Hard-Boiled or Sunny-Side Up:
The Divisive but Satisfying 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards
How do you like your Emmys?
Oh, don’t pretend as if you don’t have an opinion. Anyone who is reading this column has some sort of an opinion about the award show and its brethren, lavish ceremonies designed to recognize the very best in a specific industry. However, the Emmys are not a universally accepted success story, and while there are some who view the awards as a valuable institution for recognizing talent others see them as an antiquated and slow-minded organization hellbent on refusing to accept that which is different in favour of more traditional “awards” fare.
As such, Emmy producers really have two entirely different bodies of viewers to be concerned with (throwing out those who would never watch the show in the first place). On the one hand, they have those people who believe in the dignity of the Emmy Awards, who highly respect the work of the Academy and believe quite strongly that this is a serious occasion meant to honour the very best in television. On the other hand, you have those who are angry that Battlestar Galactica never won a major award, and that The Wire and The Shield got snubbed for their final seasons, and who are convinced that any time the Emmys do make a good decision it was by some sort of fluke.
What host Neil Patrick Harris and producer Don Mischer put together for the 61st Annual Emmy Awards was what I would considering to be the Sunny-Side Up version of the Emmy awards. With a charming and self-deprecating Harris at the helm, and a sarcastic and rarely serious John Hodgman playing the role of announcer, they staged a show which spent nearly every moment not taken up by awards being self-deprecating or dismissive of something, whether it’s the future of broadcast television or Harris’ own bitterness over his loss in his own category.
For those who have little to no faith in the Emmy institution, this was an ideal point of view which gave them an entertaining show that one almost feels joins in on their frustration, if not directly. However, for those who look for a more hard-boiled and serious awards ceremony, chances are that they viewed this year’s Emmys as an ill-conceived attempt to pander to younger audiences.
Me? I’m just happy they weren’t scrambled.
It should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I was very happy with Neil Patrick Harris’ job hosting the Emmys, but in many ways I’m impressed with how they handled the gig. Harris is a song and dance man, a gifted comedian and someone who can bring the serious if he needs to, so they could have gone in a lot of different directions. However, they kept things largely very simple: he opened with a musical number written by the team from Hairspray (“Put Down the Remote,” highlight by an exasperated NPH blasting through every channel nominated for an Emmy), but for the rest of the show it was just him standing behind a podium acting in many ways as a traditional Master of Ceremonies like you would have seen back in the early parts of the 20th century. However, it never felt like he was dominating the show either, never so present as to be a distraction from the real focus, the nominees and the eventual winners.
The highlight for fans of Neil Patrick Harris was likely the short interlude from the emmy-winning Dr. Horrible, featuring Harris bringing his Joss Whedon-penned character out of hibernation to deliver a spot-on sketch about the difficulties the internet faces as a medium for television (small viewing size, buffering times, etc.). It’s a sketch that we TV critics and bloggers found hysterical (both for our love of Dr. Horrible and our sympathy with the struggles of online video mentioned in the piece), but something that many viewers at home likely didn’t even come close to getting.
Youtube: Dr. Horrible vs. The Emmys
For those viewers, though, Harris was just as clever and winning in, well, losing – taunting Supporting Actor in a Comedy winner Jon Cryer during his press conference and general pouting were all likely planned bits (he would have been backstage doing the press conference while hosting, I imagine, if he had won – the plan worked both ways), but they were a way for him to both be funny and endear himself to the audience regardless of their previous NPH affliation.
Now, all of this being said, there were a few points where his running gag (announcing embarrassing and little-known credits for all of the presenters) probably got a little bit stale, running on fumes by the end of the night (and perhaps annoying more of the hard-boiled types). However, what Harris might have lacked in killer material at points (such as the running gag about the “Biggest Television Fan” contest winner ending up in terrible seats) he made up for in execution: very few people can take a bad joke and turn it into a good one simply by laughing at it or fake laughing at it in that way, and he’s just personable enough to pull it off. Ultimately, the rest of a good host is whether they managed to be both memorable and secondary, both standing out for their contribution but not taking away from the “point” of the evening, and I don’t think anyone could argue that Neil Patrick Harris does not fit into the former category.
