Rarely does a TV show arrive with lower expectations than the annual Emmy Awards telecast. It's a given that the thing will suck. Even so, this year's -- the 64th -- managed to come up short and disappoint. And it wasn't one of those "so bad it's good" campy things you can enjoy making fun of, either. It was more like one of those "so bad it's lousy" things that leave you incredulous and drained of the will to live.
There was good news among the results, happily, and several richly worthy winners. "Homeland," the Showtime pay channel's acclaimed drama series about a mercurial terrorist, put an end to the "Mad Men" winning streak of four years' running by snatching the Emmy for best drama series away from it. "Homeland" also won Emmys for costars Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, with Danes giving one of the most articulate and graceful speeches of the night -- not that there were many of those.
Another of the night's best speeches, semi-satirical and self-mocking, came from Stephen Levitan, who won for directing the best sitcom on network TV, ABC's "Modern Family," which he created. Levitan broke with pompous award-show tradition of thanking everyone but his parakeet by saying," I want to thank me for hiring me as a director when no one else would. I wouldn't be standing here tonight without my faith in me."
But Levitan also said self-effacingly that "a complete idiot" could direct an episode of "Modern Family" successfully because the writing and cast were so good. Emmys went to series actors Julie Bowen, who plays a frazzled mom, and Eric Stonestreet, who plays one half of a gay married couple. In fact, four of the six nominees in Stonestreet's category (supporting actor, comedy series) were members of the "Modern Family" cast.
Speaking of complete idiots, meanwhile, who is the genius at ABC who decided Jimmy Kimmel would make a good host for the Emmys, when he doesn't even make a very good host for his own late-night comedy show? From a tasteless opening sketch set in a bathroom, with Kimmel on a toilet getting punched in the face by a succession of actresses (one of whom sat on another toilet, naked, eating a birthday cake), through a flat and jokeless monologue with barely any election-year humor in it and, later, an embarrassing mid-show sketch in which Tracy Morgan (of "30 Rock") had to lie down onstage for ten minutes pretending to be unconscious, Kimmel was cruel and unusual punishment.
But then Kimmel was hosting not because he's such an awe-inspiring talent, but because ABC, in a criminally irresponsible programming change, is moving Kimmel's show to 11:30 pm in January and pushing the acclaimed and still vital ABC News program "Nightline" back to 12:30 am, radically reducing its available audience. The Emmys were being used to plug and bolster Kimmel.
When it comes to bad behavior by networks, ABC was anything but alone Sunday night. In a curious sort of blunder, CBS scheduled a special edition of "60 Minutes" -- on which both President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney were interviewed in depth -- to air opposite the Emmys, when by longstanding TV tradition networks usually do not counter-program against a show that supposedly celebrates the best in all of television. To make it worse, the CBS football game, Who Cares vs. So What, ran on and on past its allotted time, pushing the President of the United States and his challenger deeper into the Emmy timeslot. Oh some priorities they have at the Tiffany Network.
Yes, people can easily record shows now and play them back later, but the "60 Minutes" show had the aura of a bona fide event; so did the Emmys, oddly or not. Why go to all that trouble of lining up and taping those high-profile interviews and then shove them off into a corner of air space? CBS boss Les Moonves, getting plaudits for "Homeland" (he runs Showtime too) should be ashamed of himself, but that'll be the day.
Back at the Emmys, there were the usual mysterious, even inexplicable, wins. Comedian and creeping-alopecia victim Louis C. K. must have a great agent or a Herculean publicity machine behind him, because minutes after appearing as a presenter, he won his own Emmy for the writing of his eponymous comedy series. Then later he nabbed another writing award for a special in which he starred. Hey, who died and left this guy Comedy Pope? Any number of comics -- Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Jerry Seinfeld, Carrot Top, Gallagher (kidding on the last two) -- are funnier and more inventive than Louis C. K.
Showtime seemed to be encroaching on traditional victor HBO's territory when it scooped up Emmys for "Homeland," but HBO made a good showing later with wins for "Game Change," its gutsy docudrama about Sarah Palin's bizarre antics while on the Republican presidential ticket four years ago. For playing her, the dazzling actress Julianne Moore (particularly dazzling in a wild yellow dress) won the Emmy for best acting in a miniseries or movie.
"I feel so vindicated by this," Moore said, clutching her statuette, "because Sarah Palin gave me 'a big thumbs-down.'" Actor Tom Hanks appeared with a flock of other writers and producers from "Game Change" when it was named best mini or movie. Hanks did the thank-you speech but very briefly.
"Game Change" also won for its script and for the direction of Jay Roach, who praised HBO in his speech for being one of the few television networks, cable or broadcast, willing to tackle movies about political issues and personalities. Actresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jessica Lange, both of whom seem to win awards just for showing up, got Emmys for "Veep" (Louis-Dreyfus as vice president) and "American Horror Story," some obscure thing on Fox's FX Network. Lange seemed a trifle disoriented. Kevin Costner made an agreeable comeback with a touching speech on winning a best actor Emmy for "The Hatfields & the McCoys," a miniseries. Tom Berenger also won an acting Emmy for that film.
Among other agreeable surprises or near-surprises: Tom Bergeron won for hosting the smash-hit reality series "Dancing with the Stars," which happens to return for a much-anticipated new season tonight on ABC. Bergeron brings the perfect wry touch to his hosting of the show, even scolding the daffy judges when they threaten to run amok. He helps make the series the supremely entertaining romp that it is, and without dancing a step himself.
Jon Stewart really did run amok, but hilariously, during a blessed interlude of comic relief. Having won for his topically satirical "Daily Show," Stewart attempted to reach the stage but was attacked by the losers in the category, including the mercilessly loveable Jimmy Fallon (who said on the Red Carpet before the show that "Clint Eastwood promised to save me a chair"). Stewart was tackled and knocked to the floor as he tried to charge up one aisle and then, it appeared, down another. The wildness of it was wonderful and recalled for an instant the all-time classic "This Is Your Life" parody from "Your Show of Shows" with Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris.
All right, so that was more than 60 years ago! Dammit, the Stewart business recalled it just the same. How can I possibly remember something from 60 years ago? A very good question. I think my mom watched Sid Caesar when I was in the womb. And Lord knows, it took me years to work up the courage to come out. And even then -- but I digress. Of course when you're talking about the Emmy Awards, digression is the greater part of valor. Or of something. This year's show had precious few precious moments, and it's sad that the host had little to do with any of them.