“Truth” and Emmy: The 2008 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in Review

As Tommy Smothers received his Commemorative Emmy Award for his work on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, he ended his (rousing) speech with a small note: in all languages, Truth means the same thing – what others make you believe. And while there are broad implications of this statement in regards to the world’s political climate, there’s a more direct application: the idea that that the decisions of the Academy are supposed to be seen as the “Truth” about last year’s best television.

Of course, what Smothers was getting at is that this is impossible, primarily because the definition of truth is so malleable and, in our case, adaptable. There might be one or two TV viewers out there who agree with every single decision made tonight, or those who believe in award shows as simple celebrations of excellence as opposed to any sort of competition. And even some people who consider themselves to be elite television viewers could open their favourite internet news site and find word that critical favourites 30 Rock and Mad Men took home the evening’s big prizes – surely, then, the Emmys are truly representative of the best in television.

But, if this is truth, I don’t want to know what fiction is – yes, there were quite a few deserving winners, but the criteria by which most categories were decided is severely divergent from anything even remotely approaching truth. For some awards, age defines truth: if they’re older than the other competitors, then they must truthfully be the superior performer. For others, truth is defined by past precedent: if we voted for you before, than there is no way that your greatness is any less truthful this time around. Conversely, on the same note, was the legacy win: if we nominated you for previous roles but you didn’t win, surely there was truth to our judgment and maybe you were truthfully great here as well.

For that reason, Stephen Colbert’s presence at these awards is all the more apt: his word, truthiness, defines the nature by which awards shows are decided. And there is no greater example of the dangers of truth that, while his writers were rewarded for coining the turn of phrase, he himself was not honoured for saying it out loud for that first time. And while there are greater injustices of truth around the world, let us for one night recognize the subjectivity of truth and the mixed up world of the Primetime Emmy Awards with some Headlines, of sorts.

[For more scattered, but also more fully-encompassing, reactions to tonight’s show, check out Cultural Learnings’ LiveBlog.]

“What’s Mad Men?”

While we critical types are applauding Mad Men’s victory in the Best Drama Series category (And Matthew Weiner’s win for writing the show’s pilot), I am sure there are millions of people saying something quite different: “What the hell is this?” You see, the amount of people who watch Mad Men is about, oh, 1/17 of the average audience for CSI. And while there has been some lowly-rated shows that have won in the past (Arrested Development, as an example), never before has there been a show on Basic Cable that has emerged from the pack to take the award for Best Drama Series.

And the impact it will have is yet unknown: the show, following Don Draper and the life of advertising executives and their lives outside of the office, debuted to little fanfare on AMC before downright exploding onto the critical scene. I’ve yet to see a critic who is ambivalent about Mad Men, even – it’s the kind of show that hooks people in. With a fancy-looking DVD set on the shelves, the second season airing right now on AMC (Plus with episodes available On Demand), this is a show that should be set up to receive a real boost.

But it’s also not a mainstream show, the kind of show that the people who make CSI a hit are going to gravitate towards. It’s a period drama that, while painting some fascinating characters, does so at a pace that, while I like to give them the benefit of the doubt, might scare away a fair chunk of potential viewers. Still, though, let’s ignore for a second the financial or ratings realities of television: here is a show which, in a single season, built stunning characters, an amazingly realized world, and a sense of self-identity that has led into a tremendous sophomore year so far. Simply put, this was the best show on TV last year – few would argue that point of those who’ve seen it, so let’s hope that number increases ever so slightly in the weeks to come.

“Tina Fey: The Next Comedy Sensation”

And yet, the one thing standing in Mad Men’s way is simple: even thought it’s the last award of the night, it will be Tina Fey’s triple win for writing, producing and starring in 30 Rock that makes all the papers. Here is a woman who, a week ago, was the internet sensation for her impersonation of Sarah Palin, and now she’s giving three incredibly graceful speeches touting the work of her fellow writers, performers, producers. Sure, she probably didn’t deserve the win for writing compared to her compatriot Jack Burditt who wrote the stunning “Rosemary’s Baby,” but one can’t complain: everyone love Tina Fey.

