Keeping it real
Bryan Cranston gets a hug from "Breaking Bad" costar Aaron Paul. In his speech after winning for outstanding lead actor in a drama series, Cranston gave a nod to his Valley roots. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Like every other award show on Earth, the Emmys, whose 61st edition became history Sunday night, is a staged event masquerading as news, or rather a staged event that contains nuggets of something that might be called news. It poses two intertwined but separate questions: Who will win? And will the show that delivers the answers be any good? Because it is unpredictable, the first question belongs to the real world; the second concerns something scripted, choreographed and scored, a show about show business.

Even at three hours, there is a war for time, in which the "entertainment" elements war with the reason we are supposedly here in the first place, to honor a handful of people who make good television and, by extension, stand for the art and industry as a whole. It is in the acceptance speeches -- those moments of unscripted time circumscribed by the chance of being played off by the orchestra -- that the show becomes something more than a joking celebration of itself. Even written and rehearsed as they might have been, at home, before the mirror, and bound by industrially necessary thanks and shout-outs -- Jon Cryer thanked "my old agents, who got me this job, and my new agents" -- these are the closest you get to the reality of television, because the words come from the people who make it. Everyone is to some extent the same when they are standing before a teleprompter reading lines written by strangers, but everyone is at least a version of him or herself accepting an award.

This is also where a show can get unusually real, or surreal. Kanye West's recent hijacking of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, still fresh in the public mind, was acknowledged early in the proceedings by host Neil Patrick Harris: "I'm here to ensure everything runs smoothly," he said. "Here's hoping Kanye West likes '30 Rock.' "

The theme reoccurred through the night, with Justin Timberlake pretending to cut off Tina Fey and Ken Howard ("Grey Gardens") saying, "I'll make my speech short in the hope that it won't be interrupted by a congressman or a rapper."

There were, as it turned out, no Kanye Wests, and apart from Kristin Chenoweth's copious tears at winning for "Pushing Daisies" ("I'm shocked," she managed to say, "this is really heavy"), nothing that could be called out of control. But Sunday's speeches gave you a sense of the people who make the medium, from "Grey Gardens" winner Jessica Lange ("This part was a gift, and they don't come around that often for me anymore") to an otherworldly Michael Emerson for "Lost" ("Oh, my goodness, what a fine honor") to a sparkly Cherry Jones for "24" ("Wowsah!") to "30 Rock" writer Matt Hubbard, thanking the kid who punched him in the eighth grade and turned him into a comedy writer.