About halfway through this year’s Emmy Awards, it became clear that the producers were sort of irritated they had to interrupt their variety show with, you know, awards. And that seemed to color the rest of the evening, which featured some fine staged moments but few spontaneous ones, largely because producers were so quick to play everyone off, they didn’t give the show any room to breathe. The late Gil Cates talked about the “award-show gods,” which smile on such telecasts (or don’t) with spontaneous moments. This year’s awards were competent, perhaps, but created scant opportunity for the gods to favor them.
The Emmys — and indeed, all award shows — face an inherent tension between the perceived numbing effect of having people get up and thank their agents, and the showbiz values necessary to attract and hold younger demos.
Still, this is, inescapably, an awards show, and the TV academy has already made significant concessions in terms of crunching on-air categories for entertainment purposes. By the time the show was over, it was hard not to think we could have done with at least one less musical number, or one less memorial tribute, in order to let the winners — including high-profile ones in major categories — actually deliver an acceptance speech without hearing piano music kick in just as they started warming up.
Merritt Wever — a surprise winner for Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” — might have started off the night with the shortest not-exactly-a-speech in award-show history (“Best speech ever,” Harris quipped), but when Tony Hale of “Veep” was played off a few moments later, that proved to be an unfortunate harbinger of things to come.
Jeff Daniels, Anna Gunn, Bobby Cannavale and Claire Danes — Claire Danes, for heavens sake — all received short shrift, even after Danes devoted the opening portion of her speech to the late Henry Bromell, a winner for writing “Homeland” earlier, who died suddenly in March.
Isn’t the reaction of those performers — joyful, giddy, tearful, self-indulgent, whatever — one of the reasons people tune in, to see stars in unscripted moments? And shouldn’t the academy have some say regarding the not-so-subtle attempt to program the awards out of the ceremony?
Michael Douglas’ coy speech about “Behind the Candelabra” was certainly funny, and he was mercifully given more time than most fellow actors. Yet even a lousy speech potentially provides people more to talk about the next day — if only to mock it — than a musical tribute to the middle of the show, however clever that might be.
Bromell’s wife accepted his award, in a truly emotional moment. Another came when Bob Newhart received a spontaneous standing ovation, after winning his first Emmy — ever — at the Creative Arts Emmys a week earlier.
One can certainly forgive the time devoted to classy memorial tributes to Jean Stapleton, Jonathan Winters, Gary David Goldberg and James Gandolfini, and even accept the demographic pandering of including “Glee’s” Cory Monteith in that rarefied company. Edie Falco’s tearful tribute to her “The Sopranos” co-star, and Rob Reiner’s to Stapleton certainly put a lump in your throat.
Of course, some will argue those tributes put a dour tone on the event — a point “Modern Family’s” Steven Levitan registered, cleverly, by saying, “This may be the saddest Emmys of all time, but we could not be happier.”
Setting that debate aside, there was simply too much flab in the show that could have been put to better use. Elton John and Carrie Underwood delivered fine performances, but the ode to choreography or extended mock public-service announcement about Neil Patrick Harris’ serial-hosting condition (shared with Ryan Seacrest) dragged on. So did a look back at major events of 50 years ago, which would have been fine had it brought anything fresh to the nostalgia.
Then again, the show got off to a rather uncomfortable start, with CBS’ NFL coverage running into the show, and delaying its start by a few minutes. While it turned out not to be a big deal, the Oscars never have to deal with these kind of little indignities, do they?
In essence, the Emmys couldn’t stand prosperity. There was a promising opening with a fair amount of energy — including a bit in which several former hosts joined Harris on stage. Kevin Spacey then addressed the camera, a la “House of Cards,” suggesting the mess playing out on stage was all part of his nefarious plan.
Never mind that most of the at-home audience probably had no idea what Spacey was doing, since the TV industry has no idea how many people have watched “Cards” on Netflix. It was just peculiar enough to make you think this might be a fun evening, which was abetted by the number of unexpected winners in the early going — and indeed, throughout the evening.
Being unpredictable is never a bad thing, and award voters also helpfully spread the wealth among a variety of networks. Yet if that’s a prescription to sustain viewers’ interest, the presentation mostly squandered that effect as the night unfolded.
Other staged moments, like septuagenarian Diahann Carroll (still looking pretty dazzling) coming out to fete Kerry Washington, were good ideas that foundered on stage — and feel more aggravating with the benefit of hindsight, when you realize even Stephen Colbert got hustled off as he stepped out of character and warmly thanked Jon Stewart after breaking “The Daily Show’s” gaudy winning streak, along with his wife for being “cruel and sexy.”
Actually, there was someone considerably crueler on Sunday night. And at least this year, the Emmys were a real bitch.