It was an Emmy Awards filled with unexpected wins, needless musical numbers and death. Lots of death — some of it woven into the ceremony and some just part of the year, all of it coming together to offer the impression that the business of television is a very dangerous one indeed. Between the remembrances offered to Jean Stapleton, Jonathan Winters, Gary David Goldberg, Cory Monteith and, most tearfully, James Gandolfini, the actual “In Memoriam” section and the tributes to the late “Homeland” writer Henry Bromell, who passed away in March and whose wife accepted the award on his behalf, the ceremony was shot through with a sense of seriousness and mourning, as if all of the dark dramas that have led to television becoming such an interesting medium right now have bled through into the awards. And that’s not even getting to the whole JFK assassination/Beatles sequence.
The past year may have been, as host Neil Patrick Harris put it in the intro, “one of the greatest in television history,” but the ceremony celebrating them sure as hell wasn’t. Harris is such a reliable and relied-upon host that a whole “How I Met Your Mother” sketch was made about theatfact last night, but despite the unavoidable self-aware song and dance number he was a subdued presence for much of the show, feeding into the feeling that everyone on stage was faced with a giant, flashing sign reading “Move it along.”
Yes, yes, it’s a golden age of television, but that doesn’t the Emmys think we actually want to hear from or see these people, and so clips were skipped and the winners seemed to get a window of 10 seconds before the music began playing them off. While the actual awards-giving was unyieldingly brisk, the material filling out the night played long and pointless — sure, Elton John is fab, but why was he there, singing a song “inspired by” Liberace, sort of?
Some of the winners managed to make the most of their narrow allotment of time on stage anyway — like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who won for “Veep” and who did a great bit with Tony Hale (another winner) tagging after her the way his character Gary does on the series, holding her bag and whispering prompts in her ear (“I’d like to thank… my family!”). The cleverness of the skit was counterbalanced only by the fact that a sizable chunk of viewers, having never seen the HBO comedy, surely had no idea what was going on and thought Anna Chlumsky, playing along in character from the audience, was actually caught texting during the speech.
Merritt Wever, who picked up an award for her role in “Nurse Jackie,” gasped out a charmingly shocked, very short speech and Kevin Spacey did some Francis Underwood-style fourth wall-breaking, first with a speech in character during the intro and later as himself when he batted away the camera while Bruce Rosenblum and Kaley Cuoco spoke about the Archive of American Television.
Will Arnett and Margo Martindale were so much funnier joking about touting their new series “The Millers” than the show itself is, while Diahann Carroll spoke about diversity even as this year’s winners were blindingly white. Shemar Moore hung out in the bathroom or something serving as the “social media reporter” and awkwardly chatting with stars pinned frozen in front of the camera like deer in front of headlights, seemingly uncertain as to what they were doing there and whether or not they were live on air. Jeff Daniels chewed gum as he accepted his award, and Stephen Colbert handed his wife the best on-air complement when saluting her for being “so cruel and sexy.”
The words “golden age of television” were actually uttered by someone during the night, but it’s clear that how to serve that golden age in an award show is a daunting task no one’s really figured out yet — there’s just so much TV, and it’s so nichefied and diverse, so why not… a “Breaking Bad”-themed dance number that’s also a salute to choreography? There were no big winners last night, the awards scattered at random, apparently, around different shows and networks, almost all of them cable, as has been the trend over the last few years.
It was great to see “Breaking Bad” pick up the win for outstanding drama, but maybe even more rewarding to see Anna Gunn get an award for her fine work playing the constantly maligned Skyler White. And despite this being a historic year for Netflix in terms of its “House of Cards” nominations, the streaming site only got one win, for David Fincher’s directing, and he wasn’t there to accept. “Orange is the New Black,” which got cheers in its brief appearance on screen in the intro, will be a better ambassador for the future of TV next year.
The most interesting aspect of the Emmys wasn’t something that happened on screen at all — it was the choice the awards presented, going up against the penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad,” the series finales of “Dexter” and “Copper,” the season closers for “Ray Donovan” and Lifetime’s controversial hit “Devious Maids,” plus “Boardwalk Empire” and poor “Low Winter Sun.” There are so many series demanding of our attention that an awards show taking up the most jam-packed night on television seemed strangely presumptuous — if the Emmys really are a tribute to what’s being done on the small screen, then they shouldn’t be in direct competition with so many of the shows they’re lauding, including the one that won the night’s final prize. Trophies are all well and good, but a better testament to how good “Breaking Bad” has been in this last arc is how many people flipped the channel to AMC at 9pm.