Emmys: A Telecast Dominated by Upsets (Analysis)

Tony Hale Julia Louis-Dreyfus Emmy Awards - H 2013
Invision/AP Images

Tony Hale Julia Louis-Dreyfus Emmy Awards - H 2013

The 65th Primetime Emmy Awards let out not long ago, and, as honorees and attendees headed off to the afterparties, reviews of the show seemed to be mixed, but one thing was agreed upon by virtually everyone: The vast majority of the results couldn't have been more surprising. As host Neil Patrick Harris put it late in the show, "This just in: No one in America is winning their office pool!"

In the drama categories, The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels beat Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston and House of Cards' Kevin Spacey to win best actor (nobody saw that coming -- and imagine how Mad Men's always-underappreciated Jon Hamm must feel knowing that, in all likelihood, he didn't even finish in the top three). Boardwalk Empire's Bobby Cannavale beat Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks and Homeland's Mandy Patinkin to win best supporting actor in a drama series (his winning turn in Woody Allen's hit indie film Blue Jasmine couldn't have hurt his prospects). And Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn knocked off the favorite for best supporting actress in a drama series, Downton Abbey's Dame Maggie Smith, who has taken home an Emmy for her performance each of the last three years (Gunn was the only member of her show's principal trio of actors who had yet to win, but the only one of the three who won tonight).

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Meanwhile, in the comedy races, Veep's Tony Hale prevailed in the best supporting actor category over a trio of contenders from Modern Family, the show that produced the category's winner each of the last three years (it's a good thing that Hale submitted himself for consideration in this category for this show rather than Arrested Development, as he could have). And Nurse Jackie's Merritt Wever — the contender with the lowest odds in the category according to online bookies, and someone whom many at the Emmys wouldn't recognize if they bumped into her — blindsided past winners Julie Bowen (Modern Family) and Jane Lynch (Glee), as well as perennial bridesmaids Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) and Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) to win best supporting actress, even though her show isn't really an all-out comedy (which caused a stir when its lead Edie Falco won a few years ago).

As for the TV movie or miniseries surprises, The Big C: Hereafter's Laura Linney beat American Horror Story: Asylum's Jessica Lange, who won the category last year, and the Critics' Choice Award winner, Top of the Lake's Elisabeth Moss, to win the best actress. 80-year-old legend Ellen Burstyn, a star of USA's Political Animals, swooped in to win the best supporting actress Emmy that most expected to go to AHS:A's Sarah Paulson. And The Hour's Abi Morgan surprised Behind the Candelabra's Richard LaGravenese to win best writing.

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It wasn't a total shocker — but was also far from a given — that the perennial best comedy series winner Modern Family (ABC) would hang on for another year and hold off the edgier cable shows Girls (HBO), Louie (FX) and Veep (HBO), the first two of which were completely shut out; that Homeland's Claire Danes would repeat as best actress in a drama series winner for the show's weaker second season despite being up against the popular Scandal star Kerry Washington, who was the category's first black nominee in 18 years and was poised to become its first-ever black winner (presenter Diahann Carroll teed that one up early in the show); that The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons would win best actor in a comedy series for a third time — after missing last year — over Alec Baldwin for the last season of 30 Rock and Louis C.K. for the best season of Louie (I picked Parsons because, in a super-close race like this category's, I think you have to give the edge to the contender whose show has the highest ratings, and no show on the air has higher ratings than Big Bang); or that AHS:A's James Cromwell, a beloved veteran, would hold off his co-star Zachary Quinto and others to win best supporting actor in a TV movie or miniseries.

Indeed, the only odds-on winners, one could argue, were Veep's Julia Louis-Dreyfus for best actress in a comedy series, plus Behind the Candelabra for best TV movie or miniseries and Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas for best TV movie or miniseries director and actor, respectively.

So much for months of looking at Emmys history and trends. Us pundits might have scored better this year if we'd just thrown darts at the nominees.

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Only on a night like tonight would the main focus of post-show chatter not be that AMC's Breaking Bad won the best drama series, at long last (that seemed as likely as not, with the show's final season killing it in the ratings as phase two voting took place); Comedy Central's The Colbert Report ended The Daily Show With Jon Stewart's 10-year run as the winner of best variety series (and also beat it for best variety series writing); CBS' The Amazing Race lost the best reality competition series Emmy for only the second time in the 13 years that the category has existed; AMC's Mad Men lost every Emmy category in which it was nominated for the second year in a row; and upstart Netflix, which put out some great original programming and spent a fortune on an effort to get it recognized, took home only one major award — a best directing Emmy for David Fincher's pilot (the first major Emmy ever awarded to a streaming service) — while cable stalwart HBO won a field-leading seven Emmys, including a few that not even its biggest champions imagined it would (i.e. Daniels, Cannavale, and Hale).

My main takeaway from the past year of television is that the medium has never had more great things to offer. And if a few people left today with big gold statuettes who weren't expected to, that may not be great for the pride of us pundits — Emmy predicting is, in fairness, significantly harder than Oscar voting because there simply aren't months of other awards shows and festivals to give hints about contenders' popularity, and only small committees of the TV Academy determine the winners, supposedly on the basis of a single episode — but, but, it is great for television. Because, after tonight, a few more people are going to want to check out Veep and Nurse Jackie and House of Cards, among others. And their lives will be all the richer for it. Trust me. I do my best to watch them all.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg