Tuned In

The Emmys’ Balancing Act: Predictable, Except When Not

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Aaron Paul and Claire Danes at the 2012 Emmy Awards.

You can often count on Jon Stewart to offer the pithiest comment on a news event, even when the event involves him. Stewart came onstage at the 2012 Emmy Awards after a wild physical comedy bit, in which Stephen Colbert and other fellow nominees tried to restrain him, and accepted The Daily Show’s tenth consecutive Variety Show award. (I imagine the Daily Show break room, in which writers entertain themselves by playing chess on a giant board where all the pieces are statuettes.) “Years from now,” he said, “when the Earth is just a burning husk and the aliens visit, they will find a box of these, and they will know just how predictable these f_____ _____ are.”

Predictable can be bad, but not necessarily. The Daily Show is a deserving winner, and it’s been energized in the current election year. Other awards last night gave a sense of the academy on autopilot, rewarding seemingly because they were familiar titles, fit familiar molds or had familiar stars. And still others were actual, deserving surprises.

The Emmy broadcast itself was a pretty familiar and efficient affair, chugging along crisply and coming in on time, workmanlike if not really memorable. In Jimmy Kimmel, the new host, we got not Kimmel the bomb-thrower but Kimmel the TV pro. He got in some zingers at the stars and the medium (TV’s inventor, Philo Farnsworth, he said, was responsible for Honey Boo Boo–“so nice job, dumbass”) but he and the producers did not set out to reinvent the format.

So there was a presenting segment with Ricky Gervais, but no real Gervaisian fireworks. There was a skit re-creating Breaking Bad in the form of the Andy Griffith credits—funny, but the Breaking-Bad-as-sitcom gag is already an old one. (Even the last Emmys had a sketch with Jesse Pinkman in the offices of Dunder-Mifflin from The Office.) Another funny bit—Julia Louis-Dreyfus “accidentally” getting her acceptance speech switched with Amy Poehler’s, recalled last year’s group best-actress sketch, in which Poehler led her fellow nominees in a “beauty pageant.”

Kimmel—who has made social-media pranks a big feature of his late-night show—tried something new by inviting viewers to tweet out a hoax that Tracy Morgan had passed out on stage, a stunt that generated a flood of traffic on Twitter but didn’t have much payoff on the TV screen. (Though Morgan gamely stayed flat on the stage through the commercial break.) The opening skit was most notable for a shocker sight gag with Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls, naked in a toilet stall eating a cake (reminiscent of Girls itself, in which her character Hannah has a fondness for eating cupcakes in the bathroom), but the effect was probably undercut by the fact that most ABC viewers may have had no idea who Dunham was.

That last bit (suggested, reportedly, by Dunham herself), appearing at the opening of the primetime Emmys, is something of a microcosm of the state of TV today. To many viewers, a guy naked and eating on the can might be weird gross-out humor; but a woman doing the same thing might hit them as bizarre, wrong, offensive, reason to change the channel. That space–the notion of a woman owning her body comedically, and awareness of the conventions it pushes against–is where much of Girls’ humor lives, and that humor is not for everyone.

And it’s Emmy-nominated: as are Louis CK’s rants about mortality and masturbation and Breaking Bad’s photorealistic portrait of a drug dealer’s soul. On the one hand, much of the best TV today is on shows with intensely devoted, but relatively small audiences, largely on cable. The broadcast networks—which after all air the Emmys—produce shows with bigger audiences, but generally less creative ambition. And the Emmys has to bring all this stuff together, the niche and the mass, both as awards subjects and as the stuff of a big mainstream primetime broadcast.

The way Emmy has divvied this up, awards-wise, is largely to cede the drama categories to cable, while keeping comedy as the last redoubt of broadcast. The drama awards this year offered some of the bigger surprises and new winners, even if they were largely from the same show. Homeland unseated Mad Men as best drama, and Damian Lewis dethroned Bryan Cranston as best actor, while Claire Danes deservedly won the actor award. (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul did pick up a supporting win, though sadly over the even more deserving Giancarlo Esposito.) As for Homeland—I don’t think it was the best drama of the past season, but it was the best new drama of the last season, and I’m happy enough to see this terrific show get its first trip to the podium.

Cable has made a lot of strong, form-breaking comedies the past few years (Archer, Louie, Girls, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm…), but it’s the one area in which the big networks can still compete, and the one in which Emmy voters–largely veterans of old-fashioned broadcast TV–mostly choose to reward the big broadcasters. (Though they passed over the worthy but low-rated Community and Parks and Recreation for the Best Comedy category.) They did so mostly in the form of now-perennial winner Modern Family: best comedy, best supporting actor for Eric Stonestreet, best supporting actress for Julie Bowen. Jon Cryer[!] won best actor for CBS stalwart Two and a Half Men, while Louis-Dreyfus won for HBO’s Veep (but, one suspects, also largely for having been a network-TV star on Seinfeld, as well as The New Adventures of Old Christine, for which she also won an Emmy). There was a bit of new blood in the welcome wins of Louis CK for comedy writing (for his brilliant FX series) and variety writing (for his standup special), though he was surprisingly subdued as a winner and presenter.

Then there were the Everything Else categories—besides the variety-show award for The Daily Show, there was reality (The Amazing Race, again) and movies and miniseries. The latter category, by nature, doesn’t allow Emmy to give the award to a multiple past winner, but it did follow some familiar patterns, giving awards to a movie star (Kevin Costner) and a high-profile HBO movie, Game Change, which with its caricature of Sarah Palin was not exactly politically uncomfortable for Hollywood. (Disclosure: the movie was based on a book by TIME’s Mark Halperin, along with John Heilemann.)

In all, though, it was at least a fun, nicely paced, competent Emmycast–sort of the Modern Family of awards shows. (That is, not interested in changing much of what it had done in the past few years, not the most breathtaking TV you’ll watch this season, but still capable of delivering a laugh.) And in fact it was fitting that, even as Modern Family the show seemed to be coasting last season (its first season was genuinely excellent, but it often repeats itself now), the show and its cast gave the night some of its best moments. A sketch in which the child actress who plays Lily is portrayed as a holy terror was better material than she had all last season, producer Steve Levitan gives a reliably witty acceptance, and Bowen gave a hilarious speech in which she thanked “the censors at ABC for insisting on nipple covers.”

Really, for better or worse, the Emmys not so much about recognizing not so much TV’s absolute best as it is about negotiating a balance between TV’s actual best–its most ambitious stuff–and the stuff that gets a big audience (which can overlap but often doesn’t). That was the kind of broadcast Emmy, and Kimmel, gave us. It was often predictable. But after all, isn’t predictability a big part of TV too?