This review was corrected on November 6, 2001.
The bad timing of the 53rd Emmy awards held firm going into the ceremony Sunday night, landing on the same night as the seventh game of the most exciting World Series in recent memory. The superstitious might be excused for believing that the skedding of these ill-starred Emmys virtually guaranteed a seventh game. In any case, East Coast viewers who watched baseball (everyone but this reviewer, perhaps?) missed a decidedly low-key telecast. The show had promised to be less glitzy and more sober, in keeping with the gravity of the times, and it delivered on the promise. Over the course of a businesslike and somewhat sluggish three hours, trophies were unloaded, thanks were given, low-key host Ellen DeGeneres made some jokes, Barbra Streisand sang and the credits rolled.
Current events inevitably loomed large through the evening, and were handled with care. The telecast opened with a schmaltzy but brief performance of “America the Beautiful” (featuring college-kid chorus and a shot of Kelsey Grammer wiping away a well-timed tear) and a video intro by TV eminence Walter Cronkite, quoting Edward R. Murrow on the higher aims of TV. “Entertainment can help us heal,” he concluded, and then introduced host Ellen DeGeneres.
In her amusing opening remarks, DeGeneres welcomed us to “the 53rd, 54th and 55th Emmy awards” and then acknowledged the competition by referring to the baseball game and promising updates (there weren’t any). She set a fairly insular tone by ribbing Eye topper Leslie Moonves, and got the biggest response for noting her pride at being present, because “what would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?”
DeGeneres’ deadpan style was welcome, and her modest approach to her duties was appealing, but some of her more laborious material was weak. (A sight gag sending up Bjork’s famous swan gown — “I guess this is business casual” — was an exception.) Dubious moments included climbing to the balcony to schlep a guest downstairs for pointless comic shtick; worse was trying to milk it for a running gag about a sherpa. The inside-showbiz jokes included chatting to a seat-filler (not all that funny given the numerous empty seats on view) and a segment showing DeGeneres visiting the press corps across the street at a Chinese restaurant.
Allison Janney, the evening’s first winner, made a gracious reference to her pride in working on a show that “celebrates the process of freedom that makes this country great,” and Patricia Heaton paid heartfelt tribute to the men and women overseas, but most winners avoided extended political or patriotic commentary.
The minimal amount of time taken away from award-giving was devoted to references to current events. Larry King intro’d a montage showing entertainers performing for and/or comforting troops (which gave us the disconcerting news that USO shows now appear to include mosh pits). TV acad chairman-CEO Bryce Zabel came onstage to explain the decision to go ahead with the Emmys in somewhat high-flown rhetoric. “To have given up would have been a defeat,” he said, concluding a bit pompously, “Let history remember that the 53rd annual Emmys stood up to fear, stood up to hate and celebrated the American spirit.” (Let’s not push it, folks!) Show concluded with the rumored-to-appear Streisand, in excellent voice, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The only diversions from award-giving and flag-waving were a too-brief tribute to the 50th anni of “I Love Lucy” and an obit reel intro’d by Rob Reiner. The direction by Louis J. Horvitz was crisp and efficient, the silver-and-gold set handsome.
The evening’s smooth, carefully scripted feeling was virtually never broken. Perhaps that why the evening’s highlight may have been Steve Martin rushing the stage as Martin Sheen began to accept on behalf of an absent Judy Davis: “I didn’t win in my category and I see these Emmys going begging!” he shouted, grabbing the trophy and injecting a little bit of late-inning excitement into the polished but bland proceedings.