The best word to describe last night’s Emmy Award telecast might just be “weird.”
It was weird to watch celebrated award-show host Neil Patrick Harris fight a losing battle to be fabulously charming. It was weird to keep dipping into sorrowful memorials in the middle of what is supposed to be a joyous night. It was weird to endure all of the back-patting and twerking jokes while knowing you were missing the penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad,” the show that won the best drama award at the very end of the long night.
And most of all, it was weird to see the statues go to such a truly unpredictable bunch of winners, deserving and not. “This just in,” Harris said somewhere in the third hour, “No one in America is winning their office Emmy pool.” There was very little rhyme or reason to the winners, no big trends on the order of last year’s “Homeland” sweep. A cloud of “huh what?” seemed to loom in the Nokia Theatre a number of times, not least of all when Jeff Daniels’s name was called out for best actor in a drama. Daniels is a great actor, and his may be the most bearable character on “The Newsroom,” but his win over Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm was an epic head-scratcher.
Also mystifying was Bobby Cannavale’s win as the best supporting actor in a drama for his bombastic single-season work on “Boardwalk Empire,” over far more worthy competitors such as Aaron Paul and Mandy Patinkin. And Laura Linney’s best actress in a miniseries award seemed to come out of the blue, while Elisabeth Moss was the far more interesting favorite for her nuanced breakthrough performance in “Top of the Lake.”
Some of the surprises were quite welcome, if no more predictable. Giddy shock exploded when Merritt Wever — ignored for so long for her endearing work on “Nurse Jackie” — was named as best supporting actress in a comedy. And there was a palpable sense of buoyancy in the room when Tony Hale took the award for best supporting actor in a comedy. Both actors were underdogs, not least of all because they were competing in categories that have been owned by “Modern Family” actors for a few years now.
To a great swell of applause, Anna Gunn took her much deserved and long-overdue turn on the stage for her tremendous supporting work on “Breaking Bad.” For those who were waiting to watch last night’s episode of “Breaking Bad” until after the Emmys, it was a happy win as well as a compensatory moment, too.
And then, of course, there were the repeat winners — one of the Emmys’ weaknesses. Claire Danes, “Modern Family,” Jim Parsons, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all did it again. Indeed, “Modern Family” is now part of an elite Emmy club of shows — “Frasier,” “Cheers,” and “All in the Family” — that have won at least four times.
There were special moments during the night, even though they were few and far between. Bob Newhart got a lovely standing ovation. Michael Douglas won for best actor and thanked his costar Matt Damon, saying he was sharing the award with him. “Do you want the bottom or the top?” he said to much laughter.
Wever stole a few hearts with her acceptance speech, which I can quote here in full: “Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I gotta go. Bye.” Her “Nurse Jackie” character, Zoey, might have lingered to awkwardly savor the attention, but Wever was charmingly overwhelmed. She was deserving, too, after Zoey came of age during the last season.
During his acceptance, Parsons welled up (“It’s so silly to be emotional, isn’t it?”) and Hale was thrilled (“This is mind-blowing!”). But Louis-Dreyfus had the most clever minute on the stage, bringing Hale to stand behind her as she accepted her statue. On “Veep,” Hale’s codependent character feeds her the right things to say; on the stage, he did the same thing. It was impromptu excellence.
And what of Harris? The guy is usually winning, but his requisite song-and-dance bit in the middle of the show wasn’t. The song was about how long the Emmycast lasts, and the nerve it takes to put a song-and-dance number in the middle of the show; but the meta touch didn’t save the day. The meta approach also failed to save the opening sketch, as past Emmy hosts — Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Conan O’Brien — flanked Harris on the stage.
When the triumphant Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler heckled Harris from the audience during the bit, urging him to take his pants off and twerk — “It might be degrading, but I would be degrateful,” Poehler yelled — they reminded us that they are the two hosts we’d probably rather be watching. It was weird.
At points, the E! pre-show looked more like a “Modern Family” featurette. All the show’s actors seemed to stand with Ryan Seacrest or Giuliana Rancic at some point, looking either tired of the red carpet glory after all these years or sullen about the E! mani-cam. No matter how hard Rancic enthused about the channel’s close-up view of famous hands, the owners of those famous hands were pretty consistently unmoved. “I don’t want people to get sick of us,” Julie Bowen said to Seacrest, nominally about the show going into syndication on USA. By the way, the E! people mentioned that syndie deal 1,000 times because E! and USA are corporate cousins.
The pre-show highlights were few and far between, and by highlights I mean awkward moments of course. Zosia Mamet, wearing a tied-dyed shmatta that looked like it was sporting a built-in boob brace, delivered a quick tutorial on the pronunciation of her name. (It’s Sasha with a “Z,” by the way.) Then she talked about a sexual act portrayed on her series, “Girls,” that almost made Rancic — and probably all the E! honchos behind the camera —plotz. Danes totally photo-bombed Lena Dunham’s interview with Seacrest, which was adorable and not awkward except that it was kind of a rescue mission; Danes was clearly trying to wrench attention away from Dunham’s crazy dress.
Rancic asked Louis-Dreyfus if she was like her character on “Veep,” which is like asking Cranston if he’s like Heisenberg. Her thought balloon said, “You gotta be kidding, lady,” but her answer was much more graceful: “I’d like to think I’m a nicer person than she is.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.