The Emmys: Satisfying Winners Elevate A Sloppy Show

Sep 19, 2011
Originally published on September 19, 2011 6:51 am

Watching Sunday night's Emmy Awards was a little bit like going to the very bad wedding of people you really love: the happiness you feel for the people involved almost makes up for how otherwise unremarkable the experience is.

Many of the major categories were conservatively chosen: Mad Men and Modern Family repeated as Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Comedy Series. Jim Parsons repeated as lead comedy actor for The Big Bang Theory, and Julianna Margulies won a widely anticipated statue for The Good Wife as lead dramatic actress. PBS' Downton Abbey cleaned up in the miniseries/movie categories, and the reality/variety awards went largely to The Daily Show and The Amazing Race, just as they usually do.

The awards for supporting work in comedy contributed to Modern Family's big night: Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell, nominated aside all their adult co-stars, were the winners for their portrayals of married couple Claire and Phil Dunphy. Bowen is probably the least showy actor in the cast, and seeing her win over Sofia Vergara was intriguing: Vergara is absolutely wonderful and would have been a richly deserving winner, but it's not without its charm to see a smaller performance win out over one that is more widely discussed and more broadly written.

Departing series Friday Night Lights, which struggled without recognition for its first several seasons, won two major awards: writing for a drama for showrunner Jason Katims, and lead actor in a drama for Kyle Chandler, whose beautifully human performance as Coach Eric Taylor was a marvel throughout the series run. Of course, that meant that Mad Men's Jon Hamm was denied again, after losing three times to Breaking Bad lead Bryan Cranston, but Hamm will be back. Chandler will not. This was a lovely way to say goodbye.

Also making many, many people happy was an unexpected victory for Melissa McCarthy for Mike & Molly. McCarthy might very well not have taken this award but for the way she suddenly grabbed a lot of eyeballs for her turn in Bridesmaids, which seems to have reminded people that this is a woman who had been doing marvelous work in television — including during a long run on The Gilmore Girls — for a very long time. If anyone is to be awarded points for elevating the material with which she's presented and making it far funnier than the writing would be on the page, those points would go to McCarthy. Her victory also returned the comedy lead actress award to an actress who genuinely does comedy, rather than a semi-comedic, semi-dramatic performance like Edie Falco's win last year for Nurse Jackie, which led even Falco to comment that it seemed strange, because she doesn't really do comedy.

FX's Justified won an important award, too: Margo Martindale, a character actress who, until recently, many had seen but few could have named, won for her supporting performance as the tragic, menacing Mags Bennett, a sharp turn from her typical appearances as wisecracking secretaries. This fall, Martindale belongs to CBS's A Gifted Man, where she does play another wisecracking assistant, and where producers may well feel some additional pressure to make sure the role is up to her considerable talents.

Game Of Thrones brought HBO a big award when Peter Dinklage won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. While the network's Mildred Pierce lost a good chunk of its nominations to Downton Abbey, Kate Winslet was honored for her lead performance.

As for the broadcast itself, it was, in a word, a dud. Host Jane Lynch did her best, but she was saddled with an underwhelming opening number and a lot of watery jokes. She has a massive talent, but her performance was a good reminder that some actors are more comfortable in character. In fact, her well-known gift for improvisation is consistent with the idea that what makes her great is how seamlessly she can slide into a character so completely that it overtakes her. Here, she was working without a character other than "Jane Lynch, awards host," and she didn't seem to know who that person was supposed to be.

By far the best part of the telecast was when the lead comedy actresses, reportedly herded by Amy Poehler, surprised the room by going up to the stage together like pageant finalists instead of staying in their seats. McCarthy's victory seemed to genuinely thrill the others, and she wound up with roses and a tiara. It was funny and genuine and strangely touching, and Poehler deserves enormous credit — if indeed it was her idea — for giving the show a giant boost when it was on the verge of utterly and irreversibly tanking.

A cute idea called the "Emmytones," where several actors including Joel McHale, Zachary Levi, and Cobie Smulders sang little introductions to each section of the show, seemed half-baked and underprepared. It's a good idea to take advantage of actors who can sing, but it's not a complete idea. They still need something to do, and the Emmytones didn't have it.

The "In Memoriam" segment was also flubbed, as the Canadian Tenors — hardly a group that brings excitement to the stage — performed the cliched, played-out Leonard Cohen classic "Hallelujah," which is a beautiful song that television has essentially destroyed for itself with overuse. The constant dividing of attention between the singers and the honored performers was distracting and almost disrespectful.

And finally, the decision to give Charlie Sheen a stage from which to continue to preach his redemption came off as cheap and unnecessary. His recitation of his good wishes to the cast of Two And A Half Men may have been the most unctuous, unconvincing bit of theater the Emmys have ever produced, and it didn't need to happen. Sheen is free to pursue a second chance, but the fact that this happened the day before his Comedy Central roast made it seem less like a man being humble and more like a man promoting himself in a different way — maybe the only way he has left.

There were disappointments where the awards were concerned, of course. Parsons does very good work on Big Bang, but it does seem bizarre that this closes out the possibility of Steve Carell's being honored for his work on The Office. And while Julianna Margulies is a fine, fine actress, both Connie Britton's work on Friday Night Lights and Elisabeth Moss's stunning Mad Men season would have been at least as deserving.

For the most part, though, the awards were the good part. The bad part was everything else.

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