What do you suppose Sarah Silverman meant by the bizarre remark in her Emmy acceptance speech Sunday night that we're all made of molecules hurtling through space? Maybe it was an oblique reference to television itself, which is now less a medium than a disembodied signal that we watch at a time and place of our own choosing. On some level, the creators of TV seem to realize that their medium is heading into a future that's even less shackled to the living room screen and the three hours after dinner than ever. And yet, watching last night's 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, one felt a sense of déjà vu, of watching a medium celebrate its ties to its own past. We'd seen many of the honorees picking up trophies before, and maybe we'd even heard the same jokes and patter before.
Seth Meyers could win the Emmy for Best Awards Show host of 2007, if they ever decide to give that prize out again. So much about the "Late Night" star seemed just slightly behind the curve. (Speaking of curves, did you see the ads for those new Samsung curved-screen ultra hi-def TVs? They kind of upstaged the Emmys, what with all the dead stars –- Chris Farley, Carl Sagan, Roy Scheider –- that Samsung had endorsing the concave sets from beyond the grave. Same thing with the Netflix ad, where Ricky Gervais found himself acting alongside the casts of "House of Cards," "Lilyhammer," and "Orange Is the New Black." The Emmys could use that kind of pre-taped humor bit.)
Meyers joked about how cable and streaming had stolen the networks' thunder, a joke that would have been a lot more trenchant years ago. His onstage reunion with Amy Poehler, where they tried to come up with a funny introduction for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, recalled their "Really?!? With Seth and Amy" bits from "Saturday Night Live" from several years ago. His question-and-answer session with the stars in the front rows seemed like a bit Ellen DeGeneres would have done at a past Emmycast (the one prop, the bathroom key chained to an Emmy trophy so that it wouldn't get lost or stolen, was funny.) He made a joke where he cracked a bad pun and then put on sunglasses, à la David Caruso (complete with a Roger Daltrey scream), which would have been worked better seven years ago, when "CSI: Miami" was still on the air and Caruso imitations were a viral YouTube phenomenon. His joke about "Duck Dynasty" viewers being the sort of people who still use VCRs instead of DVRs was a stone lobbed from a glass house.
Meyers' monologue did have inspired bits, including the line, "Tonight, we are all Crazy Eyes" (you don't have to be an "Orange" fan to find that funny) and an extended riff contrasting movies and TV, about how movies are classier and more demanding of your attention, while TV remains "the booty-call friend" of pop culture, available whenever and wherever and not caring how attentive you are or whether you're wearing pants. But those bits came late in the monologue, by which time Meyers seemed to have lost the audience in the auditorium, and probably the audience in your living room as well.
Cinema envy was a weird subtext throughout the evening. Meyers introduced Julianna Margulies (a few segments before she won another Emmy for her lead role on "The Good Wife") as the only "ER" cast member ever to amount to anything (because, ha ha, "ER" was also the career launch pad for George Clooney, who left TV far behind). The announcers reminded us that presenter and "Normal Heart" nominee Julia Roberts got her start on TV, but Meyers joked that she'd gone unnoticed since "Mystic Pizza" 25 years ago, as if she hadn't enjoyed a stellar, Oscar-winning film career before her one-shot return to TV in an HBO movie. A seated Matthew McConaughey played the same role Jack Nicholson used to play at the Oscars: the silent but laughing king of the room, paid homage by many on stage. Jimmy Kimmel roasted the "True Detective" nominee, complaining that the recent "Dallas Buyers Club" Oscar-winner was simply too glamorous and charismatic for TV, then contrasting him with Ricky Gervais, sitting a few rows back, who Kimmel said was unfortunate enough to have a face only a TV audience could love. (By the way, Kimmel killed, with his seemingly improvised remarks.Can Kimmel please host the Emmys next time they're on ABC?)
And even that TV-is-inferior attitude is a little out of date now. The observation that we're in a golden age of TV, full of richly-textured comedies and dramas, at a time when movies offer little more than comic-book spectacle, is by now so routine and trite that it hardly bears repeating. "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan did note in his Best Drama Series acceptance speech that it's a great time to be working in TV, and Margulies, in her acceptance speech, even boasted that it's a wonderful time to be a woman on TV, citing as proof the thoroughly fascinating characters her rival actresses in the category get to play. (Winning actresses often complain that they're the exception to the rule that there are few interesting parts for women, especially in movies, but that's certainly less true than ever on TV these days.) Certainly, there must be something prestigious about TV (and not just its ability to create roles for women over 40) that can draw Oscar-winning actresses like Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Octavia Spencer, Julia Roberts, and Halle Berry, not just to appear in scripted dramas, but also to accept the thankless task of appearing on the Emmy telecast.
