre were a good idea, acknowledging lots of popular successes as well as critical darlings. Best of these was the variety clip reel, which generated genuine visual excitement, while the comedy highlights sacrificed laughs by cutting faster than a Weinstein Co. trailer.
Erasing much of the standard self-importance of the major award shows, the ceremony had an agreeably irreverent tone. This was notable from the newsreel-style opening clip to the whimsical commentary filling the dead airtime as winners made their way to the stage to Harris’ presenter intros, frequently choosing credits the thesps might have forgotten were on their resumes. (“You loved him as Retaux de Vilette in ‘The Affair of the Necklace.’ Please welcome Simon Baker.”)
Pre-taped nominee roundups were a smart way of giving face time to off-camera talent, and the epic roundup of writers for variety, music or comedy once again provided a challenge for talented teams to outdo each other with cute gimmicks.
Solemn moments were few (there were scant mentions of the economy and no obvious evidence of the recession in wardrobe choices), which made the unfussy elegance of the in-memoriam seg all the more moving. This was accompanied by Sarah McLachlan singing “I Will Remember You” as clips rolled by marking a year of significant losses for American TV.
While he succeeded in keeping the focus on the awards and not on himself, the night ultimately belonged to Harris, a fact acknowledged even by one of last year’s unfortunate tag-team hosts, Jeff Probst. “Neil Patrick Harris, this is how you host the Emmys,” said the “Survivor” winner. “Nice job.” Others, including Jon Stewart and Ricky Gervais (hands-down funniest presenter for the second year in a row), echoed the praise. “Better than last year, innit though?” said Gervais. Agreed.