Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

Emmys’ self-mocking humor doesn’t rescue a boring show

We don’t ask much of the Primetime Emmy Awards. Nobody ever gets one of these three-hour statuette dispensaries completely right, but the Emmys always seem as though they’d be the easiest of all the awards shows to pull off — mostly because the likelihood of culturally disruptive twerking is very, very low, which means the Emmys are the awards show no one ever remembers 18 hours later.

So what happened Sunday night during CBS’s anemic and often awkward Emmys telecast, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris? (Or let me put it another way: I had to next-day “Breaking Bad” for this?)

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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Everyone’s favorite messed-up meth saga did at last win the best drama award, so the night wasn’t a total wash, but all those highfalutin theses about the Netflix-y future of television failed to materialize. Claire Danes won lead actress (drama) for Showtime’s “Homeland” for the second year in a row, and, inexplicably, Jeff Daniels won lead actor (drama) for HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

“Modern Family” won best comedy series for what seems like the squillionth time, but it is really just the fourth. HBO’s Washington-based comedy “Veep” took two acting awards — Tony Hale for supporting actor, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for lead actress the second straight year. And Anna Gunn won for supporting actress (drama) for AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

That’s most of the news, now for the snooze, starting with a dreary opening sketch that featured Harris locking himself in a multi-screen chamber to binge the entire 2012-13 season of every television show in a matter of minutes.

Once onstage, Harris was joined by former Emmys hosts (Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien), who needled him in one of those tiresome meta-routines in which all the comedy is directed at the existence of the show itself, in real time. The joke just got staler when an unamused Kevin Spacey, the star of Netflix’s hit “House of Cards,” turned and addressed the camera as House Majority Whip Francis Underwood, his fictional character from the show.

Later, Harris’s “How I Met Your Mother” co-stars confronted him in an intervention for “EHD” (excessive hosting disorder), treatable only at the “Ryan Seacrest Center for Excessive Hosting.”

Halfway through the evening, Harris finally brought out the jaunty song-and-dance routines, the main symptom of his EHD, with a number called “The Number in the Middle of the Show.” (Sample lyric: “The Emmy Awards are three hours long / Now there’s three minutes less to go.”) One can’t imagine a flashier way to demonstrate that Hollywood’s awards-show writers desperately need to think of a way to tell jokes that aren’t about telling jokes; to stage a show that’s not only about the show.

The best line of the evening came very early on from Merritt Wever, who seemed so shocked at winning the supporting actress Emmy for a comedy show (“Nurse Jackie”) that she went with her flusteredness and said: “I gotta go, bye.”

The rest of us (well, some of us) gotta stay, alas, in a listless position on the couch while the Emmys poked along as flatly as possible. The banter had no flair for comedy. The tributes — including short monologues from Robin Williams, Rob Reiner, Michael J. Fox and Jane Lynch (honoring the recent deaths of comic actor Jonathan Winters, “All in the Family’s” Jean Stapleton, producer Gary David Goldberg and “Glee’s” Cory Monteith) sometimes seemed stiff and, most curiously, clip-less.

Lynch said that Monteith was “a beautiful soul. He was not perfect, which many of us here can relate to. . . . Tonight we remember Cory for all he was and mourn the loss of what he could have been.” That was supposed to be one of the evening’s most moving moments, and it only sort of was. Edie Falco also encountered a similar struggle in a tribute to “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, trying to make what was on the teleprompter sound as authentic as the pain she so clearly feels at losing a friend.

More strangeness: Elton John performed a song that he said was a tribute to Liberace, which is topical because of all the nominations for HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” a film didn’t exactly leave everyone who saw it with a warm feeling about the flamboyant pianist. (“Behind the Candelabra” went on to win three big awards, for best miniseries/movie, best director for Steven Soderbergh and best actor for its star Michael Douglas, who tried to perk up his acceptance speech with jokes about gay sex.) And somewhere in this now-blurry Emmys night, Carrie Underwood performed the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” as a tribute to all the things that happened during or close to the year 1963 (the March on Washington; the John F. Kennedy assassination), because . . .? Because the world is round, it blows my mind.

“The Emmys are so good this year,” Stephen Colbert deadpanned as he and his “Colbert Report” crew accepted the award for variety series writing. (The show also won best variety series. Another victory for the “finally” list.) “Modern Family” creator Steven Levitan also took a dig at the show while accepting the best comedy series award at the evening’s end: “This may be the saddest Emmys of all time, but we could not be happier,” he said.

So, to sum up: An awards show filled with skits about how bad awards shows are gave awards to people who talked about how bad the show turned out, while everyone on Twitter had decided that hours earlier. These days, that’s entertainment.

See all of the winners and highlights from the 2013 Emmy Awards

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