If the history of the Emmys for directing variety/music were an archaeological dig, excavation would reveal two distinct substrata, each dominated by a single imperial figure — with hints that a third era might be about to dawn.
In 1964, “outstanding directorial achievement in variety or music” became a permanent fixture, with “comedy” appended in 2002.
Over the first 30 years, the voters’ clear preference was for the men who blended elements of song, dance and clips in taped or filmed musical specials honoring the likes of Gershwin (1972 and 1988), “Liza With a Z” (1973), John Denver (1975) or “Baryshnikov on Broadway” (1980).
The go-to guy for music and variety at that time was Dwight Hemion. He and co-producer Gary Smith combined technical sophistication with a willingness to embrace new musical styles and in the process defined the classic, classy TV variety special. Hemion was almost always in the Emmy running from 1966 to 1991, and won 12 directing statuettes.
The era of the slick spectacular ended in 1993, when Walter C. Miller won for helming the Tony Awards. From then on, the risky, live extravaganza reigned.
Nine awards shows and three Olympic opening ceremonies have won since then. Emmy voters have preferred to honor a director charged with keeping together the unpredictable elements of a mostly unscripted and unrehearsed event.
Often that man was Louis J. Horvitz, the famously hot-tempered skipper of Kennedy Center Honors (one Emmy) and Oscar ceremonies (four Emmys, three times while he was helming the Emmy broadcast itself).
But Hemion has retired, and Horvitz’s string of 12 consecutive noms has just ended. Moreover, though “SNL” is broadcast live, only one live special is represented this year: No awards shows got a nod, and we’re between Olympics.
Will this year’s Emmy usher in a new string of kudos for traditional specials? Or will latenight or cable comedy, often a bridesmaid but rarely a bride, finally gain a foothold? As the medium is fond of saying: Stay tuned.
Show: “American Idol: The Finale” (Fox)
Emmy pedigree: Four noms (three for “AI” finales, one for a Fleetwood Mac special)
Why he may win: Voters traditionally appreciate the difficulty of managing a huge, live show in which anything can go wrong.
Maybe not: Something went wrong: The show ran over. Folks who missed learning the winner have longer memories than their TiVo boxes.
Show: “The Colbert Report Show #2161” (Comedy Central)
Emmy pedigree: One nom
Why he may win: Greenscreening and guest stars aplenty in shredding-competition year-ending spectacle “Rock & Awe: Countdown to Guitarmageddon.”
Maybe not: Don’t they do this sort of thing all the time on MTV?
Don Roy King
Show: “Saturday Night Live: Host: Alec Baldwin” (NBC)
Emmy pedigree: First nom
Why he may win: Seamless marshaling of a slew of guest stars for Baldwin’s 13th stint, from Steve Martin and Martin Short to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett.
Maybe not: Didn’t seem more complex or ambitious than the average “SNL” outing.
Show: “Tony Bennett: An American Classic” (NBC)
Emmy pedigree: Three choreography noms plus one win for “Annie”; one nom for directing “Annie”
Why he may win: Beloved crooner + Hemion-like flair + Marshall robbed of “Chicago” Oscar = trophy.
Maybe not: How could any helmer not hit a home run with this package?
Show: “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart: Show #12061” (Comedy Central)
Emmy pedigree: Three noms
Why he may win: Hilarious, fast-paced distillation of clips from first GOP presidential debate, plus wry interview with robotics expert and futurist Lee Gutkind.
Maybe not: Seems as if the writers and editors deserve the kudos for this one.