Tom Shales on the reality TV revolution at the Emmys

A REAL WINNER: Sue (Jane Lynch) taunts Will (Matthew Morrison) oh so well.
A REAL WINNER: Sue (Jane Lynch) taunts Will (Matthew Morrison) oh so well. (Michael Yarish/fox)
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By Tom Shales
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Although skillfully scripted TV programs do have to compete against grungy reality TV shows for Emmy Awards -- a fairly recent, 21st-century development -- at least trained, professional actors have been spared the indignity of going up against somebody's Aunt Minny or Uncle Fudd, stars of such sure-fire amateur productions as Aunt Minny falls into the potato salad or Uncle Fudd takes a Frisbee in the groin.

In prime time and other broadcast neighborhoods, actors who might have studied and struggled for years to attain some sort of professional esteem do suffer the humiliation of competing with artless crowd-pleasers shot in junk-strewn back yards and messy pastures of poop. The Emmys were immune until reality TV became so popular and huge that there was no ignoring it without looking pitifully oblivious.

So categories on the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards, to be televised Sunday on NBC from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, will include "Reality Competition Program," while the Emmy for best "Reality Program" was already given out at a separate ceremony. Nominees in the two categories include "Dirty Jobs," "Top Chef," "Project Runway" and "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List." ("Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" won in the "Reality Program" category).

If it sounds absurd to dignify any of those shows with a statuette, one nominee does have a sort of dull stuffiness that could pass for dignity: "Antiques Roadshow," the British-born, attic-plundering safari in which ordinary folks learn that an old grandfather's clock is worth a small fortune -- sometimes an infinitesimal one. And some of the nominees are worthy of an "official" kind of plaudit: "Dancing With the Stars," which has brought music, dance and true festivity back to prime-time TV, and "American Idol," observing the last year in which it can be nominated with Simon Cowell on its panel of otherwise dubiously qualified judges.

The producers of "Idol" have demonstrated anything but genius when it comes to choosing new judges for their panel, so the notion that we've seen the last of "Idol's" good days doesn't seem in the least bit far-fetched. It's near-fetched, if there is such a thing, highly probable if there isn't.

It would be a shame, meanwhile, if voters in the TV Academy, which doles out the Emmys, went the logy, lazy route and once more gave the "Reality Competition" prize to "The Amazing Race," the only show ever to have won it since the category was introduced. "Race" does have the gloss and class of handsome, imaginative production, but both "Idol" and "Dancing," in the same category, deserve the prize more by virtue of their quality and for never having won it.

One moment, please: Can you believe we're actually discussing this stuff? And giving a hoot? Well, why not? It's television, just as surely as an existential cop show is television, or a smart-alecky sitcom, an MTV documentary, a presidential press conference or "Life With Luigi" (that one goes back a few thousand years, but it was television when it aired).

One participant in this year's Emmy hoopla has been appearing on TV since the same era when "Luigi" romped -- back in the days of Milton Berle and Dinah Shore and such young actors as James Dean and Eva Marie Saint in live dramas. That star, of course, is Betty White, and though White already won her Emmy -- over the weekend, when she was honored for her guest performance on "Saturday Night Live" -- the TV Academy would be foolish indeed if an excuse isn't found for White to make an appearance on Sunday night's special.

As for the other, more-routine Emmys in other categories, there isn't a great deal to root for -- or to campaign against, for that matter. Both Kyle Chandler (for "Friday Night Lights") and Hugh Laurie ("House") seem woefully overdue for best-actor Emmys, and again, it would be a pity if Academy voters took the dull, predictable route and gave the prize -- yet again -- to Bryan Cranston for meth-making in "Breaking Bad." Glenn Close of "Damages" needs another trophy for playing a dagger-staring alpha female like she needs an oil spill in her swimming pool; better to give that Emmy for lead actress in a drama to Connie Britton, long-suffering Mrs. Coach on "Friday Night Lights."

Somehow Larry David got on the ballot with other nominees for best actor in a comedy series. That's ridiculous; "acting" is the least of his talents on display in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the wittily hilarious HBO sitcom in which David plays himself. "Glee" is, strangely, nominated in the Outstanding Comedy Series category -- it's not a comedy -- but then there's no category for Original Musical Series That Doesn't Fit Anywhere Else.

Even casual Emmy observers are likely to be aware of this year's catty snubs by the Academy: "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" was nominated for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series despite being canceled after only a few months, while "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" was ignored; it would be sweet revenge, and probably precipitate a huge demonstration, if O'Brien were to win the honor. It would also get his forthcoming TBS talk show off to a roaring start.

Unfortunately, "The Late Show With David Letterman" was also snubbed -- for the first time in 26 years, as Letterman has been complaining nightly on his program (including in that tally the years he spent at NBC). Somehow it's likely Letterman and his multimillions will muddle through. Injustices and even outrages are always part of the show, but there ought to be limits; it will be a true crime against all that's holy if Jane Lynch doesn't win the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on "Glee." As she was in "Role Models" and "Talledega Nights" and many other comedies on big screen and small, Lynch in "Glee" flirts with perfection, and perfection gives in.

The Emmy telecast has one long-standing tradition likely to be upheld; the show is usually awful, and sometimes, ironically, a mess -- even though it supposedly celebrates excellence in television. Jimmy Fallon, the NBC late-night star who's hosting this year, is a very good choice, however, and in the annual struggle between the Emmy show and stupefying boredom, Fallon's presence increases the odds on the Emmys' behalf.

Fallon announced recently that he and the writers will incorporate Twittering into the show, by inviting viewers to twit -- er, tweet -- at selected intervals. Does that sound like fun? Absolutely not. What it sounds like is a scheme to make the audience complicit in the Emmy's annual awfulness. You have to give them credit; if they have a hard time improving the show, maybe they'll at least succeed at spreading the blame.

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