The bigger question, however, likely surrounds John Hodgman (of The Daily Show and the Apple ads) and his less than factual announcing work as the winners came to the stage. Early on in the ceremony, the little quips worked: Hodgman is very funny reading dryly (his audio book(s) taught me that), and it felt very fitting for the comedy portion of the evening when made-up facts seemed to fit in with the awards being presented. However, when they moved into TV Movie/Miniseries, and eventually into drama, you could sense the gag starting the erode. I think the intention of the gag was two-fold: they wanted the “facts” to be funny on their own, but even when the facts weren’t funny they still wanted you to be questioning them and as a result enjoying the experience.
By taking a characteristically dry portion of the ceremony and turning it into an Easter Egg hunt that’s good for an occasional laugh, the show runs into one of those tricky situations where they’re going to get blasted by those who are expecting a more serious sense of victory. When all of the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy nominees wore funny glasses (an idea brought up by Amy Poehler, according to winner Kristin Chenoweth), it was one of those moments where you realized that these awards can’t be taken too seriously. However, there was still a sense that the crazy glasses were gone once Chenoweth won, that the moment of glory is something sacred and not to be turned into a joke by Hodgman or anyone else but the winner themselves (who can make jokes all they want, of course).
But I don’t buy this: the whole point of an acceptance speech is giving a person their moment, and a few fake facts in a dry tone before that doesn’t distract from the heartwarming, funny, and often emotional speeches that winners can give. While I can understand those who feel that the Emmys lost a certain degree of their pomp and circumstance this year due to such changes, they’ll never lose the power of someone winning an award and taking the stage to thank their friends and family. It’s one thing that manages to cut through my cynical side every year, when even what I deem an undeserving winner impresses me by being very excited and thrilled for this opportunity. So long as that doesn’t go away, I don’t see how a few extra jokes, a couple of after school special credits and some fake stories about the winners could tarnish what really makes the Emmys so special.
This is, of course, not to say that the actual winners of the Emmys didn’t have their problems this year. There’s no universe where I feel that Neil Patrick Harris and Rainn Wilson should have lost to Jon Cryer for his work on Two and a Half Men, a victory which provided some comedy for Harris but ultimately some disappointment. This was the year that both of those men had a chance to break the iron grip of Jeremy Piven, three-time winner in the category but absent this year, but it turns out that the Emmy voters were going to give the award to the long-time Hollywood staple on the hit show as soon as The Thermometer was out of the running. And for fans of chiding the Emmys for being complacent, the show saw a whole host of repeat winners (including 30 Rock and Mad Men for Comedy and Drama series, Bryan Cranston and Glenn Close in Drama Lead Acting, and Alec Baldwin in Lead Actor, Comedy). All were probably at least somewhat deserving (I’d say that Baldwin and 30 Rock won based less on merit than on their hype, although they were certainly strong this past year), but there’s once again that sense that the Emmys never change, a steel trap designed to keep out things new and exciting.
But the show had its share of excitement, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. When Kristin Chenoweth picked up an Emmy for the cancelled Pushing Daisies in the night’s first award, it began a trend of surprise victories for deserving performers. Toni Colette pulled off the night’s biggest upset defeating Tina Fey for Lead Comedy Actress, demonstrating that a showy cable role is capable of taking down the 30 Rock juggernaut, while Michael Emerson overcame a weaker submission than year’s previous in Supporting Actor, Drama, to pick up a statue for his amazing work as Benjamin Linus on Lost. Combine with Cherry Jones picking up 24’s first ever supporting acting win for portraying the President on the show’s seventh season, and you have a series of victories which really felt earned and, more importantly, a little bit surprising.
And that is, ultimately, the side of the show that the producers can’t control. They don’t know who’s going to win, so it is their job to create a show that will compliment a tremendous slate of victors and distract from disappointment after disappointment coming out of the envelopes. This year, the Emmys got lucky: not only did the winners end up bordering on the acceptable, but the show itself felt prepared for any contingency. The addition of video clips to the writing/directing awards (in the style of the Variety Writing category from years past, but shorter) offered a chance for some extra bits of comedy as well as well as an opportunity to get some sound advice from people not normally in front of the camera. On top of all of that, the show picked some strong presenters: although we had to deal with the usual network self-promotion (Jennifer Love Hewitt misusing irony and Chris O’Donnell’s terrible joke being the worst offenders), there was also the genius of Jimmy Fallon’s Auto-Tune bit and Ricky Gervais once again making a case for why he should be hosting every awards show in existence immediately. Combine with a high-definition set featuring moving video panels and a real “behind-the-scenes” feel all melded into one, and this just felt like a slick awards show.
