News Column

Emmys search for soul of TV

September 22, 2013


A faint smell of panic permeated the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday as the television industry as a whole finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis. "Tonight we celebrate the best of television," host Neil Patrick Harris said, joking: "For our younger audience, that's the thing you watch on your phones."

Content-wise, TV is in a remarkable place. But what exactly is TV in the 21st century?

That question hung heavy in the air on the CBS broadcast, everyone smiling gamely through the sweaty uncertainty. The solution, as offered by the Emmy show producers, was to continually look back. The opening monologue devolved into an unofficial tribute to Emmy hosts past, including Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jane Lynch and Jimmy Kimmel, who ran up onstage to offer a "smidge of advice ... because there's a good chance they won't ask you back next year. They didn't ask Jane Lynch back, is what I'm saying."

Sitting in the audience, Kevin Spacey then turned around to face the camera: "It's all going according to my plan," he said, channeling the scheming politician he plays on "House of Cards," twirling his mustache in the name of Netflix and its streaming-TV brethren. Addressing the collection of Emmy hosts on stage: "Look at that parade of blabbering buffoons. They couldn't host a child's birthday party."

And then last year's Golden Globe hosting duo, Tina Fey (a winner Sunday for comedy writing on "30 Rock") and Amy Poehler, riffed from the front row, but at least their bit was zany enough to really work. "Take your pants off! And twerk it!" Fey ordered Harris. Poehler: "It might be degrading, but we would be degrateful."

But it is the digital revolution _ of DVRs and streaming and commercial-free binge-viewing _ that wrought an Emmys broadcast as a rage against the dying light. Or at least a white-knuckled insistence, nay reminder, that broadcast television is still relevant. Harris and Co. repeatedly looked back to the medium's impact from days gone by with perfunctory tributes that stood apart from the standard In Memoriam segment, and Elton John performed a Liberace homage, among many moments that focused on a time when TV was something far more defined.

Back in the present tense, Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her second Emmy in two years for her performance on "Veep," bringing with her to the podium co-star Tony Hale (who also nabbed an Emmy for supporting actor, comedy) to hold her purse, a terrific gag that echoed the job Hale performs on the HBO series. "I would like to thank ..." she began, then stopped, at a loss, before Hale prompted her: "... my family."

Jim Parsons took home his third Emmy for "Big Bang Theory," giving a straightforward, earnest speech before interrupting himself, "It's so silly to be emotional, isn't it?"

The award for drama writing went to Henry Bromell, the "Homeland" writer and producer who died of a heart attack in March; his wife accepted the award on his behalf. And Anna Gunn, who has weathered an onslaught of fan backlash for her role as the compromised wife of a meth dealer on "Breaking Bad," walked away with the award for supporting actress on a drama.

By far the best speech of the night _ charming, flustered and succinct _ came from comedy supporting actress winner Merritt Wever ("Nurse Jackie"): "Um." Long pause. "I gotta go, bye!" The soul of wit, as they say, is brevity.


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