Dare I say it? This year's Emmy Awards show was almost, gasp, Emmy-worthy (well, up until that deadly stretch in the back half; kills the show every time). And with a surprising number of first-time winners, a few of them quite surprising and even for the most part surprisingly satisfying, it rarely felt like a retread of past seasons.
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Bravo to a great freshman TV class for giving the voters something and someone new to honor: Modern Family, Glee, Eric Stonestreet, Jane Lynch, Edie Falco, and so on. And bravo to host Jimmy Fallon and his ad hoc Glee-inspired ensemble (including a splendidly hammy Jon Hamm, getting dance tips from Betty White) for delivering a killer and multi-network-inclusive opening production number. They were "Born to Run," even Kate Gosselin, and the show's first hour ran like a rocket, as major comedy and drama winners took to the stage.
The Emmy producers' recent strategy to bundle the awards by genre has really paid off with a more instantly compelling show. Unfortunately, the "pod" devoted to movies and miniseries tends to grind the show to a halt — it might as well be called the HBO hour, because that's where HBO wracks up most of its gold these days — although at least this year we had the refreshing spontaneity of the real Temple Grandin in the house exulting over the multiple wins for her excellent HBO biopic.
Fallon was an affable and hard-working host, killing in his music parodies but dying any time he turned to that awful gimmick of Twitter-izing the presenter intros. He kept the show moving well enough — it actually ended on time — but once again, Ricky Gervais upstaged everyone with his inspired shtick, arranging for beers to be served to the audience while discovering a watchcry mantra in the name of one of the nominees: Bucky Gunts (who ended up winning for directing the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies). "We're all Bucky Gunts here," crowed Gervais. (Why couldn't he have been this funny when actually hosting the Golden Globes? Was it the beer?)
Congrats to all of the night's Bucky Gunts.
Especially in the comedy categories, where deserving first-timers ruled (favoring the broadcast networks, while cable once again dominated in drama): Modern Family beating Glee for the top prize, but otherwise splitting in the supporting categories — the great Jane Lynch won as expected, and Eric Stonestreet emerged triumphant from his crowded-with-co-stars field — as Glee's Ryan Murphy won for directing (the pilot) while Modern Family's Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd won for writing (the pilot). In the lead acting categories, The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons finally won for his genius work as Sheldon Cooper — now the Emmys need to start recognizing the series itself. And Edie Falco made history as the first person to win lead acting honors in both comedy and drama — this year for Showtime's Nurse Jackie, a show some might argue is more dramatic than comedic. In her speech, Falco herself insisted, "I am not funny," which isn't entirely true. She is, however, fierce. Not much to argue with here.
The night's first major upset came as The Amazing Race was unseated after seven straight wins in the reality-competition category. The new champ: Bravo's Top Chef, and I was glad for the Magical Elves producers, who pioneered one of my favorite types of reality show (with Project Runway, before the nasty split to Lifetime). I worked with these guys once upon a time on another show, and can attest they're as classy an act as you'll find in this biz. And Top Chef is quite the tasty treat, so good for them.
It wasn't a washout for all longtime winners. The Daily Show won its eighth in a row for variety/music/comedy series (i.e., the late-night category), dashing hopes that Conan O'Brien's short-lived Tonight Show would pull an underdog upset and give Team Coco something to crow about on the very network that treated them so wrong. And Mad Men won its third consecutive Emmy for best drama (for a knockout third season), while Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston also three-peated in the ultra-competitive lead actor category. (Those streaks could end next year, as HBO is about to re-enter the drama field in a big way with the upcoming Boardwalk Empire leading the charge.)
The biggest drama shocker was without question Kyra Sedgwick's win (in her fifth try) for The Closer, upsetting the heavily favored Julianna Margulies of The Good Wife. (She got her moment in the spotlight later, presenting pal and former ER co-star George Clooney with his humanitarian award.) Sedgwick's hugely entertaining and very broad performance on The Closer is the kind of work that rarely gets Emmy love — just ask Angela Lansbury, who spent 11 years not winning for Murder, She Wrote — but Brenda Leigh Johnson is an indelible character in TV's most dominant genre, and I'm glad she finally got her due. Although maybe not at the expense of Margulies or Friday Night Lights' sublime Connie Britton or even January Jones for her career-high work as Betty Draper during a season of marital dissolution. (Jones did distinguish herself as the night's most awkward presenter, alongside John Krasinksi.)
Side note: If you want to see why anyone makes a fuss about The Closer, watch this week's first-rate episode, where Sedgwick displays some truly disturbing grit.
The most pleasant surprise in the drama field was Aaron Paul's supporting win for Breaking Bad. He was riveting all season and holds his own aside the remarkable Cranston. And as much as I admire Cranston's work, which like the show gets richer by the season, I had hoped the voters would spread the wealth to one of his fellow nominees. It seems incredible that Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall and Hugh Laurie are still Emmy-less. Kyle Chandler or Matthew Fox would have been nice surprises as well. The quirkiest win: Archie Panjabi for The Good Wife, a classic "supporting" performance in that she has created an exotic scene-stealing character with Kalinda that you always want more of and to know more about.
A few final thoughts:
If one of the benefits of an Emmy win is to raise a show's profile, the night's biggest winner was probably HBO's Temple Grandin, which took home five on-air awards. It's on DVD, so rent it, Netflix it, find it On Demand, do whatever it takes. The movie is that brilliant, and so is Claire Danes.
Quite a few Twitter-ites complained about the unfortunate omission of the gifted writer/producer David Mills (most recently of Treme) from the In Memoriam montage. The Twitter-verse also appeared split regarding Jewel's accompanying dirge. Some found it moving, others regarded it as slow death. I'm on the fence, although I don't much like when anyone or anything pulls focus from the actual clip-reel honor roll.
Best filmed piece: The Modern Family riff that included a cameo from Family Guy's Stewie, a 3D Sofia Vergara and George Clooney (who declared himself a fan of the show while backstage) in multiple combinations, ending up sandwiched in bed between Mitchell and Cameron.
It was a great night for Modern Family, but also a strong night for rewarding much of the best of TV, and (imagine that) an above-par Emmys show.
Bucky Gunts FTW!
So if you're reading this, you're no doubt like Jimmy Fallon, who kicked off the night by declaring, "I love TV. I love watching TV." (He had me at "TV.") So what did you think of the winners, losers, the show itself?