More “Not Boring” Than Usual: Surprises Elevate the 2010 Primetime Emmys

More “Not Boring” Than Usual:

Surprises Elevate the 2010 Primetime Emmys

As a whole, the Emmy Awards live and die on surprise: sure, there’s always favourites, but the idea that “anything can happen” is what keeps us watching a show which so often punishes us for becoming emotionally involved. For every pleasant surprise there has been soul-crushing complacency, and so we watch hoping that something will cut through the pain in order to give us some sense of hope for the legitimacy of these awards.

And while we eventually leave each evening lamenting numerous mistakes, comfortable in our superior knowledge of what is truly great in television in a given year, I don’t want that to obfuscate the moments of transcendence. Sometimes, moments come together that defy our cynical expectations, moments that find the spontaneity in the scripted or make the spontaneous feel as if it was planned all along. And while I remain the jaded critic that I was before the show began, any chance of carrying that attitude through the entirety of the show was diminished at the sight of Jon Hamm booty-dancing towards Betty White, and all but gone by the time Top Chef finally ended The Amazing Race’s reign of terror over Reality Competition program.

It was a night filled with surprises, whether in terms of who was winning the awards (with a huge number of first-time winners) or in terms of emotional moments which resulted from those winners – sure, there were hiccups along the way, and there were still a number of winners which indicated that the Emmys are still stuck in their ways, but there was enough excitement for me to designate these Emmys as “not boring.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were more “not boring” than usual.

What’re you Winning For?

Jim Parsons and Aaron Paul have two things in common: they both won Primetime Emmys this year, and they both deserved to win them last year instead. This isn’t to say that Parsons and Paul were not great this year, as they were both pretty fantastic: however, after having truly amazing submissions last year, they each submitted below their best, limiting their chances with those prognosticators who believe that episode submissions mean a great deal (myself included).

However, both managed to come back and win their categories: sure, Parsons had a baity (and, to my mind, terrible) submission in a category which was pretty weak this year, but Paul was in a stacked Supporting Actor category that could have gone in a number of safer directions. Even if it’s just that the Emmy voters saw something that we didn’t see in their tapes, the fact remains that these awards feel like recognition for seasons of great work as opposed to a single episode. Jim Parsons won because of how integral Sheldon has been to the series’ meteoric rise, and Aaron Paul won because he’s been going toe-to-toe with Bryan Cranston on a weekly basis for three seasons.

This was especially true with the night’s most surprising winner, Archie Panjabi of The Good Wife. Counted out as the sixth woman for the majority of the prognostication period, Panjabi snuck from behind in a way that many who don’t watch The Good Wife probably found pretty confounding. However, if you watched the show, you’d see how her subtle performance allowed Kalinda, her character, to become a breakout character without an Emmy bait moment – her nominations was itself a shock, so to see her win was a great moment for the Emmys awarding performances which would normally not be singled out in this sort of arena.

It was one of many wins which broke down the narratives which were running into the evening’s event: Julianna Margulies, for example, was the biggest lock of the night for her role on The Good Wife, but she lost to perennial bridesmaid Kyra Sedgwick; while some presumed that Lost could ride the Finale factor into some major awards, it lost all of its acting nominations and got shut out in writing (to perennial favourite Mad Men) and directing (in a bit of a shocker to Showtime’s Dexter). The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien could have been a vindicating moment for Conan and an embarrassing moment for NBC, but the voters stuck with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which has won seven times in a row. In these cases, I actually think that these victories do a disservice to the more dominant narratives, as there were a number of better directing nominees (including Jack Bender for Lost, Michelle MacLaren for Breaking Bad, Lesli Linka Glatter for Mad Men, etc.) and Connie Britton should have been the person to upset Margulies; however, as a whole, you get the sense that the voters aren’t nearly as enamoured with the hype as we are.

And while this group of winners offered a few disappointments, there is something exciting about surprise winners like Top Chef knocking off The Amazing Race – it was clear that Padma, Tom and everyone else had written off ever winning the award, so their surprise was genuine in a way that proved infectious and kept the evening exciting in a way we’re not used to.

The Comedy Showdown

That said, when things come to the comedy side of things, it was one area where the dominant narrative proved accurate: Modern Family and Glee were set to battle for the key award, and the narrative played out just as we expected. Eric Stonestreet won Supporting Actor, Jane Lynch took Supporting Actress, and then they split the Writing and Directing awards with Modern Family picking up the former and the showier Glee winning the latter. With no real competitive forces in the Lead categories (taken by Parsons and Nurse Jackie’s Edie Falco), the rest of the show was like an agonizing standoff: tied at two awards a piece, which show would be able to pull out the victory in the biggest category of the night?

