If you believe everything written lately about television by its critics and outspoken fans, the shows have never been better — especially the newer ones. But if you watched Monday night’s 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, you saw that the medium is stuck in a loop where it’s always the late-middle of 2011. TV viewers are moving forward at a voracious pace — this year’s Emmys, not so much.
As “True Detective’s” cosmically attuned sleuth Rust Cohle put it: “Someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”
To wit, it was still very much the era of “Breaking Bad,” which ended its run (fabulously, nearly everyone agrees) nearly a year ago and which took home five awards Monday night, including Emmys for outstanding drama — as well as for its lead actor, Bryan Cranston, supporting actress Anna Gunn and supporting actor Aaron Paul. That meant there was very little left for “True Detective,” which took home an award for director Cary Joji Fukunaga.
It was still the era of “The Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons, who won his fourth consecutive Emmy for his work on the CBS sitcom that’s now in perpetual reruns. (And at one point in his acceptance speech, he acknowledged that “there’s no accounting for taste,” which you can translate however you like.)
The always-deserving Julia Louis-Dreyfus won yet again for HBO’s “Veep,” but did she have to? CBS’s “The Amazing Race” must surely have a hundred Emmys by now. (Perhaps fewer.) Jessica Lange picked up another Emmy for FX’s “American Horror Story” miniseries. Even the three awards for PBS’s American broadcast of the British drama “Sherlock” — including acting prizes for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman — felt like holdovers from a while back.
It only felt like the 2014 Emmys once “Weird Al” Yankovic (a throwback himself, who has nevertheless happened to release one of the year’s best albums) took the stage to supply lyrics to some of the top nominees’ instrumental theme songs, including the manic jazz riff of Showtime’s “Homeland” intro and the thrumming anthem of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“Don’t get too attached to a certain guy/He might drink some poison wine,” Yankovic sang, while a chorus implored novelist George R.R. Martin (who was in the audience) to hurry up and finish the book series on which the show is based.
That routine seemed, in some psychic sense, to shake loose a few nods for television’s recent triumphs — including a win for FX’s pitch-perfect “Fargo” for outstanding miniseries and HBO’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart” for outstanding TV movie. (Emmy voters seemed a tad frosty to the rest of “Normal Heart’s” nominations, including its actors, director Ryan Murphy and Kramer himself, who was nominated for his screenplay.)
The members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences just don’t seem to be caught up on the buzziest, binge-iest viewing that holds the rest of us in thrall. This made it harder for NBC’s telecast to keep things spinning along, but, on the whole, host Seth Meyers and assorted friends did a pleasant job of trying to be funny.
Meyers’s hosting skills were, as one would expect, much like his work so far as host of NBC’s “Late Night” — reliable but not wild, funny but not hilarious.
That’s probably better than someone who tries too hard. In the past several weeks, Meyers presented himself as the host who knows how to tell a few jokes and get out of the way — which he did, allowing for funnier bits from Louis-Dreyfus and Cranston, as well as “questions from the audience,” in which Melissa McCarthy asked whether her car was going to be towed from the spot where she left it.
Robin Williams died two weeks ago, and Billy Crystal’s heartfelt and surprisingly brief tribute to him made it seem somehow longer ago. But that’s how it goes in the modern grief cycle, where all mourning takes place mainly on Twitter and Facebook. Crystal compared Williams’s energy and humor to something permanent, like the light from the stars above. Anymore, it’s hard to be sure.
One thing Emmy night could use a whole lot less of is jokes about platform and delivery — cable vs. streaming, big screens, tiny screens, hashtags, cord-cutting, ratings and all that. (Even if you put Sofia Vergara on a rotating platform to make a point about TV’s future, we get it already: Everything’s changed, and that’s terrifying.)
It is, of course, the very subject that preoccupies not only the people who make television but also those of us who are addicted to it. How will we receive it? Share it? Absorb it into our culture? One way we’ll know we’ve moved on is that we’ll stop making nervous, self-deprecating, even tired references to the uncertain future of TV. We’ll know the future has truly arrived when we shut up about all that and just watch for pure pleasure.