Emmys: Jeff Jensen and Melissa Maerz on a show that made TV seem small

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Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

JEFF JENSEN: Melissa, for all the self-serving yet correct talk about how expansive and diverse and ambitious television has become over the past few years, the Emmys made TV seem rather small last night.

Maybe I lost my sense of humor over the summer (too much Rectify and Ferguson, I guess), but Seth Meyers didn’t work for me. The Late Night comedian—at his best when seated behind a desk, gleefully reading his sharp, tart jokes and engaging guests with smart chat—kept the show flowing and didn’t fumble. He was an effective game manager, but nothing more. And he simply lacks the presence and dynamism that an event like this requires.

Meyers invoked his former Saturday Night Live pals Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and their ace work hosting the Golden Globes, but inviting the comparison only hurt him. (Could they host the Emmys next year? Check that: Can they host everything, like, from now on?) His funniest bit was the “Billy On The Street” video he did with Billy Eichner—and there, Eichner was dragging him along like luggage. (Emmy and NBC would have been better served by Jimmy Fallon, whose strengths—playful and inventive interaction with celebs; genuinely sincere gushing—seem ideally suited to emceeing a kudosfest.)

Emmy self-sabotaged in other ways, too, and not just by giving trophies to the same-old set of winners. Meyers made a big deal out of the Emmys being on Monday instead of Sunday this year—did anyone out there notice? Was anyone really that bothered?—and he cited competition with the MTV Video Music Awards as the reason. The confession wasn’t flattering. And having Chris Hardwick whine about nasty Web trolls just played petty.

From setting Jimmy Kimmel loose on Matthew McConaughey (at times, the show threatened to become a Comedy Central roast of the Alright-Alright-Alright Oscar winner) to commissioning pop mockingjay Weird Al to have his way with TV theme songs (a slightly wheezy performance), the show seemed oddly bent on taking the piss out of TV last night. Television’s unpretentious nature is worth preserving, even as the quality of its artistry grows by leaps and bounds—and especially when prestige drama tends to be ponderous and dreary. But there’s self-deprecation, and then there’s comparing yourself to an esteem-challenged hookup—which is what Meyers did, likening television to “the booty-call friend of entertainment.”

Yeah, it was a joke. Yes, I should really lighten up. (I’ve been lost in the The Leftovers, too.) But TV has earned the right to act a bit more like a diva. The bit suggested that the so-called “Golden Age of Television” has left the medium with a self-image problem, as if it doesn’t quite know what to make of its growth and increasing regard. It’s like a historically maligned, deeply insecure nerd that doesn’t know how to take a compliment from a girl. Or Matthew McConaughey. Or Woody Harrelson. If it seemed like True Detective’s dynamic duo of movie stars didn’t quite belong (even though Harrelson got his start on Cheers), maybe it was because Emmy was too busy putting them on a pedestal—then weirdly knocking them down.

What do you think, Melissa? Did you feel my pain, or am I just being grumpy?

MELISSA MAERZ: Well, maybe I’m grumpy too, because I agree with you. (Also: Hey, Emmys, get off my lawn!)

It’s weird that the Emmys seemed so small, because the Los Angeles Times noted that the show actually got its highest number of submissions ever this year—in both the drama category (108) and comedy (86). Clearly, there’s more worthy TV out there than ever before. But what I kept hearing over and over again on Twitter was that everyone felt like we were watching a rerun of an awards show from a previous year.

You’re so right about the same old winners. I’m kind of amazed at the stats: With five Emmys, Modern Family tied Frasier for the most best comedy wins ever. Bryan Cranston tied Dennis Franz for the most wins (four) in best actor/drama category. Aaron Paul became the only person ever to win three times in the best supporting actor/drama category. (EW’s former deputy editor and Emmys savant Henry Goldblatt noted that Art Carney also won supporting actor three times before the categories were split into comedy and drama.) It was the third win in a row for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has already beaten Lucille Ball’s Emmy record. The only new show to take a top prize was a series I loved, Fargo—but even that isn’t 100 percent new, since it’s loosely inspired by the Coen Brothers movie of the same name.

Also, where were the upsets? I wanted at least one Merrit Wever-like speech this year, but there just weren’t any surprises. Yeah, McConaughey lost to Cranston, but that hardly qualifies as a shocker. As our fellow TV critic Andy Greenwald joked: “The 2014 Emmys: When a five-time winner beating a movie star is the biggest upset of the night.”

When the nominations came out, there was so much buzz about the brave new world of TV that doesn’t air on television. But during the actual show, series like Orange is the New Black were largely shut out. (Though good for Uzo Aduba for grabbing that best guest actress/comedy win!) It might have suffered from being entered in the comedy slot, against perennial winner Modern Family. That choice inspired one of my favorite lines of the night from Seth Meyers: “We had comedies that made you laugh and comedies that made you cry, because they were dramas submitted as comedies.” I can’t help but feel that the ever-present Modern Family wins are the Emmys’ way of saying, “Don’t give up on network shows yet!” Because it’s a little weird to have a network-broadcast awards show that gives so many of its trophies to cable, right? Meyers joked about that, too.

