By Tom Shales
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; C05
Improvement in the Emmy Awards? Good glory, what next? A complete and sudden cessation of the recession, maybe. Peace in the Middle East. Oillessness in the Gulf of Mexico. Improvement in -- the Academy Awards?!
If you do something 62 times, you're bound to get it right eventually -- is that the operative theory here? Not really, because there were years along the way when the Emmy show really was worth watching. Somewhere along the way, deterioration set in, and it wasn't really anybody's "fault" but attributable, instead, to any number of hard-to-specify factors. It became customary for the show to reek, for lack of a word that we'd rather not print around here.
Upon the host does much of the responsibility fall, and Jimmy Fallon did a pretty good job during his novice flight Sunday -- once his overly cute and clever opening number was out of the way. Fallon, in this appearance and sometimes still on his late-night talk show, exhibits the Audition Syndrome, a look-at-me kind of attitude that demonstrates to all watching that the young man is full of talent and, especially, versatility. Look, he's impersonating Bruce Springsteen; look, he's doing Elton John; look, he's seemingly actually playing the gee-tarr; look, he's dancing up a storm; look, he's a wunderkind (but sometimes I wunder what kind).
All right, already; we know he's talented. Oh, and hip to what's cool as well as cool to what's hip. When, on his talk show, he boasted that on Jimmy Night -- that is, Emmy Night -- he would rely partly on twittering viewers to tweet suggestions on questions to ask some of the presenters, it sounded awful and that's how it played. Let the twitterers tweet amongst themselves, please, and the BlackBerriers and Facebookers and texters do the same.
Hardly had it been brought up when the twittering gimmick was dropped, and wisely. That's one of the good things about the Emmy gig; if some of the planned comedy doesn't work, you can just un-plan it. You must not be married to it or, if you are, then you have to be extremely amenable to divorce, and Fallon showed himself shrewd enough to dive right into Splitsville, as Walter Winchell used to call it. Walter Who? Oh, never mind. For another time.
The Emmys may have become such a paragon of predictability in recent years that the whole notion of improvement became unthinkable; it just wouldn't happen, partly because the rewards for improving it didn't seem all that lofty. But darn it, the rewards were indeed substantial; a really good Emmy show at or near the start of a new TV season -- even if TV seasons don't really start how or when they used to -- is good for viewer morale, and hence for the morale of those toiling at telly, as they might put in Britain. And raising expectations really can seem to raise results. And so on.
Many, many years back, the Emmys inaugurated and then perpetuated a yearly demonstration of how lazy those Emmy voters could be -- because every year for five or six straight, John Larroquette automatically (it seemed) won the best actor in a comedy award for hamming it up on a mediocrity called "Night Court," which was supposed to capture the charm of "Cheers" but didn't. It didn't even capture the charm of itself.
It's good to report that the Larroquette syndrome has largely died out. No, not because Larroquette himself is rarely up for an Emmy and "Night Court" itself is long, long gone. But the laziness that produced it seems to have abated -- with certain exceptions. Bryan Cranston is the current incarnation because of his overly awarded work as a do-gooder drug dealer on "Breaking Bad," one of the AMC network's two insanely overly everything'd shows (the other being, of course, "Mad Men," which won its usual Emmys last night, as some 11th Commandment apparently requires).
But for once, "Amazing Race" did not win the best reality show prize, which, no matter how good or bad the show may be, is an encouraging development; it shows that the voters do care enough to sample other shows. And a somewhat surprising victory for "Modern Family" as best comedy was doubly, wonderfully satisfying: 1) because the uproarious domestic sitcom deserved to win by any gauge; and 2) because its winning meant "30 Rock" did not. All right, "30 Rock" is a good show with much knowing, "inside" humor, but enough already with all the Emmys!
Years from now, if there still are Emmy Awards (and if there's still an NBC, which is the truly iffy proposition), culture watchers will wonder why "30 Rock" won so many darned Emmys for its comedy and/or performances year after year after year. And why Tina Fey has been drafted into service as the avatar of every funny woman who ever got a laugh.
Yes, of course: If Al Pacino is nominated for best actor in anything, he will win (and did, for playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian in an HBO movie); that sort of thing is preordained. It's partly the TV Academy thanking a movie star for showing up.
The set was spectacular, with gigantic pictures zooming in and out and a rather artful compromise struck between glitz and chintz, between high tech and retro reference. But other production details were screamingly lame, like the bespectacled nerd sitting backstage and making, what, "witty" comments on the passing parade. And in that big opening number, the third or fourth time Fallon appeared on-screen with a guitar, there had to be a lot of hearts sinking and spirits sagging out there in Television Land; but Fallon, and the show, both recovered, even though the guitar simply would not stay away.
Fallon recovered and, for a fairly tidy three hours, he and the Emmys prevailed, with plenty of endearing touches, like a shot of still-bearded Conan O'Brien and funny cameos by George Clooney (though some of the show's 4,000 clips flew by so quickly and in such a blur that you couldn't tell who was where).
For the first time in what seems a long time, however, what could rarely if ever be said in modern times can be stated with a certain finality: The producers of next year's Emmy show have a hard act to follow.