Let me just start out by saying that I'm an old, decrepit, craggy, doddering (actually very very doddering) elderly-type person who has seen many a Primetime Emmy show in his time. I'm one of these guys who starts out every sentence with "In my day" or "Back during the war -- MY war, the American Revolution..." By gum, I've been watching Emmy telecasts since before there were even television sets! We'd tune them in by shining tempered glass at just the right angle of the Moon, drilling 12 fine holes into the center, weaving through six cords of piano wire, laying it atop a propane-powered stove and then capturing the resulting reflection on a piece of #7 parchment. It was primitive, but it did the job. Of course, back in those days they handed out awards for stuff like "Outstanding Future Actor" and "Best Dramatic Flickering Images Projected Faintly Onto a Rotating Wall."
But I digress. My point here is that my aged condition notwithstanding, I have never seen anything quite like Sunday night's Emmycast on ABC. It wasn't merely bad, it was outrageously, unfathomably, surrealistically, monumentally awful. And that was just the first five minutes. I'm actually somewhat shocked, because producer Ken Ehrlich is a longtime pro who generally knows what he's doing. But during this ceremony, little of that veteran knowledge and savvy were in evidence. He somehow lost control, and along with it the show's bearings. It grew so dreadful that Congress should enact legislation to keep it from happening again for reasons of national security. I mean, if I'm the terrorists, I see this show and I figure, "Well, their entertainment culture clearly is vulnerable. We should feel emboldened, comrades!"
Nearly the entire show was marred by amateurish gaffes and baffling choices, bad transitions and timing errors. Consistency and perspective were virtually nonexistent. And it all began, of course, with THAT OPENING. I mean, What the Hell Was That? I'll tell you what, actually. It was an apt metaphor for a television culture that has officially lost its way and could well use someone to swoop down and drop pebbles every few feet to help it find its way back to sanity again.
Remember the notorious "Snow White" opening at the Oscars years ago? Well here, we got Snow White and the Four Dwarfs, aka Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron and Ryan Seacrest, aka Four Guys, a Girl and an Armageddon Place. That they would bomb on a significant scale was really preordained. I mean, how could anyone think that hiring five reality hosts -- four of whom aren't entertainers -- to oversee an awards show was a genius idea? Was Jimmy Kimmel, who hangs out nightly on the broadcasting network, ABC, somehow unavailable? No, he appeared later on the show. He was in town. He's young and can pull the young people into the tent whom the TV Academy see as so important to the Emmys' future. But no, they go with the clueless quintet.
Yet no one could have predicted that it would grow so sublimely terrible so immediately. After a deadly dull address from Oprah Winfrey (who evidently doesn't have to be even remotely interesting because she's Oprah Winfrey), the five hosts came out and proceeded to do...absolutely nothing. It was, indeed, planned dead air! During what may have been the most painful three minutes in TV history, they launched into a skit that wasn't, rambling and talking over each other and continually assuring us that "this is completely unscripted!" as if we somehow might find that difficult to believe. It was bizarre to the point of delusion.
Who thought this was a good idea? As it turns out, no one. It was later explained backstage by Probst that the five couldn't come to agreement on what to do, so they did nothing, as if this were an acceptable option. Isn't this what writers and producers are for, to rescue guys who don't know what they're doing from themselves? It's actually completely unforgivable and a world-class humiliation for the TV Academy. Did no one vet this? Did the idea of three minutes of nothing right off the top somehow resonate? It boggles the mind. The idea that a show celebrating the best of television should be reduced to horribly awkward improv by design is just about as strange as it can get for a ceremony that rightfully suffered the worst ratings in its history. Someone besides me ought to be hugely angry about this.
On the other hand, the lack of coherence stands as the perfect metaphor for where primetime has headed in the unscripted era. You want it America, you got it. Babbling desperation as a genre conceit. Sometimes, when you turn the keys to the kingdom over to the lame, what you get in return is lame-en-ade. I mean, these guys couldn't do a soft-shoe together? They thought the best way to settle it was to bring zero to the table? Wow.
The utter dearth of professionalism on display masked the fact this was quite a historic night. You had a miniseries, HBO's "John Adams," breaking the all-time record for wins by a single program by earning 13 all told. You had a basic cable drama, AMC's "Mad Men," becoming the first of its ilk to win a top series prize. You had Bryan Cranston of AMC's "Breaking Bad" pulling off one of the great upsets of all time in his well-deserved win for drama series actor. And you had the funniest show on TV, NBC's "30 Rock," and its funniest human, Tina Fey, getting treated like it.
But the embarrassments unfortunately snatched the spotlight away time after time. They had Josh Groban sing a medley of 30 TV show themes that would have been funny at maybe one-third its length but was just interminable as it was. Ditto a 40th anniversary salute to "Laugh-In" that was a good idea but so long it left you wondering what was supposed to have been so funny and revolutionary about this legendary series in the first place.
Partly saving the night were Don Rickles, now 82 but still dead-on perfect with his jabs; Ricky Gervais, whose British accent alone helped put the fiasco erupting around him in its place; and a few smart and funny acceptance speeches, especially that of Fey, who remarked, "I want to thank my parents for somehow raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate with my looks and abilities. Well done!" If he lived to be 1,000, Seacrest couldn't come up something even a tenth as witty.
However, what remains the biggest Emmy crime of all, one that continues on year to year, is the galling inconsistency of the acceptance speech stopwatch. Some can ramble on for two minutes. Others get 15 seconds. It seems to somehow involve where you and your category happen to rank on the entertainment-value scale. Writers, as you might imagine, are down near the bottom, on a level commensurate with the guy you have to tip in the rest room who stands guard over a neat pile of paper towels and a teeming stash of 67 different brands of cologne.
It reached a nadir when "John Adams" scribe Kirk Ellis won for movie/miniseries writing and was cut off after less than 20 seconds, just as he was starting to say something more profound than "This one's for you, my beloved agent!". What he actually said was, "Thank you for this amazing opportunity to talk about a period in history when articulate men articulated complex thoughts in complete sentences. They..." And there Ellis was, ironically, cut off, since we are no longer living in that period when complex thoughts may be articulated without a band rudely playing the speaker offstage. Ellis was understandably fuming backstage that the five hosts would be handed 30 minutes to slum around while he was given the "Wrap it up!" cue as soon as his microphone opened.
If a guy who wrote a miniseries that won 13 Emmy Awards can't merit even 40 lousy seconds to speak from his heart during one of the biggest moments of his life, something's way out of whack with this system. As I've oft said, if awards shows aren't about hearing the winners accept their awards, what's even the point? Oh yeah, that's right: the point is now to say nothing, but to do so with cosmetic grandeur.
If the TV Academy can't balance its ratings-fueled requirement to be un-boring with the equally important need to honor the industry's best and brightest, it's clearly time to change up its focus. Maybe the academy should work on finding other revenue sources outside of rights fees and advertising. Otherwise, its annual ceremony looks to be in grave danger of implosion, if Sunday's show didn't supply ample evidence that perhaps it's already there. There can, after all, only be one show about nothing. The Emmys is supposed to be about everything. Instead, this year, it was about three hours too long.