Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly attributed the quotation "There's nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action" to Steve Martin. Tommy Smothers, who was introduced by Martin, made the statement. The column also incorrectly implied that "The Colbert Report" had previously won for writing; this year's award for writing was the show's first Emmy.

'Mad Men' Wins the Account

Highlights from the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif.
By Tom Shales
Monday, September 22, 2008

Basic-cable TV settled an old score with the broadcast networks last night at the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards. The AMC network's "Mad Men" was named best drama series of the year -- the first time a basic-cable show has won one of the top two Emmys -- while an NBC show, "30 Rock," predictably walked off with the award for best comedy series. Similarly, while Tina Fey, creator and star of "30 Rock," was named best actress in a comedy series, Bryan Cranston was chosen best actor in a drama series for his performance in "Breaking Bad," which is seen on the cheeky and edgy AMC cable network.

All the Emmys that went to NBC at last night's show -- telecast live on ABC from the vast and cavernous Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles -- were won by "30 Rock," a lonely remnant of the era when NBC "owned" Thursday nights with a dazzling array of comedy and drama shows. The old networks not only are losing audience to cable, they are even losing awards -- one of the last bastions that the broadcast networks had dominated.

No more. Glenn Close was chosen best actress in a drama for playing a ruthless, fire-breathing lawyer in "Damages," another FX production. Paul Giamatti was named best actor in a miniseries or movie for playing the title character in the lavish historical pageant "John Adams," seen on the most successful of the pay-cable networks (and traditionally the biggest Emmy winner), HBO.

"John Adams" also won Emmys as best miniseries of the year and best-written miniseries, plus awards to two more members of its cast: Laura Linney, who played John Adams's wife (accepting the prize, she acknowledged "the community organizers that helped form our country," a reference to Sarah Palin's gibe at Barack Obama) and Tom Wilkinson, who played an imbibing and carousing Ben Franklin in the big-budget miniseries.

The TV Academy tried to stay relevant and up to date with the Emmy show; thus the program was hosted by five hosts of reality and reality-competition shows -- Tom Bergeron of "America's Funniest Home Videos," Heidi Klum of "Project Runway," Howie Mandel of "Deal or No Deal," Jeff Probst of "Survivor" and Ryan Seacrest of "American Idol." Probst won the Emmy as best host of a reality or competition program, the first time that Emmy was given out.

To certify the lofty status of the reality genre and its hosts, they were introduced at the start of the show by no less an eminence than Oprah Winfrey herself -- looking something like the sun in a large orange gown.

That was one of only two major Emmys won by CBS. The other also went to one of the network's reality shows: "The Amazing Race" was named best reality show for the fifth consecutive time.

Speaking of eminences, meanwhile, the Emmy for best individual performance in a comedy, variety or musical program went to the estimable and incomparable Don Rickles, who received two standing ovations from the audience -- the first when he walked onstage as a presenter with comic Kathy Griffin, and Griffin screamed to the crowd, "Get up!" They complied quickly. Rickles, 82, received a tremendous outpouring of respect and affection.

Except for this fleeting moment, what the 2008 Emmy show lacked more than anything else was warmth -- ironic considering that Rickles was sarcastically dubbed "Mr. Warmth" by Johnny Carson. Rickles appeared in a film about his life and 60-year-career in show business, also called "Mr. Warmth" and subtitled "The Don Rickles Project." It was directed by John Landis, whose movie comedies have included "Animal House" and "Trading Places."

Frequently during the show, clips from fondly remembered old TV shows would be splashed onto a giant screen at the back of the wide, wide stage; sometimes the sets from such shows -- like the WJM newsroom from "Mary Tyler Moore" or Monk's diner from "Seinfeld" -- were re-created on the stage. But these segments tended to emphasize how cold current TV hits tend to be, and how hard it is to embrace them no matter how popular they may have become.

"30 Rock" is not quite a smash hit sitcom the way "Seinfeld" or "Cosby" or "I Love Lucy" was, but it's as close as NBC can come these days, so it gets perhaps excessively praised and Emmy-awarded.

Those expecting political statements or outbursts from the participating stars had to have come away disappointed. The remarks that did make it onto the air were few and fleeting -- and usually rather vague, as when Tommy Smothers told the crowd, "There's nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action," an apparent reference to the George W. Bush administration.

Politics -- though not the contemporary kind -- obviously figured in HBO's "John Adams" and in another winner for the pay-cable network: "Recount," a suspenseful docudrama about the disputed results of the 2000 presidential election. "Recount" was named the best made-for-TV movie of the year; its director, Jay Roach, won for his direction of the film.

Comedy Central's two satirical news programs, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," seem to pass the writing awards back and forth between them, taking turns each year. Joining "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart onstage, Stephen Colbert scoffed at older voters who favor John McCain for president, using his fake-conservative persona to compare the 72-year-old senator (without naming him) to "a dried-up old prune" -- something America needs more, he said, than some fresh young plum. .

Otherwise, dramatic moments were few, hilarious moments were few, sentimental moments were scarce and deeply moving sequences were nonexistent. Television has expired like the dinosaurs and been replaced with something else. Whatever that something else is, it was celebrated with forced cheers at the Emmy show last night.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company