Sadly, the awards came too early in the night, and by the time we got through Movie/Miniseries we had all but forgotten what kind of showdown we would be seeing. They did what they could, of course: with Mad Men once again winning Drama Series without an ounce of surprise, Comedy Series was elevated to the closing slot in recognition of how much more competitive and interesting the comedy side was this year. And, as we all expected, it was Modern Family which had the perfect storm for the final award: as much as Glee represents a cultural phenomenon, Levitan and Lloyd’s show offers the illusion of groundbreaking television within the comfort of a very traditional structure, a quality which actually drove me away from Modern Family as the season went on but which likely secured the Academy’s support.

Glee doesn’t walk away empty-handed, but it does walk away with a sign that the Academy is capable of resisting its holistic message of positivity and (as Ryan Murphy put it when accepting his Directing award) the importance of supporting the Arts. In fact, in some ways the awards the show won recognized quite the opposite, focusing on the broad comedy (Lynch) and the spectacle (Murphy’s direction) as opposed to the heart (which would have been recognized by wins from Chris Colfer or the Pilot script). Meanwhile, for Modern Family, the support seemed more diverse: Stonestreet’s flamboyant character represents the edgier side of the show, while the writing is more a reflection of its historical connections. There’s a “complete” show to reward with Modern Family, whereas Glee remains a scattershot collection of ideas that the Emmys admire but aren’t ready to award the final award quite yet.

A Not-So Dramatic Fashion

As noted, Mad Men’s victory was the antithesis of a surprise, which made its victory over Breaking Bad no less saddening: I like Mad Men a great deal, but you can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment when, on a night of surprises, the one surprise that would really reflect the best in television couldn’t come to fruition. In fact, as many noted on Twitter, I wish it had been backwards: Breaking Bad now has four acting wins (with Cranston three-peating in Drama Actor), while Mad Men has none, which seems just as egregious as Mad Men having three Series wins to Breaking Bad’s zero. AMC has shown its dominance in the past few years, and with good reason, but they need to switch up roles – for Mad Men, at least, next year will be their chance, since Breaking Bad will not air during the eligibility period, which leaves some room for more fresh blood.

This brings us, of course, to ABC’s Lost, which went home empty-handed despite airing its final season. Now, I am as big a fan of Lost as anyone in most instances, but I can’t help but think that this is an accurate reflection of the season as a whole: sure, Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn did Emmy-worthy work, but both already won Emmys for their roles, so I can’t really feel too bad that they lost out to a deserving winner like Aaron Paul. I was more frustrated with the losses for Writing and Directing, as Carlton Cuse/Damon Lindelof and especially Jack Bender deserve recognition for their work on the series, but I don’t necessarily feel as if Lost was slighted when it came to the biggest category of the night: anyone who says that Lost was the best show on television last year was not watching television, as the sixth season was a flawed if ballsy conclusion to the series rather than a truly spectacular piece of work. Yes, Lost fans need to settle for the first season’s single win, but I don’t think that a single Emmy (which is, let’s remember, one more Emmy than The Wire) is anything to sneeze out considering how competitive this category has been since Lost premiered.

Fallon: Born to Host?

As for the illustrious host, Jimmy Fallon played to his strength: opening with a musical number, transitioning with musical numbers, saying goodbye to much-loved series with a musical number, and eventually closing with…wait, it wasn’t a musical number?

As a fan of Fallon’s work, especially his musical copycat routine, I thought he did a fine job. Yes, the idea of taking Twitter suggestions and using them bombed in front of the live audience, a gimmick designed to get social media users watching as opposed to a gimmick designed to create an entertaining show. If the show itself had been less entertaining in its own right, I think that I’d have been more disappointed with Fallon’s fairly slight presence in the evening, but his appearances were generally well received and since he was never asked to carry the show he did a yeoman’s job. I especially appreciated his brief little opening, which just honestly (and yes, a bit nervously) stated his love for television and his excitement to be there. Sure, confidence is key, but I think Fallon did a fine job merging his musical comedy with his hosting skills that have really improved since he started at Late Night.