I actually enjoyed Weird Al’s goofball musical. At least it was fun. And his Game of Thrones commentary was spot-on: “Here comes dragons galore and some boobs/ Okay, to be fair, there’s way more boobs.” He should write TV reviews for EW.

Other things I loved: Sarah Silverman bucking Emmys decorum by showing off her “vapor pipe” on the red carpet and running up to the stage barefoot. McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s (intentional?) homage to Night at the Roxbury. Louis-Dreyfus and Cranton recreating their Seinfeld kiss, like a PG-13 twist on those people who re-stage their childhood photos. By the way, there should be a special award for best performance during the Emmys, and it should go to Louis-Dreyfus, who also gave a very funny acceptance speech with her co-star Tony Hale last year. What did you like about the show, Jeff?

JEFF: I wasn’t stunned that Emmy chickened out on Orange Is The New Black (which shouldn’t have been in the comedy category) or Louie (my pick). History tells us that Emmy hasn’t put out for an off-broadcast network comedy since Sex and the City. Still, I was certain that voters would give up on Modern Family (as critics have, this one included) and roll with The Big Bang Theory. Oh, well. Maybe Emmy can fail go that way next year. Breaking Bad winning almost everything on the drama side was the only repeat triumph that didn’t bother me. It was deserving—and not the least bit surprising. I never bought into the narrative that Breaking Bad -—one of television’s great achievements, and clearly recognized as such by the culture and industry —was an underdog to True Detective.

As a fan of True Detective, I would have been pleased if its actors and creator, Nic Pizzolatto, had taken home more trophies. But it won the only award it should have won, for Cary Fukunaga’s outstanding direction. The HBO phenom was dealt with fairly. Justice was also served to The Good Wife: I was thrilled to see Julianna Margulies win for her extraordinary year of work, and on behalf of her wrongly snubbed series.

I was also glad to see that Emmy shared my regard for Fargo (winner, outstanding mini-series) and The Normal Heart (winner, outstanding TV movie)—but I got a slightly perverse kick out of watching Sherlock (winner, outstanding writing, actor, supporting actor) upset both in this weirdly organized “genre” (to use Meyers’ awkward term).

Among other things I loved: The love shown to Larry Kramer, who adapted The Normal Heart for the screen, and Billy Crystal’s lovely tribute to Robin Williams. Final thoughts, Melissa?

MELISSA: For me, one of the saddest takeaways from this year’s ceremony was that many women feel pretty discouraged by television’s treatment of them.

Stephen Colbert might have been joking when he noted of his writing staff, “I’m so proud of those guys—and one woman. Sorry for that, for some reason”—and, to be fair, Colbert has made legitimate efforts to hire more female writers, according to Jezebel. But as Buzzfeed pointed out, he sounded pretty complacent at a time when only 26 percent of the night’s nominees were women. Plus, the last time the Writers Guild of America took note, female TV writers were paid almost 92 cents for every dollar men earned.

Maybe Colbert’s irony didn’t translate during a ceremony where Vergara—one of the highest-paid actresses on television—had to literally climb onto a pedestal and highlight her assets with her hands, like a game show host’s sidekick. Yes, it was Vergara’s choice to do this, and she told EW that she didn’t think the bit was sexist: “I think it’s absolutely the opposite,” she said. “It means that somebody can be hot and also be funny and make fun of herself. I think it’s ridiculous that somebody started this—I know who she was—who has no sense of humor [and should] lighten up a little bit.” That said, her response didn’t help her case: Why blame things on another woman? (I’m not even going to try to guess who that woman might be. That would only pit more actresses against each other.)

And yet, even after watching all of this, I can’t help but feel optimistic. Many of the Twitter responses to Vergara’s faux pas were actually very funny, and many of them were written by women—Colbert should hire them all! And as Julianna Margulies said, it’s actually a great time for women in television. Writer Moira Walley-Beckett won for Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” one of the best hours of TV ever. The upside of the  Modern Family sweep was that Gail Mancuso won for best directing in a comedy. Many trophies went to actresses over 50, including Louis-Dreyfus, Allison Janney, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates. And a surprising number of best actress nominees got nods for roles that pass the Bechdel test.

Maybe I’m still hyped up from Beyoncé’s big feminist moment on Sunday night’s VMAs—but if trends like these continue, I’ll keep watching the Emmys. One caveat, though: I want to see Beyoncé herself hosting, in the form of Amy Poehler. And next year, just to even things out, let’s put Cary Fukunaga on that pedestal.

JEFF: Melissa, if they’d let you run the Emmys, I’d watch every year.

Follow us on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz and @EWDocJensen

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