The result is, though, that this year 30 Rock gets the headlines over Mad Men. After last year was billed and sold as The Sopranos’ final stand, this year it’s now the rise of 30 Rock. With Mary Tyler Moore, a comedy icon for a reason, hands off the award to Tina Fey, it is clear that everyone in the Academy wants her to rise to that same level. Having emerged from behind the desk at Weekend Update, Fey has now won all three major TV acting awards (Globe, SAG, Emmy), something that would have seemed inconceivable had you told us this two years ago when the show started. But this is one truth I won’t argue with: she’s the biggest thing in TV comedy right now, without question.

“Baldwin Wins, Carell Shall Fight Another Day”

Last year’s Lead Acting Comedy win for Ricky Gervais, so brilliantly lampooned here in a great bit as Carell is forced to return the Emmy he accepted on his behalf last year, was a shocker but more importantly it seemed false: after Alec Baldwin’s stunning debut on 30 Rock and Steve Carell’s smart submission choice for his consistently great work on The Office, it seemed like the two of them couldn’t be stopped. Well, they could, but this time around was different: armed with maybe the season’s best scene of comedy, Alec Baldwin truly was unstoppable.

But, let’s not count out Steve Carell: he’s got a few good years left on The Office, and “Evan Almighty” withstanding he’s got himself a continued outlet for fame. While the category around him seems to stagnate a little, it is clear that Carell’s turn will come soon enough – the only question is whether he’ll have to resort to stealing Baldwin’s Emmy now that 30 Rock seems to have arrived for good.

“Too Many Cooks Sink Emmy Awards”

From a completely unfunny opening bit (Which got Jeremy Piven maybe the evening’s biggest laugh) to the constant awkwardness of finding things that Probst could do when he’s without his usual safety net of picking on Survivor contestants, the experiment of having all five nominees for Reality Competition Host was, truthfully, a total failure.

And it wasn’t that these people aren’t good hosts: sure, it didn’t help when Steve Martin or many other presenters walked all over them, but Bergeron and Seacrest know what they’re doing, and Klum was game to fall on the floor when necessary. Rather, the problem was that the entire show suddenly revolved around them: when every other award was getting cut for time, they gave an enormous block to a silly American Idol joke and a drawn out winner’s process that made this award out to be a bigger deal than it actually was. Probst ends up walking away with a deserved Emmy, but we end up walking away hoping their smarten up next year and bother to hire someone who can control the room, and not just unruly reality show contestants.

“Emmys Face Mandatory Time Management Course”

Forget about anger: Time Management is the prescription for this year’s Emmy Awards. While I’ll accept that all award shows struggle from going over time or being too slow or fast in places, there is a difference here: here, it wasn’t just that there were some parts that dragged, but rather that their solution to some parts going (mostly unnoticeably) longer than expected was to rush every acceptance speech, to cut every presenter’s joke, and to make for a rapid fire ceremony that didn’t give the later winners their due.

I know it’s tough to go over time, but their complete unwillingness to do so (hoping to get ABC their evening news bump before everyone goes to bed) shows that the network interests won out over any common sense. An extra ten minutes might have made for a longer awards show, but they also ended up making what award show we had seem like amateur hour: I know that they can’t win Emmys for the Emmy Awards anyways, but Horowitz does not deserve another trophy for this one, that’s for sure.

“Emmy Voters Watched Damages…or did they?”

Okay, so here’s the deal: I liked FX’s Damages, honoured with two acting trophies at tonight’s ceremony, but I think it has some major problems. And its two wins tonight are mostly representative of the show’s strengths, albeit one of them moreso than the other.

I have no concerns with the shocking, but so very deserving, win for Zeljko Ivanek, a Serbian actor who put on a questionable southern drawl to play Ray Fisk, an attorney defending Ted Danson’s Arthur Frobisher. When I first saw his submitted episode, I said it immediately: I want, nay need, this man to be nominated for an Emmy. That he was shows me that people watched Damages beyond its brilliant pilot: the episode in question takes a character once seemingly innocuous and turns it into this tragic, damaged (sorry) figure who, by episode’s end, is maybe the most memorable character of them all.

