The Emmys As Flat Circle: Why Last Night’s Show Felt Familiar

There’s a difference between predictable and objectionable: The latter offends, but the former just bores. And boredom was the problem with the 66th Emmys, which gasped and wheezed across three hours last night like the Krystal Ship stuck in Albuquerque traffic. There was plenty of hot air, but very little spark. For one evening, at least, the prerequisite for winning wasn’t excellence. It was having already won.

Yet this was neither a crime nor a tragedy. Sure, I’d love to see Amy Poehler showered in gold for her work on Parks and Recreation. I’d even give her an honorary trophy for her heroic attempts to inject life into the corpse of last night’s ceremony. But what Julia Louis-Dreyfus does in nearly every frame of Veep is both extraordinary and transcendent. Bellyaching about her dominance — five wins for three different shows, including one for every year of Veep’s existence — is like a Californian complaining about too much sunshine. In fact, I’ll take it a step further: I don’t think there was a single undeserving winner. Was Jim Parsons any more or less outstanding this year in his role as the linchpin in television’s most popular show? Does Allison Janney not elevate every single thing she touches? Isn’t American Horror Story a thing that exists? No, Modern Family is not funnier than Veep or Orange Is the New Black or even Mad Men on a good day. But it is a well-made, consistently clever show that is beloved by millions. To see Ty Burrell and Gail Mancuso and Steven Levitan bound onto the stage for the umpteenth year is uninspiring, but it’s not exactly infuriating. There’s a ton of good stuff out there. If you can’t keep up with it all and I can’t keep up with it all, how can the average Emmy voter stand a chance?

Still, when the biggest upset of the night involved a four-time — now six-time! — winner taking the trophy from the most celebrated movie star of the year, it’s a problem. Not for television, mind you, which despite all appearances remains as vibrant as ever — it’s a problem for a television awards show. I’m not sure if any of the other major back-patting ceremonies have as big a disconnect from the medium that they’re meant to be celebrating. The Oscars are a projection of cinema’s best self — a classy party the industry throws to pretend its bottom line isn’t supported by exploding robot toys. The Tonys are, like theater itself, a fringey hoot. And the Grammys are a hot mess. Unlike those rival broadcasts, the Emmys are celebrating something that is both essential to the lives of a great many Americans and fiercely beloved. (It’s why we shrug when Paul Thomas Anderson or Kanye West don’t get nominated but threaten to riot when Louis C.K. doesn’t win enough.) Television is, in the words of Seth Meyers, “the booty-call friend of entertainment.” It is always available and eager to satisfy. In 2014, TV is a thriving, ever-expanding universe of creativity, weirdness, and guts. So why does its awards show feel like such a flat circle?

Part of the reason is, I suppose, the nature of the beast. Unless radical change is enacted, the Emmys will always divide itself into three not-quite-equal categories: Comedy, Drama, and the increasingly ridiculous duo of Miniseries and Movies. (Though it had a down season, Sherlock is great. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat are all deserving of Emmys. But don’t tell me it’s not a recurring series just because it doesn’t recur on Bruce Rosenblum’s preferred schedule.) This allows for all sorts of unseemly game-playing — HBO submitting True Detective as a drama series (which backfired!); FX putting Fargo and American Horror Story in as miniseries — but also leads to a deadening lack of momentum. Unlike the Oscars, which build in a reasonable fashion from small award to large, the Emmys just kind of … spread out. It’s possible that a zippier host could make it feel more like a journey and less like a drift, but I’m not entirely convinced. Seth Meyers was fine. His monologue was sharp, his enthusiasm high. (Though, as is generally the case, he appeared much happier when he had a Poehler, a Hamm, or an Eichner — the show’s true MVP — to bounce off of.) I wouldn’t say he was great, but, on a night when Colbert bombed and Fallon crashed — no, that was not planned — it’s hard to imagine anyone doing much better.

What was lacking was any evidence of the nimbleness, speed, and gleeful chance-taking that led the majority of those tuxedoed orange people into that theater to begin with. TV is, first and foremost, a writers’ medium. And, in the last decade, those carpal tunnel– and Chinese takeout–suffering wretches have actually become stars in their own right — recognized on talk shows and on the street, pilloried on Twitter and in person. And yet Vince Gilligan was played off by the historically bad live band. Breaking Bad will be remembered as one of the all-time great drama series, but it also might be remembered as one of the last, true consensus shows. Everyone in that room and everyone in their living rooms knew that Gilligan was the one most responsible for that feat,1 far more so than the (rightfully!) lionized Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, or Anna Gunn. To see him treated like a random gaffer was dispiriting and also a wild misread of the changing nature of television celebrity. What was the point of fawning over Julia Roberts (who forgot the golden rule of handing out hardware: It’s not about you) and Halle Berry (who opened the night’s last envelope like it contained return address stickers she had ordered by mistake)? They’re merely tourists. I’d rather applaud the people who have made TV the strange, anarchic playhouse it’s become. Why wasn’t there a GoPro camera installed in front of Jenji Kohan’s seat or inside Matthew Weiner’s ascot? If Cary Fukunaga wins for directing True Detective and snubs its writer, I want a live rebuttal from Nic Pizzolatto the moment he’s through choking on a branzino bone. Sure, Noah Hawley won for Fargo. But what happened to his socks?

It’s OK that the Emmys continue to go to the same handful of people. Really, it is. I just wish the ceremony around those lucky few could be filled with the energy of the ones who still have empty space on their mantels. The Golden Globes may not have any credibility, but they do have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, alcohol, and a real willingness to invite the pledges into the frat house.2 Instead of patting old friends on the back, the TV Academy ought to be pushing its new talent forward. Seeing Mulaney and Mindy was nice, if a bit political (though they air on Fox, both of their shows are produced by NBCUniversal). Key and Peele seemed chipper. But I wish the Emmys could go full freshman rush and pack the first few rows with the Orange Is the New Black inmates, Amy Schumer, and Rick and Morty. Hell, even a zombie is more welcome than Ricky Gervais at this point.

It’s worth noting that next year might be better. With Breaking Bad done, 2015 will have the most wide-open Drama race in years — might my beloved The Americans finally sneak in? — and rich, talented, beautiful people Amy Poehler and Jon Hamm will be on their farewell sympathy tours. (Though this guy might have some thoughts on how that tends to work out.) With less consensus, there will inevitably be more chaos, which can only be a good thing. Celebrating television is fine. Resembling it would be even better.

For a complete list of Emmy winners, click HERE.

Filed Under: TV, The 2014 Primetime Emmys, Emmys, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Award Shows, AMC, HBO, true detective, Aaron Paul, anna gunn, Vince Gilligan, Sarah Silverman, Jim Parsons, Big Bang Theory, Veep, Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Crystal, Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, Cary Fukunaga, Woody Harrelson, Ty Burrell, Mad Men, fargo, FX, Seth Meyers, Bryan Cranston

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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