I love television. Love it. I think it's one of the most underrated art forms of the 20th century. At its best, a superb television show can give us depth and complexity equal to that of a great novel — exploring characters, comedy, and pathos in a rich and introspective way that most movies simply cannot compete with.
This doesn't mean there isn't a lot of crap on TV. And I'm sure there always will be. But it's a good time to be a TV viewer. Thanks to TiVo, DVR, and On-Demand technology, it's pretty easy to avoid the crap if you want to, and just watch what you want to watch. We now have so many choices at our fingertips that television has become personalized as never before. We don't even have to watch commercials if we so choose.
This means I take the Emmy Awards seriously, even if they continuously frustrate me beyond belief, nominating shows and actors as if by rote, year after year, pretty consistently ignoring at least 75% of the truly original or breathtaking.
So I'm conflicted. I love the Emmys, I hate the Emmys. Each time, I tell myself I won't watch. I'll just read about the winners the next day. And then I watch. I have only myself to blame. I just keep hoping I won't see nominees that would have appeared appropriate if they'd only been nominated, oh, three or four years earlier. I hope I won't see awards perpetually go to the same performers year after year after year. I was so glad the uneven, over praised Will & Grace finally went off the air, for instance, because it meant that other highly deserving leading and supporting comedy players would finally get the chance at some awards themselves. And while I adore Tony Shalhoub and his superb, poignant and very funny portrayal of the gentle and haunted detective in Monk, after multiple Emmy wins for the role, this year I badly wanted to see the award go to someone different and challenging, like the fabulous Ricky Gervais for Extras, or (most of all) to the outstanding Alec Baldwin for his work on 30 Rock.
Based on the bright spots on the nominees list, though, this year's telecast definitely seemed promising. The Academy had actually managed to put forward some decent shows and performances. These included shows that rocketed to popularity almost immediately, like Heroes, Ugly Betty, or 30 Rock (and they nominated them now, not, more predictably, three years from now).
They have still overlooked plenty of wonderful stuff, of course. In a perfect world, we would have seen major category nominations for excellent and truly original shows like The Wire, Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Veronica Mars, and more. In a perfect world, Lauren Graham would have won at some point in her seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, as would Hugh Laurie for his brilliance on House. Of course, in a perfect world Veronica Mars would not have been canceled, and Arrested Development would still be on the air.
But even so… there was a different feel to this year's nominees, as if some of the voters had actually been, you know, watching TV — not just a few submission tapes.
So why was this year's telecast so terrible, horrible, no good, and so very, very bad? It felt as if Fox, which staged this year's awards, had been trying for edgy, cool and new. What we ended up with was a confusingly staged, dully produced, badly lit, haphazardly directed, mess, horrendously emceed by a personality-free Ryan Seacrest. The awfulness was jaw-dropping.
First off in the "what were they thinking" category? The staging of the show "in the round" — on a smallish round space in a sea of audience — an approach that, while great for live theatre (if tightly directed and well acted) had presenters and winners alike looking confused, dwarfed, and unhappy, never sure of which direction to face at any moment. Several presenters and winners alike had to be led and faced in the right directions upon reaching the stage. I laughed out loud when Best Actor in a Drama winner James Spader (Boston Legal), charming and weird as always, simply refused to face the direction he was supposed to, directing most of his acceptance speech to the audience behind his back.
The editing and direction also seemed to be oddly out of joint. There were several sudden, jarring and weirdly silent cutaways throughout the broadcast, as well, that seemed to be occasionally related to a winner's use of profanity, but which at other times just seemed random.
The telecast was also leaden, badly written, and all the excruciatingly bad production numbers and sketches seemed to go on forever. Even pros like Tony Bennett and Kanye West simply looked uncomfortable. The cast of Jersey Boys staged a dynamic and enjoyable tribute to The Sopranos but the context was lost in an overlong number that just didn't fit with the pale, badly presented shots from The Sopranos (which once again won for Best Drama in its final season) far above the performers' heads.