Still, Meyers is right; TV is a lot looser and less formal than movies. There certainly were a lot more spontaneous moments (or seemingly spontaneous ones) than you'd find at the Oscars or the Tonys. "Modern Family" repeat winner Ty Burrell tossed aside his prepared speech in favor of one he claimed the cast's kid actors had written, full of sarcastic complaints that only the ensemble's adults have ever been nominated. "Key and Peele" sketch comedy stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele pretended to try to improvise a colorful introduction for the vote-counting accountants, then pretended to fail in the attempt. Jimmy Fallon pretended to hijack Stephen Colbert's acceptance speech, voicing lines fed to him by his fellow late-night host, then feigned surprise when Colbert made him say something bleepable by the network censor. Gervais, presenting after losing Best Comedy Actor to Jim Parsons, made the most of his sore loser act, slagging the Academy for giving the "Big Bang Theory" star the trophy four times, casting aspersions on the rest of the category's nominees, and starting to read the acceptance speech he supposedly would have delivered if he'd won.
Even the orchestra, playing on an obscure corner of the stage instead of unseen in a pit, was more like a late-night talk show band, complete with rock instrumentation like electric guitars and saxophones, and breaking to commercials by playing songs like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." There were no big set changes (a design that looked like an old-fashioned TV test pattern was visible throughout) and only one big musical number, a bit by Weird Al Yankovic in which the veteran parodist invented lyrics for the instrumental theme songs to some current popular shows. (Best was "Game of Thrones," which contained the refrain, "Type, George, type!", urging novelist George R.R. Martin to keep cranking out scripts to keep up with the show's furious pace of character killings and other mayhem. (At that point, someone handed a manual typewriter to Martin, who was in the audience.) Forget Billy Crystal's Academy Award show medleys; this is the kind of number they should be doing at the Oscars.
Most spontaneous/faux-spontaneous of all were Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Bryan Cranston. The two were seen offstage before a commercial break, preparing for a presentation involving a guitar and a tambourine, a bit that would have been a lot more fun than the awkward intro they gave together, involving Cranston's recollection of guest-starring on "Seinfeld" as one of Elaine's love interests, followed by Dreyfus' protestations that she did not remember him. This seemed a particularly lame comedy bit at first, but Cranston made up for it a few minutes later, when Dreyfus won the prize for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy. As she walked to the podium, Cranston intercepted her, embraced her, and planted a deep and lengthy smooch. Ah, she said when she finally reached the stage, now she remembered him. It was a great gag, but it seemed to depend on foreknowledge that Dreyfus would win yet another Emmy for starring on "Veep."
Indeed, there was very little spontaneity or surprise in the winners' list. The Emmys made a big show earlier this summer out of a nomination list that recognized what was cutting-edge on TV, including Netflix series "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black," but both shows went home empty-handed (though "Orange" did win a guest-spot prize last weekend at the Creative Arts Emmys), while older shows and already-lauded performers took home much of the gold. After watching such repeat winners as Dreyfus, Parsons, Burrell, Colbert, Margulies, Cranston, Aaron Paul, Allison Janney, Anna Gunn, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates, as well as "Modern Family" (its fifth straight win for Best Comedy) and "Breaking Bad," it was hard not to agree with Gervais and wonder if the Academy shouldn't share the wealth a little bit more and recognize some new faces.
There were a couple of surprisingly emotional moments. One was the In Memoriam montage, which ended with an extended tribute to Robin Williams that was unexpectedly upbeat, given the still-fresh grief over the comic actor's suicide just two weeks ago. Billy Crystal paid homage to his friend with warm memories, personal anecdotes, and funny, improvised stand-up clips that played to Williams' strengths.
And then there was "Normal Heart" director and Best TV Movie winner Ryan Murphy, who paid homage to the material's creator, Larry Kramer, by bringing the frail playwright on stage. Murphy's speech acknowledged Kramer's 29-year battle to get his polemical play filmed, the lives lost to AIDS before and after the play's 1985 debut, and the work that remains to be done in combating HIV. It was good that Murphy mentioned to young people some organizations where they can still get involved in that fight, but it was also good that his mere presence said what his words did not: that the America of 2014, where Murphy's gay-friendly "Glee" is a long-running hit among young viewers and where openly gay "Normal Heart" co-star Jim Parsons is the highest-paid actor on TV, is far different from the America of three decades ago that moved Kramer to voice his outrage through art.
Still, the evening's most telling moment may have been the speech by TV Academy president Bruce Rosenblum. To distract from his boilerplate, he brought along Sofia Vergara, who stood on a rotating platform like a model at a car or boat show. While Rosenblum spoke of how storytelling remains paramount on television, no matter how many different platforms we view it on nowadays, he was also inviting us to watch an actual platform where all we could see was Vergara's bodacious backside. Everyone seemed to get the joke, including Rosenblum, who gave no indication that he minded having his lofty words upstaged by a sexy woman's derriere. We may be in a golden age of TV writing, and the art of TV storytelling may yet be reshaped by curved screens and other technological marvels, but TV is still a medium where image trumps words, and where we'll still gawk at a particular kind of curviness if that's what programmers pander to show us.