Emmys: ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Modern Family’ in a ho-hum year of repeats

September 19, 2011

Watch enough awards shows (we all have) and you can tell almost from the first minute when one of these things is not going to achieve much lift and will instead turn into a three-hour watching chore. Like Sunday night’s Emmys on Fox, hosted through no lasting fault of her own by “Glee” star Jane Lynch.

Apparently constructed from loose scraps of somebody else’s Emmy shows, the year’s “biggest night in television” fell flat in writing, performance and imagination, except in the most fleeting moments. It’s bizarre how much effort goes into something that can seem so phoned-in: predictable awards, tongue-tied acceptance speeches, wan comedy bits. Is everybody jazzed about the new fall season yet?

“Mad Men” won its fourth Emmy in a row for outstanding drama series. Against all that other great stuff — “Friday Night Lights,” “Game of Thrones,” etc. That’s how boring this year’s Emmys were. Even Matthew Weiner, “Mad Men’s” usually prideful creator, had to fake his excitment. “Oh my goodness, I did not think that was going to happen,” he said, which is what every Emmy winner said. It’s like nobody wanted an Emmy.

The big winner of the night was “Modern Family,” ABC’s universally beloved comedy, which took outstanding comedy for the second year in a row, plus another four Emmys — for its writing and directing and also for supporting actor and actress Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen, who, as the frequently frantic Phil and Claire Dunphy, are arguably the best players in one of television’s strongest and funniest ensembles. But all the awards and baseline acclaim can mean only one thing to TV’s most discerning (and finicky) viewers: We’re about half a season away from wondering whether “Modern Family” is still funny. Success is like that.

Kyle Chandler took the drama acting prize for the sentimentally favored football saga “Friday Night Lights,” which was so good it had to migrate to a satellite service on which fewer people than ever got to watch it, but did so with those clear eyes and full hearts. Julianna Margulies took a much-deserved Emmy for her starring role in the CBS drama “The Good Wife.” And Kate Winslet classed up the evening accepting her Emmy for HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” making it seem as victorious as her Oscar a couple of years back. It turns out she overreacts to just about any award.

The drama category had some other nice surprises: a supporting actor award for Peter Dinklage as the most likable of the conniving Lannister siblings in HBO’s fantasy “Game of Thrones”; a writing Emmy for “Friday Night Lights”; and a supporting actress award for Margo Martindale of “Justified,” the always-good FX crime yarn in which she played perhaps the meanest moonshinin’ mama who ever lived. (And, um, spoiler alert, contained within her acceptance speech — meanest moonshinin’ mama who ever died. Sorry, Netflixers.)

More wins for stuff we can all pretty much agree on: The British castle drama “Downton Abbey,” the most excitement PBS has generated in a while, got three Emmys for outstanding miniseries, writing and directing. Barry Pepper, who as Robert F. Kennedy was the only memorable thing in Reelz Channel’s “The Kennedys,” won an acting prize, as did Guy Pearce for his supporting role in “Mildred Pierce.”

But who was still watching at this point? Even Martin Scorsese, who won the drama directing Emmy for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” gave a flat acceptance speech made up of a list of hastily read names. (For those who keep track of boutique TV, HBO won four awards during the evening.)

This year’s Emmy show became a deepening mystery, a crime scene waiting for one of prime time’s many procedurals to come along and shine a black light on it to look for DNA and prints. Blame the writers? Blame the awards? Blame the redundant lauds for still-going-strong series, such as CBS’s “The Amazing Race” for reality show (is this Emmy No. 8? Nine? Twenty?) and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart?” (Nine years now? A dozen?) In another rerun, Jim Parsons won his second comedy Emmy in a row for his role in CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” Like everyone else, Parsons seemed unprepared, unexcited and trying to beat the speech clock.

The show really took a turn for the dull when Charlie Sheen came onstage — after all that we have been through; the audience clenched at the sight of him here — and had only drippingly warm good wishes for his former colleagues at “Two and a Half Men.”

The point of an Emmy Awards telecast, besides fashion and sideways advertising and cross-promotion for the fall shows, is to be light and hilarious. Alec Baldwin declined to come to the show after producers cut a pretaped skit in which he made a joke about the British phone-hacking scandal that has wracked Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns Fox, which broadcast the Emmys this year.

But that’s the exact sort of thing this show needed. Oh, how far we’ve come from last year’s far more kinetic production, hosted by Jimmy Fallon over on NBC — which, I seem to recall, included plenty of swipes at NBC and the then-still-seething Leno/Conan fiasco.

Thus, in more ways than one, funny was elusive at this year’s Emmys: A category motif featuring the “Emmytones” singers (a group that included “The Office’s” Kate Flannery, “Community’s”Joel McHale, “Person of Interest’s” Taraji P. Henson and Wilmer Vilderrama) was one of those bits that needed to be abandoned, not repeated all the way through. Amy Poehler and her fellow comedy-actress nominees pulled off a pitch-perfect bit behaving like Miss America contestants as the award was announced. The Emmy went to Melissa McCarthy for CBS’s heavy-set sitcom “Mike and Molly.” Everyone likes her a lot, but can some of us pretend this award was actually for her part in the film “Bridesmaids”?

Ricky Gervais showed up, early and pre-recorded, because, he joked, “During any award ceremony, I’m not even allowed on American soil.” That, in reference to the now distant memory of his Golden Globes hosting last January, an overblown controversy that we should have stopped talking about long ago. (In fact, most of us have.) “Someone didn’t get enough hugs from Mommy and now it’s Hollywood’s fault,” Lynch quipped, reading the lines written (mostly badly) for her.

Poor Jane. She tried it all: A sketch in which she played a sinister New Jersey reality show boss. A tepid opening musical number (“TV is a vast wonderland,” she sang at the beginning of the show. “A world of enchantment and awe/ A liquid-crystal paradise, a high-def Shangri La.” A vast wonderland? Prove it) that had her waltzing on to “Big Bang Theory” and “Mad Men” sets alike. She came out onto a bright-orange, circa-1987 stage set at the Nokia Theater, finishing the dance number in a silver gown that seemed to be made from Jiffy Pop foil. “Try doing that in triple Spanx,” she huffed. She even made lesbian jokes about herself. Nobody cared. Someone be very nice to her tomorrow.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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