The presenters also just seemed wan and unmotivated, and often barely able to read their teleprompters due to what seemed like bad staging, rehearsal, and prompter placement. The usual obligatory pre-award 'banter' in this case was even more painful and badly acted than usual. Nobody looked happy. You know you're in real trouble when you're looking at your watch in the middle of a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert sketch that, again, seemed forced, unfunny, and to go on forever. Before this, I would have said that both of these smart, hilarious guys are absolutely incapable of bombing. I now know otherwise. I can only blame the telecast.
Ellen DeGeneres, another quirky, funny performer, had a nice bright spot when she pretended to quiz Hugh Laurie about a medical condition, but this was followed by an oddly meta-monologue in which DeGeneres (surely one of TV's nicest, sunniest personalities) seemed genuinely unhappy and angry about her lack of direction (claiming she didn't even know what she was there to present). If it was serious, kudos to her for showing some real frustration. If it was staged and simply supposed to be funny, it didn't work.
Even the lighting and staging were flat, grayscale, and unattractive. The camera angles were often extreme and harsh, so that Queen Latifah, for instance, looked like she was reading something off the ceiling as she presented a tribute to Roots. The harsh lights were flat and jarring, washing out contestants and often making even the beautiful people look tired, worn, and irritated.
Acceptance speeches were mostly cringe-worthy, with the performers openly nervous about running over time. Were the countdown numbers on the teleprompter just really big, or was someone holding an Uzi on them? Only the always-wonderful Helen Mirren seemed unperturbed, and in fact appeared to have intimidated the producers so much that no "finish and go" music came up as she had expected. Too many acceptance speeches were once again the now required lists of handlers, managers, and more (I still wish awards shows would take the approach taken by the Tonys about eight years ago, when a visual card would come up in front of the winner, listing the people they wanted to thank — it freed people up for much more interesting, heartfelt speeches).
As it was, it was disconcerting and a little disappointing to me, to see America Ferrera (in a deserved win for Ugly Betty), who always seems so normal, fresh and unaffected, launch into thanking the usual long spiel of managers, lawyers, publicists and others. Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Katherine Heigl (Grey's Anatomy) was charming and genuinely funny as she admitted that even her Mom had thought she didn't have a chance in hell. Best Actress Sally Field's speech was a disaster when, after a funny and touching tribute to Moms (including those awaiting their children's returns from war), her head spun around, she lost her train of thought, and then sputtered for 30 more seconds before the telecast suddenly seemed to take pity on her and made her disappear. I love Sally (even if I can't quite get into Brothers and Sisters, which is a shame, because I adore Ken Olin), and love how genuine she is. I even loved her delighted and unaffected "you really like me!" Oscar speech way back when, but by the end of her rambling, forgetful acceptance speech here I was desperately wishing for a giant hook to sweep her offstage before she embarrassed herself even further.
Seacrest himself seemed lost, more than a little out of place, and simply not up to the task of pulling all of these elements together and making them sparkle. He was able to muster up a semblance of enthusiasm, read the teleprompter adequately, and look where he was told to look. Otherwise, he had no presence at all, and certainly no wit or spark that would have explained his landing the role as the evening's ringmaster (other than Fox getting to choose one of their own). Although I have to admit I can never figure out why this guy is so famous to begin with. He's adequate on American Idol, sure, but he lacks the warmth, humor, and expressiveness of a truly talented host. Except for a vague whiff of smarm, Seacrest is a vacuum onstage. There's no "there" there.
The only upsides to the evening? Every once in awhile, the Emmy went to a choice that was surprising, gratifying, and fresh, to winners like America Ferrera for Ugly Betty, Ricky Gervais for Extras, Thomas Hayden Church for Broken Trail, and (most of all) to Tina Fey, with a massive win for Best Comedy of the Year with her fabulous 30 Rock. Fey herself provided one of the evening's rare funny moments when, in accepting her Emmy, she thanked her show's "dozens and dozens of viewers."
It wasn't a great telecast. But I guess I should be grateful at the implication that Emmy voters may finally be watching a little bit of television. One can only hope.
And yeah, I'll still be watching next year.