Tuned In

Emmys 2011: Getting It Mostly Right — the Awards, at Least

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When someone asks, “What did you think of the Emmys?” — let’s pretend this is a question that comes up in daily conversation — it can mean two things: the Emmy Awards, and the Emmycast itself. The broadcast this year was not exactly prizewinning, marred by too many flubbed attempts at humor and some, er, questionable musical choices. But assuming that fans are ultimately there because of the hardware, the Emmys this year very often got those choices right — and in some special cases, like the long-deserved recognition for Friday Night Lights and a feel-good win for Margo Martindale, it got them very, very right.

The broadcast first: much of the talk this year was about how the show would be produced for the first time by reality TV’s Mark Burnett. (Would the nominees carry torches? Would Donald Trump show up?) But while it was a mediocre production — the best thing about it was that it was well paced and came in on time — it wasn’t disappointing in any especially novel way. As host, Jane Lynch was game and showed multiple talents — she joked, she sang, she did Sue Sylvester (thankfully only briefly, playing opposite herself in a skit). But she had only occasionally good material to work with; a potentially good sketch in which she played the godmother of New Jersey reality TV dragged on, but she did well with quips like, “A lot of people have wondered why I’m a lesbian. Ladies and gentlemen, the cast of Entourage!”

The most notable joke of the evening was one that wasn’t there. Alec Baldwin was supposed to be in the opening sketch — in which Lynch visits “the president of television” and learns that all TV shows take place in the same giant building — but quit after Fox cut a joke about its parent company, News Corp., and the phone-hacking scandal. (Fox said it did not want to inappropriately make light of the scandal. Bringing drug and female abuser Charlie Sheen on to rehabilitate himself with some forced-sounding well wishes to Two and a Half Men, though — apparently, entirely appropriate.) Baldwin was replaced by Leonard Nimoy; the bit had moments (notably when Lynch explained DVR ad skipping to an outraged Don Draper) but couldn’t top Jimmy Fallon’s Glee-style “Born to Run” from last year. Not long after, Ricky Gervais, the controversial host of the Golden Globes, gave a taped message that was “edited” to remove controversy. In his words, “What a bunch of cowardly c—ountrymen …”

Censorship! It’s funny because it’s true!

Probably the worst elements of the show were musical: ironic a cappella intros by “the Emmytones” (including Cobie Smulders and Joel McHale) were painful for all involved, the in memoriam reel drew more attention to a maudlin performance of “Hallelujah” than the late TV stars and even a greatest-hits medley from Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island showed that the outfit works better in produced digital-video format. On the other hand, a Breaking BadThe Office crossover (in which Jesse made a “delivery” to Creed, followed by characters from various shows talking about their workplace frustrations) was inspired. And the most energizing sequence came when Amy Poehler led the best comedy actress nominees in rushing the stage to await the results, beauty-pageant-style, after which winner Melissa McCarthy was crowned with a tiara.

McCarthy was something of an upset, and one has to wonder whether her pretty-good performance in Mike & Molly got an assist from her show-stealing performance in Bridesmaids this summer. But the award livened up the proceedings after a beginning that looked like a runaway for Modern Family (a fine sitcom, but not the best thing on TV last year) and an ending that was one. In between the beginning and the end, the awards delivered a lot of surprises, many of them welcome.

I’d expected, for instance, that it was an honor for Friday Night Lights simply to be nominated after its last season. But producer Jason Katims won a well-deserved writing Emmy for the moving finale, “Always,” while Kyle Chandler won best drama actor for his swan song as Coach Taylor. (Chandler too had a summer-movie boost in visibility from a Tayloresque turn in Super 8.) Strictly speaking, this year those awards probably belonged to Mad Men — for the stunning “The Suitcase” and a great year for Jon Hamm — but on the strength of five under-recognized seasons for FNL, I’m not complaining. And big cheers went up in the Tuned In household for Justified‘s Martindale (who gave a stirringly teary thank you), Game of Thrones‘ scene-stealing Peter Dinklage (who thanked his dog sitter), and Downton Abbey‘s resistance of HBO’s mighty pie Mildred Pierce machine.

One surprise I could have done without: Jim Parsons is an excellent comic actor, but this year Steve Carell was the one award pick I thought was both completely deserved and a lock. Naturally, I called that wrong. And not to take anything away from The Amazing Race — winner of best competition reality every year but one — and The Daily Show, but both wins felt automatic. They’re excellent shows, but I wouldn’t say they were the best in their fields every one of the 5 million collective times they’ve won. I’m not sure what it will take for, say, The Colbert Report to unseat its predecessor.

Taken as a whole, though, the awards were a testament to the distribution of quality in TV today. It hasn’t been the broadcast networks’ game for a long time, but neither is it solely HBO’s either: it’s also on public TV and basic-cable channels like AMC (whose Mad Men did win best drama after being shut out earlier) and even Reelz. (Granted, I would not have given any Emmys to the melodramatic The Kennedys — and if I had, it would have been to Tom Wilkinson, not Barry Pepper — but part of me is happy to see little Reelz get rewarded for salvaging a castoff of other networks.)

It’s easy to get cynical about the Emmys, especially with a lackluster show like last night’s, but the awards did offer some reason to feel good about the fantasy world of TV — as Lynch put it in her opening song, “A world where men enjoy cooking/ And Americans actually vote!” Maybe next time, the wonderful world of TV could even give Jane Lynch better material to work with.