The Production Decrescendo

As for the production on the whole, though, it was sort of a downhill slope. That opening number was truly an amazing piece of work, both in terms of its entertainment value and its political statement. Note that there were representatives from every network (even The CW, with Nina Dobrev making an appearance), with Jon Hamm and Tim Gunn as representatives from the realm of cable (I’m choosing to ignore Kate Gosselin, whose continued choice to whore herself out at least comes with a willingness to make fun of herself); it was really a cross-section of television, coming together in a sequence inspired by Glee but delivered with the nerdy enthusiasm you’d expect from that group of actors. The best sign of a good opening number is when you don’t know where to look, and I was so torn between watching Jon Hamm’s brilliant dancing and Joel McHale and Jane Lynch doing a waltz that I couldn’t get the smile off my face. Throw in the lure of Springsteen, and “Born to Run” was a brilliant way to start off the show.

From there, though, the sort of comprehensive celebration of television vibe sort of disintegrated. The packages designed to celebrate the various genres represented by the awards seemed scattershot and one-dimensional, failing to register any of the nuance present in those various categories. Similarly, the on-screen graphics highlighted upcoming appearances by real movie stars (George Clooney) and hype-worthy presenters (like the cast of True Blood), as if viewers wouldn’t keep tuning in unless someone with real star power takes to the stage. I understand why they’re there, especially with HBO and AMC counter-programming the Emmys this year, but it really takes you out of the show to be reminded that they’re concerned about people turning the channel. It also doesn’t help that, as Alan Sepinwall pointed out on Twitter, writer-producer David Mills (who won two Emmys for The Corner) was absent from the In Memoriam package – it’s not likely an oversight that many noticed, but coupled with some other choices it does add up to a bit of a disappointing telecast from a logistics standpoint.

Also, as suggested above, the decision to introduce Comedy and Drama early on and leaving Movie/Miniseries until the end was bizarre. It meant that there was no momentum for the key Comedy Series battle, since the first shots were first nearly three hours earlier, and it made Mad Men’s inevitable victory seem that much more lackluster for it to have come so much later than the earlier drama awards. It was a bit of sweet justice that their plan to highlight the “celebrities” who dominated the Movie/Miniseries awards was intercepted by the rightful coronation of Temple Grandin while still giving celeb-hungry viewers Al Pacino and Tom Hanks for their viewing pleasure.

But in the End…

However, as much as I do think there were some parts of the show which didn’t add up, in the end there was Temple Grandin fistpumping when Claire Danes won for portraying her in the HBO movie which bears her name, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson crying as his co-star Eric Stonestreet thanked his parents for allowing his dreams to come true. When you couple honest emotional moments like those with the amount of surprise winners we got this evening, you get the sort of Emmys telecast which is decidedly memorable, and engaging enough that I didn’t feel bad about missing out on Mad Men.

As someone interested in Emmy predictions and how we make them, it was also a very interesting night for understanding how voters make their decisions: while Modern Family and Modern Family’s victories suggest that the voting base as a whole remains a fairly predictable organization, the acting wins show either a more or less dedicated voting base depending on how you choose to read their decisions. Ironically, in highlighting the futility of attempting to unlock the Emmy voting formula, it will only make critics like myself more interested in looking more closely into the nomination and submission process.

Either at a distance or at close range, though, the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards were definitely not boring, and so long as I’m going to feel compelled to spend three hours of my life with them each year that’s all I really ask for.

Cultural Observations

  • No, Edie Falco, we don’t believe you were shocked when you won Best Actress in a Comedy: we are, however, shocked that Nurse Jackie is defined as a comedy. It’s a dramatic performance, but (like last year’s winner, Toni Colette) one which is deserving of Awards consideration regardless of my hatred for the series’ opening credit sequence.
  • Temple Grandin nearly pulled off a complete sweep: after dominating in the Creative Arts awards, the series picked up wins in three acting categories (Julia Ormond, David Straitharn and Claire Danes). For those who find this surprising, go watch Temple Grandin: Danes is stunning, and the film is a really great piece of work about a truly inspiring woman.
  • Fun little Community promos throughout the show, building a bit of automobile product placement into a nice little pitch of “This show has a very funny cast who can make product placement entertaining.”
  • Sure, the gay joke wasn’t in particularly good taste, but liked the idea of Fallon and Neil Patrick Harris (last year’s host) trading barbs – while NPH probably earned a shot at hosting two years in a row, the network shuffling means that it’s unlikely that a network-affiliated star will host two years in a row.
  • Was a little bit outraged that So You Think You Can Dance? got only a split-second clip in the Reality clip reel, and that Cat Deeley (a horrible snub in the Reality Host category) was nowhere to be seen. I know it’s a summer show and all, but that’s still ridiculous.
  • I like that we got some clips for the Variety series category and all, but that they did the always fun Writers award at the Creative Arts Emmys was particularly strange, especially when the far less interesting Variety categories were put on the main show instead. It seems a bit inside baseball, as if Award shows need to look out for other award shows. The only reason I ended up being fine with it was that Ricky Gervais ended up having an enormously good time with Bucky Gunts’ name, which was one of those bits of spontaneous humour that helped keep the show afloat.
  • As my brother pointed out via Twitter (via Best Week Ever), there was an awkward moment in Gervais bit where Matthew Perry, a recovering alcoholic, was offered Beer – Alexander Skarsgard later suggested that it was non-alcoholic beer, but still. Awkward.
  • Lyric change suggestion for Fallon’s “Goodbye Lost” song set to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”: “I didn’t understand it but I cried.”
  • Great to have the fantastic John Hodgman back doing some great little gags in the bits where the winners walk to the stage: they didn’t go too far out of context with the humour this year, and the spontaneity definitely adds something to the show. Here’s hoping he returns, as the bit didn’t feel old.
  • We’re all complaining about Breaking Bad not returning until July of next year, but I’m pretty sure we now know why: Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall and Hugh Laurie teamed up to pay AMC to delay production so they’ve got a shot next year.
  • I’m with everyone who felt that both Steve Levitan and Matthew Weiner read as “Smug” upon winning their two awards a piece – just not pleasant to watch win.
  • Considering how weak Top Chef’s current season is, I was sort of puzzled by their win at first, but then I realized that this award is for the sixth season, which was truly great reality television and a worthy successor to The Amazing Race’s throne.
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9 Comments