And perhaps there are those who don’t think the Emmy should be slick, but this is television here. Unlike the Academy Awards, which tend to award everything to dramatic performances with nearly no mention of comedy, this is a medium which welcomes all forms of genre from the lowly reality television to the upper echelon of drama. The way the show divided up the various genres made it expressly clear that television’s diversity is one of its greatest qualities, and what the Emmys are about is bringing all of them together.
Whenever the camera cut to Glenn Close in the audience, she was beaming from ear to ear. She was laughing at all of Neil Patrick Harris’ jokes, loving watching Jimmy Fallon roll around on the stage auto-tuning about his injured back, and just really pleased to be witnessing this all. When she won for Damages, she couldn’t help herself from gushing about how splendid it was to see everyone there celebrating this golden age of television, working in this fabulous industry. And, ultimately, there’s the final word on the matter: whether you’re high-browed and dignified or bitter and angry at the institution, if it’s good enough for Glenn Close it’s good enough for you.
- I wonder how Glenn Close takes her eggs.
- For more specific and less measured thoughts on each of the awards and the entire ceremony, check out our Live Blog. For a full list of winners, head to Emmys.org.
- Fun fact: the only network to win more than one series acting award was ABC (Emerson and Chenoweth). NBC (Baldwin), FX (Close), FOX (Jones), CBS (Cryer), Showtime (Colette), AMC (Cranston) spread out otherwise. This, humorously, left only HBO without a single victory (presuming we’re not counting The CW, which we’re clearly not) when they won every single Movie/Mini-Series acting nod.
- The ultimate salt in the wound: playing some of Bear McCreary’s fantastic work scoring Battlestar Galactica during the “Year in Drama” Montage. The montages were a fun touch, giving each genre its due, but that was a slap in the fact from an institution that ignored both the show itself and, particularly in this case, McCreary’s amazing work on the show’s fourth season. Sometimes you win when you take fan favourites and include them outside of the awards themselves, but this was an example of the wound feeling too fresh.
- Speaking of which: I wasn’t paying close attention, but including NCIS and Criminal Minds in the “Year in Drama” reel is heading into dangerous territory if they didn’t include some other shows (such as perhaps The Shield, or something like No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). I didn’t notice those shows, but again – was busy live blogging, so might have missed them.
- Best speech of the night is a tough call, but I was a fan of Dan Harmon (who created NBC’s Community) being so very self-deprecating accepting the Music and Lyrics award as a surprise winner for his work on Hugh Jackman’s opening number from the Oscars. Harmon was right: the only reason they moved this award to the broadcast itself was because of Justin Timberlake’s involvement, so having a group of comedy writers win the award was a fun twist of fate.
- Network television did not have a great night: ABC got a kick in the pants reminding it of losing Pushing Daisies prematurely, NBC got a punch to the jugular from Tina Fey when she thanked them for keeping her on the air even when they’re more expensive than a talk show, and Ricky Gervais attacked more than a few networks in the midst of his speech.
- Like the Oscars, the show had someone (Sarah McLachlan) perform live over the “In Memorial” montage. However, unlike the Oscars, they simply showed Sarah at the beginning and end as opposed to throughout, making it just as unnecessary but less distracting than Queen Latifah.
- My biggest disappointment is probably that Michael Rymer, so amazing every time he directed an episode of Battlestar Galactica, failed to pick up an award for Directing (which went to E.R. for its final season, a win which went un-heralded due to the winner not being in attendance), although the three losses for Generation Kill (all to PBS’ Little Dorrit) were pretty close. I would have really liked to see Simon/Burns get an Emmy to shove in the Academy’s face, but alas.
- If only Hugh Laurie had won for Best Actor, it would have made for the fourth “Foreign Actor who Fakes an American Accent on TV” of the night: Toni Colette, Simon Baker, and Anna Torv all took the stage otherwise.
- My predictions ended up being pretty solid: I get props for picking Colette and Chenoweth as a couple of dark horses, but lose out on pretty much everything else but Glenn Close and the two final categories, without question the most predictable.
- The Amazing Race picked up its 7th straight victory for Reality Competition Series while The Daily Show with Jon Stewart won for the 900th time (although you’ll have to check that fact with John Hodgman); certainly deserving in both instances, but one has to wonder when something else will break the streak. If Saturday Night Live and its much-hyped season couldn’t do it with the Daily Show, perhaps nothing can?