The 65th Primetime Emmy Awards: TV Review

Michael Douglas Emmys Win - H 2013
You call this a celebration?

Neil Patrick Harris' hot streak as the 21st century awards-show answer to Johnny Carson hit a few speed bumps with this year's wildly hit-or-miss television honors.

Jeff Daniels beat out Bryan Cranston. Bobby Cannavale trumped Aaron Paul. Tony Hale mopped the floor with the Modern Family guys. And Stephen Colbert finally nudged out Jon Stewart for variety-show supremacy. So with so many unexpected wins, why was the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards telecast such a bloated bore? Chalk it up to tonal inconsistency? Misconceived production numbers? Too many protracted pretaped segments at the expense of spontaneity? An overload of solemnity?

Perhaps Don Cheadle inadvertently hit it on the head during a look back a half-century to the momentous events of 1963, when he acknowledged “television’s active role in allowing us to mourn collectively and begin to heal.” That’s a noble sentiment in the intended context of the John F. Kennedy assassination. But in such a moribund ceremony, any mention of mourning felt awkwardly appropriate. It didn’t take the Breaking Bad meth dancers -- yes, really -- to point up the uncomfortable paradox of television’s best being celebrated in a night of spectacularly messy TV.

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As the man in the firing line, Neil Patrick Harris will likely cop a lot of flak. But with so many blundering producing decisions intruding on his limited time at the podium, the host didn’t really stand a chance.

Harris has four lauded turns as Tony Awards emcee under his belt, plus a previous gig fronting the Emmys in 2009. He knows what he’s doing. His insouciant irreverence hit the mark in an intro segment in which he binge-watched the entire TV season. Ditto when his opening monologue was hijacked by previous hosts (Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien) and by front-row hecklers Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, demanding that he strip down and start twerking. Making that sabotage part of the master plan of Kevin Spacey, in character as House of Cards’ reptilian Frank Underwood, was a droll touch. And somehow Harris’ humor and charm failed to provide much glue. (Truth be told, he was also part of the producing team, which makes him far from blameless.)

The expected opening song-and-dance number failed to materialize until midshow. By the time it did, the mood had been so thoroughly flattened that Harris, 16 back-up dancers, Nathan Fillion and Sarah Silverman faced an uphill battle to milk much amusement out of the routine glitz of “The Number in the Middle of the Show.” Even worse was the choreography segment, with a faux-reality setup leading to thematic dance numbers for each of the drama nominees -- a throwback to the good old, bad old days when Debbie Allen choreographed the Oscars.

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When Harris’ How I Met Your Mother castmates turned up in a pretaped mock-infomercial for The Ryan Seacrest Center for Excessive Hosting Disorder, dragging in Arsenio Hall as part of their intervention, the irony was agonizing.

Too often, such labored filler segments merely ate up time, meaning the award recipients were played off almost as soon as they began speaking. Shorter acceptance speeches normally are a good thing, a memo that Nurse Jackie winner Merritt Wever appeared to have gotten with her succinct: “Thank you so much. I gotta go. Bye.” But a few more discursive comments might have helped stave off the weird pall that hung over much of the ceremony.

In one inspired bit early on, Hale returned to the stage soon after his supporting actor in a comedy win for Veep, sycophantically flanking his “boss,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, when she was honored for the same show. Cutting to their co-star Anna Chlumsky madly texting in the audience only made the joke funnier. Michael Douglas also scored some laughs with his innuendo-laden acceptance speech for Behind the Candelabra, acknowledging that the movie was a “two-hander” and giving his co-star Matt Damon the choice of “the bottom or the top” for his half of the award. Gracious remarks by class acts such as James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn were like invigorating breaths of fresh air -- likewise the welcome appearances of Bob Newhart, who showed that less is more.

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But every moment of genuine levity had to contend with another deep plunge into self-important sobriety. Spreading the “In Memoriam” salutes throughout the show was a large part of that problem, laying such a thick carpet of gloom that it made much of Harris’ material seem smug.

During the runup to Sunday’s ceremony, news that Glee star Cory Monteith was to be given a special tribute prompted some discontent, suggesting that, by contrast, lumping such iconic faces as Jack Klugman and Larry Hagman into the collective obit was doing those TV veterans a disservice. But it was impossible not to be moved by the heartfelt sincerity of Jane Lynch’s salute to her late Glee co-star.

Other tributes included Michael J. Fox’s bow to Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg; Robin Williams’ nod to fellow comedian Jonathan Winters, with whom he worked on Mork & Mindy; Edie Falco’s tearful farewell to her Sopranos husband James Gandolfini; and most affecting of all, Rob Reiner’s loving words for his All in the Family mother-in-law, Jean Stapleton. In a year of countless sad losses for television, the Emmys clearly set out to acknowledge the passing of key figures who touched different generations. The intention was honorable, even if some major names ended up seeming like also-rans. But the complete absence of clips from either the standalone tributes or the group acknowledgement robbed them of emotional resonance.

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The 1963 remembrance was too rushed to have much impact, playing like a promo for a more interesting PBS special. The first-ever African-American Emmy acting nominee, Diahann Carroll, appeared onstage with this year’s contender Kerry Washington to acknowledge how far television had come in terms of racial inclusiveness. But again, this gesture was more symbolic than meaningful.

In the evening’s most anticipated musical interlude, Elton John donned one of his old glittery Captain Fantastic jackets to pay tribute to Liberace. But the choice of a forgettable new song with only the most tenuous connection to the Behind the Candelabra subject made this another black hole in a ceremony littered with them.

The big drag at the Emmys has always been the deja vu factor of the same winners year after year. Claire Danes again? Jim Parsons again? And despite edgier contenders in Louie, Girls and Veep, another best comedy win for Modern Family was gruesomely inevitable. Given that USA is about to start syndicating season-one reruns of that sitcom -- the last time the show’s writing really excelled -- the ho-hum award felt somehow right.

This was an Emmy telecast so plodding, lifeless and just plain glum that even the overdue best drama win for Breaking Bad failed to provide a lift at the end of the show.