By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009
America's traditional old broadcast networks staged a comeback Sunday night at the 61st annual Emmy Awards and snatched a few of the key prizes back from cable channels that have been making inroads and all but staging raids, especially in the 21st century.
NBC almost managed to tie HBO (frequently the overall winner) in number of Emmys awarded Sunday night, and NBC's "30 Rock" won the Emmy for best comedy series. Cable's AMC, however, once again won the prize for best drama series, with its "Mad Men," beating network shows that cost considerably more to produce and attract much larger audiences.
"One could argue that right now," said presenter Sigourney Weaver, we are experiencing "a new golden age of television drama." One could argue it as long as one didn't mind making a complete fool of oneself. Dramas from the real "golden age," in the 1950s and '60s, were about inner turmoil, moral dilemmas and traumatic emotional crises. Dramas today tend to be about cops, murders, heart transplants and sex.
But many outstanding and highly respectable shows passed through the Emmy gates Sunday, in a lively ceremony hosted engagingly, for the most part, by Neil Patrick Harris of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" and, previously, the star of ABC's "Doogie Howser, M.D." While that show seemed to go unmentioned, somebody thought it would be cute to cite the most obscure credits from early in the careers of presenters like Alec Baldwin (also a winner, for best actor, on NBC's "30 Rock") and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
In her bit of banter, Louis-Dreyfus referred to the current season not as the golden age of anything but as "the last official year of network broadcast television." Very funny and not that far from the truth. Generally, though, the show was encumbered with too much facetiousness, with even announcer John Hodgman in a booth listing phony fun facts about winners and presenters as they made their way to the stage.
The whole thing was done in a spirit of "let's make fun of ourselves and beat others to the punch," but if the fun-making isn't funny, it falls flat, and much of the humor on the show wobbled, teetered and plunged into the mire.
Few of the winners could be called surprises. Glenn Close won again for playing a ruthless uber-lawyer in FX's "Damages"; Bryan Cranston won again (and gave a particularly gracious acceptance speech) for playing a teacher-turned-drug-dealer in "Breaking Bad"; and the army of writers that knocks out "The Daily Show" for Comedy Central won over better writers who do funnier jokes for such programs as "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," as well as "Saturday Night Live."
In something of a twist, "Man Men," a melodrama about life in the '60s advertising game, didn't win an award until the show was more than half over (best writing for a drama), won no acting awards and finally returned to the winner's circle by taking the cake as best drama. "Mad Men" had a considerably better showing last year, when it seemed to win in every category.
As if to dramatize the drought in situation comedy, "30 Rock" won trophies in three categories.
One of the night's most honored dramatic specials was "Grey Gardens," HBO's movie about two idiosyncratic women, a mother and her daughter, occupying a decaying mansion in the Northeast. Jessica Lange, accepting the Emmy for playing the mother, struck a poignant note when she said that great parts for women her age are not exactly plentiful. The role was "a gift," she said, and "they don't come around that often for me anymore."
Public broadcasting copped two Emmys for its co-production, with the British Broadcasting Corp., of an adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Little Dorrit."
Topical jokes were scarce, with the most-joked-about topic being the uncertainty of the new communications age -- the rise of the Internet and basic-cable TV while long-dominant media like the broadcast networks continue to lose their audiences, worrying the toilers in the field and the muckety-mucks in the executive suites.
Harris did get off a sneaky reference at the beginning when he said, "Here's hoping Kanye West likes '30 Rock,' " a reference to the musician's rude interruption of the recent MTV Video Music Awards and to the fact that "30 Rock" was likely to be a multiple Emmy winner -- and was.
Much of the prepared material, however, was woefully lame, including a sick clip or two from the ugly Fox cartoon "Family Guy" (including a scene in which a toddler beat a dog bloody) and a broad, overplayed sketch with Harris as "Dr. Horrible" attempting to destroy the Internet or the TV networks; it wasn't clear.
The set design depended heavily on sliding panels onto which actors and scenes were projected; it might have worked well in the auditorium but it wasn't very communicative on home screens. The show was broadcast in high definition, however, which made it seem exquisitely beautiful at times. Then again, the Cowboys-Giants game on NBC was in high-def, too, and it also looked exquisitely beautiful at times.
Junk and tripe may continue to rule in television, no matter how many channels there are, but it's the best-looking junk and tripe in the history of the medium.
A list of winners at Sunday's 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences:
Drama Series: "Mad Men," AMC
Comedy Series: "30 Rock," NBC
Actress, Drama Series: Glenn Close, "Damages," FX
Actor, Drama Series: Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad," AMC
Actor, Comedy Series: Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock," NBC
Actress, Comedy Series: Toni Collette, "United States of Tara," Showtime
Supporting Actor, Drama Series: Michael Emerson, "Lost," ABC
Supporting Actress, Drama Series: Cherry Jones, "24," Fox
Supporting Actor, Comedy Series: Jon Cryer, "Two and a Half Men," CBS
Supporting Actress, Comedy Series: Kristin Chenoweth, "Pushing Daisies," ABC
Miniseries: "Little Dorrit," PBS
Made-for-TV Movie: "Grey Gardens," HBO
Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Brendan Gleeson, "Into the Storm," HBO
Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Jessica Lange, "Grey Gardens," HBO
Supporting Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Ken Howard, "Grey Gardens," HBO
Supporting Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Shohreh Aghdashloo, "House of Saddam," HBO
Directing for a Comedy Series: "The Office: Stress Relief," Jeff Blitz, NBC
Directing for a Drama Series: "ER: And in the End," Rod Holcomb, NBC
Directing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Series: "American Idol: Show 833 (The Final Three)," Bruce Gowers, Fox
Directing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special: "Little Dorrit: Part 1," Dearbhla Walsh, PBS
Variety, Music, or Comedy Series: "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," Comedy Central
Reality-Competition Program: "The Amazing Race," CBS
Writing for a Comedy Series: "30 Rock: Reunion," Matt Hubbard, NBC
Writing for a Drama Series: "Mad Men: Meditations in an Emergency," Kater Gordon and Matthew Weiner, AMC
Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Series: "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," Comedy Central
Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special: "Little Dorrit," Andrew Davies, PBS
Host, Reality or Reality-Competition Program: Jeff Probst, "Survivor," CBS
Original Music and Lyrics: "81st Annual Academy Awards: Song Title: Hugh Jackman Opening Number," ABC
-- Associated Press