Usually, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences demonstrates a certain amount of contempt for television by awarding Emmys to people and shows that died creatively years ago, former favorites that the public no longer even knows are on.
The Academy mostly avoided that this year; statues were awarded, for example, to America Ferrara for the campy ABC dramedy “Ugly Betty,” and to Ricky Gervais for his droll HBO series “Extras.” But its members also awarded James Spader his third consecutive win for “Boston Legal,” last season’s 48th-most-popular series, and gave a quasi-honorary final-season win to “The Sopranos” as best drama.
However, the 59th annual primetime Emmys were not really about honoring great television, opening instead with a musical number that set a tone for the evening and communicated a message that built off of last year’s orgy of self-deprecation.
“Seems to me that nearly all television these days is complete trash,” animated “Family Guy” dog Brian said during the show’s opening segment.
“Yes, quite right. But never before in history have we had such a wide selection of trash,” his “Family Guy” co-star, baby Stewie, replied. They followed their exchange with a song that mocked the big networks and their shows — and American television viewers (“’cause without it Americans would have to learn to read”).
Black delivered a routine that ripped television executives for the non-stop, distracting, and obnoxious on-screen graphics that networks use to advertise their other shows, and for similar sins.
“What is it exactly that you do, except come up with bad ideas?” he asked. “Have you forgotten what your job is? It’s to tell stories. Even reality shows tell stories. It’s not to tell us in the middle of a story what show is coming on next. ... Do you want me to stop watching and prepare myself for the next show? Hey, here’s a message from all of the viewers: We don’t care about the next show! We’re watching the show!”
Where was Seacrest?
Host Ryan Seacrest, the undisputed king of live-competition reality-show hosts, was far less present than he is on “American Idol,” only reappearing about a half-dozen times for forgettable segments that didn’t even qualify as comedy bits. Comedy is not dressing up as Henry VIII from “The Tudors” and making a gay joke to reassert one’s masculinity after previously running around the audience identifying clothing designers.
Seacrest’s primary job seemed to be to argue that he’s just a regular guy who was selected to host because no one else would say yes. Before he reminded us that he’s “a full-service host” and “the first host in the history of the Emmys to care enough to ask, ‘Who are you wearing?’”, he pointed out previous Emmy hosts such as Ellen Degeneres and Conan O’Brien, an apparent suggestion that they were better at hosting than he could possibly be.
His selection really was an acknowledgment of television’s populism, which was also illustrated by the nearly stage-less auditorium. The audience dominated, placed on nearly the same level as those on stage, as the Shrine Auditorium was transformed into a theatre-in-the-round for the ceremony.
But that setup didn’t quite work: Presenters were engulfed by the crowd behind them, especially in wide shots, when they were barely visible. Award recipients often didn’t know where to look, accepting their statues in profile, and a large section of the audience had to stare at the back of presenters’ heads. “I’ve been to thousands and thousands of concerts in my life, and I can tell you, these are the worst seats I’ve ever had,” James Spader said during his acceptance speech.
The telecast itself even seemed to make an implicit argument that the Emmys themselves are so inconsequential that they don’t deserve care and attention. From a technical standpoint, the three-hour show seemed amateurish, like the Golden Globes produced as a middle-school class project. The set looked cheap, and consisted mostly of flat-screen TVs hung around the auditorium and television sets topped with what looked like painted particle board surrounding the stage.
Seacrest explained at one point that the Emmys were environmentally friendly this year, and thus “the stage is made from existing materials.” A noble goal, but also a convenient excuse to not spend any money. Fox could have saved even more on materials by using parts of its “American Idol” set, which looks like someone actually bothered to design it.
During the broadcast, trigger-happy censors didn’t just drop out the audio for allegedly offensive words, but instead cut away to a shot from the ceiling that seemed like some kind of mistake. From the announcer mispronouncing Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl’s last name to the lack of a live orchestra, it seemed like no one really cared.
What seemed to matter most to Fox was shameless self-promotion, from Ryan Seacrest’s frequent references to “American Idol” to the gratuitous appearance by MySpace founder Tom Anderson (MySpace is owned by News Corp, as is the network).
On some level, the Emmys resoundingly embraced what has become prevailing wisdom online: mock and ridicule that which you love.
That, however, necessitates a level of appreciation and love that the Emmys seemed to lack.
A tribute to “The Sopranos,” one of television’s all-time best series, was handed off to the cast of “Jersey Boys,” who seemed to lip-sync songs while scenes from the show played on the auditorium’s monitors, which were often not clearly visible to home viewers. A groundbreaking drama ends forever and its tribute didn’t even include any dialogue from the actual show.
Again, three hours of Oscar-style self-congratulation does not make for good television, nor does that approach help people fall in love with the magic of the medium being honored. While the Oscars go too far pretending that they are important and serious, the Emmys have now swung equally far out in the opposite direction, essentially making a three-hour argument that the medium they exist to honor pretty much sucks.
Ridiculing television as part of an awards ceremony makes an argument for the award show’s irrelevance, because why honor a medium that is so bad? Television deserves better than what its own Academy and Fox gave it this year.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.