This is what we get for saying that television has eclipsed film as an art form: an Emmys that was just as bad as most Oscars.
Though hosted by über-showman Neil Patrick Harris and marked by the sort of dark-horse upsets (Jeff Daniels for lead in a drama!) and overdue wins (Stephen Colbert, twice!) that usually energize a telecast, the 65th Primetime Emmys was dead. Literally and figuratively.
Although still hostier than most mere mortals, Harris seemed off his game Sunday night. A mildly amusing opener centered on a binge-watching bit (so many TV shows to catch up with!) that segued to an onstage "argument" with former hosts. Between a sketch chronicling his struggles with "Excessive Hosting Disorder" and a self-acknowledged random "Dance Number in the Middle of the Show," Harris seemed to be suggesting that he's done as much as he can do with this gig.
But it was an over-commitment to the dead that made this "the saddest Emmys ever," as "Modern Family's" Steve Levitan quipped, outstanding comedy trophy in hand.
The decision to give separate "In Memoriam" tributes to five television academy members did not just
disrespect the other important figures who had also died last year, it dragged down the whole show, forcing the audience to follow moments of celebration or amusement with dutiful sorrow.
Indeed, death quickly became an unintentional leitmotif. Musical guests Elton John and Carrie Underwood both crooned mournful ballads (Underwood chose "Yesterday," John a new song honoring Liberace). Don Cheadle marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy with heartbreaking film clips, there was a more traditional "In Memoriam" montage, and a very moving posthumous win for "Homeland" writer Henry Bromell.
With winners careening from predictable repeats (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jim Parsons) to complete surprises ("Nurse Jackie's" Merritt Wever, "The Newsroom's" Daniels, "Boardwalk Empire's" Bobby Cannavale), the telecast gathered such bipolar steam that it seemed particularly fitting when Claire Danes won for her psychologically challenged CIA agent in "Homeland."
Harris, strangely, did nothing to acknowledge this beyond making a joke about how many people were losing their Emmy pools. He seemed to have been hired more as featured entertainer than host; he starred in another dance number featuring the "Emmy Gold Dancers" (who knew? ) and in a long, pre-taped clip interviewing the dancers and choreographers, who then danced interpretations of various nominated shows as an introduction to the outstanding choreography (again, who knew?) category.
This while virtually every actual winner got played off before finishing their universally brief acceptance speeches.
There were some good moments. Get enough talented people in a room for three hours, with alcohol, and something watchable will eventually occur. Kevin Spacey saved the opener; while hosts of Emmys past argued onstage, he addressed the camera as his nominated and nefarious "House of Cards" character.
And Wever, the night's first and clearly overwhelmed winner, should receive an additional Emmy for her acceptance speech: "Oh, my God. Thank you. Thanks so much. I gotta go. Bye."
Louis-Dreyfus, obviously quite confident that she would win, accepted her trophy in character, down to the appearance of fellow winner Tony Hale, also in character, helping her through her speech.
Bob Newhart kept appearing, and you just can't get enough of Bob Newhart (although the fact that he just won his first Emmy ever — at last week's Creative Arts Emmys, for a guest role on "The Big Bang Theory"— calls into question the veracity of the whole shebang).
Colbert seemed as happy as we were that he won — and called his wife "cruel and sexy," which was very cool and sexy.
Daniels was so surprised by his win that he arrived at the podium with gum visible in his mouth, and managed to deliver a perfectly lovely speech anyway.
Michael Douglas briefly stole the show by saying his was "a two-handed win," a reference to laughter-convulsed costar Matt Damon, who played his lover in the Liberace bio-pic "Behind the Candelabra."
Declaring his intention to split the statue in two, he looked Damon straight in the eye and asked, "Do you want the top or the bottom?"
But it wasn't enough, not nearly enough to save a show that seemed determined to celebrate television without showing very much of it; even the "In Memoriam" tributes were all talk and few visuals. Instead of Harris' self-referencing joke about host-fatigue, it would have been nice to see at least a few bits of the performances and shows that are indeed changing the nature of television.
There's no shame in film clips, even if it means losing the Emmy Gold Dancers.
Especially if it means losing the Emmy Gold Dancers.