Whereas, if they had watched the whole season, I don’t know if Glenn Close would have won her Emmy for her role as Patty Hewes. She’s a screen veteran without compare in many ways, but more importantly in this instance she’s also someone who (in my eyes) never really had much to work with on the series. She’s good, don’t get me wrong, but her character is neither as evil nor as interesting as often the show tried to make us believe. Say what you will about Rose Byrne’s acting, but she was truly the lead in this show: that Close is being recognized as such reminds me that Emmy Voters’ attention spans are not as foolproof as some wins might make you think.

“Suicide is Painless: Cabaret Style”

So, now, it’s time to discuss maybe the evening’s most polarizing event: the epic, sprawling, 30+ Song medley that was “Josh Groban Does TV Themes.” Now, let’s look at a few critical reactions.

From Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune:

The nadir of this pastiche had to be when leggy showgirls arrived on stage while Groban gave a bit of Broadway razzle-dazzle to “M*A*S*H’s” “Suicide Is Painless.” It was at that point that I began to wish my home resembled the offices glimpsed on AMC’s “Mad Men,” where a bottle of scotch is never more than arm’s length away.

From Alan Sepinwall, New Jersey Star-Ledger:

On the plus side, Josh Groban showed some versatility and self-deprecation with a medley of 30 classic TV themes, including “Happy Days,” “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

While acknowledging that I totally see where Maureen is coming from, I’m with Alan on this one. Say what you will about some of the various choices made in terms of jazzing up the numbers (Cabaret on Suicide is Painless maybe not so cool, but Choir on Baywatch? Genius), the fact that Groban was so into it was fascinating to watch. I knew that he wasn’t as super-serious as he wanted us to believe, but the guy went full fledge into every single theme song, and by the time he was rapping (or, in my favourite moment, singing the South Park theme song) I was convinced that this wasn’t actually happening.

And no, this doesn’t save the Emmys from being a bit of a production nightmare, but it was one of those moments where “Only at the Emmys” felt appropriate – and, more importantly, where Josh Groban officially became infinitely more interesting to people who aren’t middle-aged women.

YouTube (While it Lasts): Groban’s TV Medley

[My other favourite moment: Animal being abducted. Genius.]

“They Just Can’t Stop Winning”

Three straight for Piven. Six straight for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Six straight for The Amazing Race. Three Straight for aging performers who defeat Stephen Colbert for Individual Variety Performance. They’re trends that Emmy won’t let die, and I’m not even against the end result. Rather, I just worry that voters have become so complacent that they won’t look elsewhere, so enamoured with their past decisions to realize when other performers or shows are putting out work that is ultimately superior (as opposed to forcing a designation of inferior on what is still very strong work all around.

“Good Night!”

After a mercifully short final statement from Probst, the night was over: while I had plenty of more thoughts and concerns about the night, the above represents most of the major trends and themes that seemed to dominate. For the most part, I’m willing to accept the truth of the Emmys’ mandate: while they can’t please everyone, enough of their winners seem to represent something close to a mediation on talent, quality and the current television landscape that I won’t go into too much detail on some of my other issues (See: Ageism of the Young, something that spread into the main show).

Because, really, why spill ink (or, in this case, type words) when it isn’t necessary? Say what you will about Jean Smart’s surprise win, or the strange choice to snub Alan Taylor for Mad Men’s pilot, or any other seeming injustice that I pointed out during my LiveBlog. The fact remains that my truth is not their truth – as long as I understand that, then, all is well. For those viewers at home, though, who might be viewing this as a definitive truth of what’s good on television, all I can hope is that it gets them to watch 30 Rock and Mad Men – if it does, I’ll accept the Academy’s truth with a smile on my face.

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One response to ““Truth” and Emmy: The 2008 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in Review

  1. Pingback: 2008 EMMY COVERAGE - Zeitgeist: Early Morning After Edition.

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