Filed under Emmy Awards

9 responses to “More “Not Boring” Than Usual: Surprises Elevate the 2010 Primetime Emmys

  1. Thanks so much for mentioning Nina Dobrev. I was trying to figure out who she was and she got included in that lineup all night. It was about to drive me crazy!

  2. The Hodgman bits weren’t really spontaneous. The jokes were all pre-written as he said on Twitter (http://twitter.com/hodgman/status/22483035608): “They cannot hear me in the house, FYI. they killed that idea precisely because of that fraggle rock joke. A @bendougan masterpiece.”

    It was an awesome joke.

  3. I absolutely concur with your assessment of Aaron Paul’s performance. I recently managed to view the entire third season of ‘Breaking Bad’ and while I still consider his efforts to be exceptional, particularly with regard to the indelible acting of Bryan Cranston, I feel that Paul’s transformation in season 2 was more deserving of an award.
    Thank you for your insightful comments on the actual protocol of the Emmys. I was not at all acquainted with the submission process. And the cultural observations you added as a coda form an astute and entertaining conclusion. Kudos.

  4. I am perfectly fine with great actors winning for seasons that aren’t their technical “best” showcases. Perhaps because I’m just so gosh darned excited Aaron Paul won! (I kind of saw it coming when he got the biggest cheer when his name was announced in the nomination list, but I didn’t dare hope.)

    My theory on the somewhat strange Kyra Sedgwick win was that Connie Britton and Juliana Margulies somehow cancelled each other out, and Sedgwick won by a very slight majority carrying the same amount of votes she probably gets every year. That might not make any sense. That’s OK, I never took statistics in college.

  5. garik16

    Oddly enough, while Top Chef Season 6 was great (especially the cooking..the talent was the highest of any season), it’s got to be behind season 4 in television.

    Or at least what you’d think of as reality television- which includes drama, likable and hate-able characters, in addition to talent at whatever the show’s about.

    If you take those out, Season 6 is the best. Interesting that that was the academy’s verdict.

  6. djones

    Though he never really stood a chance to win, it warmed my heart a bit that there was such a huge cheer from the audience when Kyle Chandler’s name was mentioned during the best drama actor award.

  7. Carmichael Harold

    I can understand them leading off with the comedy and drama awards, as they really needed to have people who tuned in initially stay for a little while (the Emmy’s contract with the broadcast networks is up, and so the ratings really mattered this year). It may have hurt the middle section, but that matters less from a ratings standpoint than people tuning out immediately when they realize they’d have to slog through the less interesting categories.

    Of course, they could have started with comedy, then dropped drama in later (or vice versa), but I wouldn’t be surprised if their research showed that different demographics tune in for those categories and they wanted to sate them both at the top.

  8. Stacy

    Aaron Paul deserved to win last year and this year. Sure, his tape might have been better last year-but I also think he was fantastic this year. I feel like your taking away of how good he was by saying he only won because if last years tape.

    • I don’t think I ever make such a claim in this piece, and certainly would never do so on purpose: by saying that they deserved to win last year instead is to say that the voters looked beyond this year’s tape (where his season-wide depth isn’t entirely on display) to both last year’s tape and the entire season (which is the larger point I’m trying to make).

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