Sunday marked my first night at the Emmys. The theme of the night, for me as an awards telecast virgin, was a lifting of the veil. I saw things no man should see—unless that man wants his illusions shattered.
It’s no secret that beneath the glitter of Hollywood television lies a dark underworld of cutthroat upward mobility and freak-making plastic surgery. But this was my first time truly witnessing this up close, face-to-disfigured-face. It was surreal and disenchanting and I sort of… loved it?
By the grace of knowing people in places, I had access to everything in the Nokia Theatre. I spent the preliminary hours stargazing on the red carpet. I mean, I was there, and I could, so why not? These vaunting Stepford wives you see, soon-to-be-anointed (or not) with predictable plaudits and gold statuettes, are human. Very human. Too human. Their faces, gone beneath the plastic surgery and the pained smiles, slathered in cakey foundation, lose luster once you’re up close. You really get the sense of a twitchy desperation as they arrive on the red carpet to be assaulted by flash bulbs and fanfare.
The sweetest face of all was that of Lena Dunham, looking overwhelmed and alienated, surrounded by her supportive, if cosseting, family. What a shame that Dunham lost all three of her solo nominations in less an hour. Equally depressing was the instantaneous deflation of the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama category. Maggie Smith, who wasn’t even in attendance, won for playing Maggie Smith, leaving stellar performers like Christina Hendricks (Joan in “Mad Men”) and Anna Gunn (Skyler in “Breaking Bad”) empty-handed.
Some of the same complaints levied upon the annual Oscars telecast apply here. Emmys’ flagrant refusal to acknowledge edgy fare (HBO’s “Girls” and Brit miniseries like “Sherlock” and “Luther”) in favor of the most mediocre programming once again ruled.
Frazzled Aryan princess Julie Bowen snagged Best Supporting Actress yet again for her performance as the frazzled matriarch of “Modern Family.” Co-star Eric Stonestreet won for the second time in the supporting actor because he is a straight man who plays a gay man and that is shocking, isn’t it? “Modern Family” peddles mediocrity with no self-awareness or camp factor, coloring the “virtuous” image of the American family with just enough left-handed subversion, however disingenuous, to seem edgy. The gay couple (played by Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), for instance, is just as baby-motivated and family-oriented as the show’s straight characters. NBC’s latest heartwarming attempt at gay representation, “The New Normal,” doesn’t exhibit anything left of center either.
Maybe I am just a child of my generation who prefers irony and detachment to sincerity and sentimentality, but there was little hope in my heart that “Girls,” in all its sharply realized narcissism, might dethrone “Modern Family”’s reign of terror. This is such a good era for television – there is no denying that – that I wasn’t alone in thinking the Emmys might decide to jump on the zeitgeist wagon instead of pandering in perpetuity. But I’ve had these kinds of hopes for the Oscars year after year, and it never happens, so why would the Emmys be any different?The sweep made by New Kid on the Block “Homeland” shocked many, including myself, who thought that the show was just too new to plant that kind of stake. This smartly scripted series oozes a paranoia-steeped atmosphere and really defines edge-of-the-seat entertainment, but it’s too plot-heavy and nowhere near as nuanced or contemplative as “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” which were virtually shut out last night. “Homeland” is not as cinematic as these AMC shows, and is more self-congratulatory about its Serious Acting than anything else, but the Emmys did shake things up a bit by awarding this show over what seemed to be lock contenders.
Nor can it be said there were no reasons as to why the Academy was “over” the ever-Emmy-gobbling “Mad Men” this year, denying the program all 17 of its nominations. But Jon Hamm is so, so overdue, as is Elisabeth Moss, annually shut out because her performance as Peggy, staid and pensive with some flashes of ferocity, is too slight when pitted against bigger, louder characters like Danes’ Carrie Mathison or Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes on "Damages." And woe upon Glenn Close. This was her last shot at an Emmy for the late “Damages,” after winning in 2008 and 2009. Voters must see something off-putting in this woman. She’s been nominated for six Oscars within 30 years and has won nary a one.
Ambling and aimless, I spent most of the night in the media center, standing in back of the press conferences where winners were met by a barrage of subpar questions and gave subpar answers in return. But this is a great time to see the winners aglow, and a little unhinged. There was an incident in the VIP Room where a certain slovenly actor known for passing out onstage and making ridiculous scenes was shouting at production staff about gift bags and handcarts. I enjoyed these small moments of depravity in a night of sparkling pristine, where every flyaway hair must be put in its place and where publicists will physically shove you out of their way to do so.
Amid this very long night — made even longer by the now notorious dragging-on of the Miniseries/Movie categories, because even I don’t know who watches these things — were small moments of tenderness to which I was an accidental voyeur: watching an actress, who did not know she was being watched, standing alone outside the theater, as she set down her trophy and tied her hair up in a ponytail; another nominee walking barefoot in the street, not bothering to lift her dress off the ground.
Seeing all these celebrities milling about in such a profoundly ordinary way, especially after witnessing the Grand Guignol theater of the red carpet in all its gruesomeness, was the highlight of my Emmy experience. These showy telecasts lose their gravity and significance more and more each year, but they acquire a certain tragic beauty once you understand the meaninglessness of it all. Jon Stewart, in his F-bombing acceptance speech, totally gets it: “Years from now, when the Earth is just a burning husk and aliens visit, they will find a box of these and they will know just how predictable these fucking awards shows are!”