Jeff Daniels summed it up nicely: “Well, crap!”
That was the Newsroom star’s opening line when he accepted his Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Drama. But he might as well have been speaking for the rest of us. Last night’s winners list was so baffling, I half-expected seven different Tatiana Maslanys to jump up on stage and claim their trophies, even though the Orphan Black actress was snubbed.
True, there were a few wonderful upsets. As an avowed fan of Nurse Jackie‘s Merritt Wever, I actually said “Yes!” out loud when she won for Supporting Actress in a Comedy — and that was before she delivered the best anti-speech speech of the night. (“Thank you so very much. Um, I gotta go. Bye!”) When Tony Hale stepped on stage to claim his Supporting Actor award for Veep, it started to feel like we were watching some sort of Bizarro Emmys, where the people who deserved to win actually did. Then things got weird. Jonathan Banks and Mandy Patinkin got passed over in favor of Bobby Cannavale, though in his defense, Cannavale worked insanely hard for that victory, right down to his final rubber-hose beat-down. (As my colleague Darren Franich pointed out, “No other nominee could say, ‘I filmed a gunfight where I was completely naked and covered in blood.'”) And Daniels’ win made the internet angry. When he beat Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm for a season of The Newsroom that at least one critic compared to the crash-and-burn spectacularity of NASA’s Vanguard rocket explosion, you’d think it was an American tragedy so solemn that Will McEvoy will surely deliver a self-important monologue about it next season, to the strains of some sad Coldplay song.
And yet, watching this, something struck me: you can’t really be outraged if you don’t already have a pretty good idea of who’s expected to win. Never in history have viewers had access to more information about who to vote for in their Emmys office pools — simple Googling can get you critics’ picks, industry insiders’ picks, even gamblers’ betting odds — and maybe that’s why these upsets felt like such a shock. At a time when TV viewing habits are getting more and more niche, the Emmy picks for who will win (as opposed to who should) are the one thing that many experts and fans agree upon. We might not be able to have the same watercooler conversations about that crazy thing that happened on that Major Network Drama that everyone watched in real time. But that crazy thing that happened on the Emmys? That’s something that almost everyone can discuss, and last night, the twists were genuinely surprising. For better or worse — considering all of the sketches that bombed, it was mostly for worse — we’re getting something from the Emmys what we can’t get from most network shows anymore.
Even the ceremony expected a certain level of insider knowledge from viewers. Julia Louis-Dreyfus accepted her best actress award by inviting Hale on stage to stand behind her, holding her handbag and whispering names into her ear to remind her who to thank. Veep diehards went nuts: on the show, Hale plays Tony Walsh, the personal “bag man” to Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer, and they riffed on their roles here, as the camera cut to Anna Chlumsky, who plays Selina’s chief of staff, rolling her eyes and tapping away on her Blackberry in the audience. During Neil Patrick Harris’s opening monologue, House of Cards‘ Kevin Spacey turned and spoke directly to the camera as the diabolical House Majority Whip Francis Underwood. (“It’s all going according to my plan. I was promised the hosting job this year, and they turned me down. They said they wanted someone more ‘likable.'”) By the time Harris launched into his big musical moment, “This is the Number in the Middle of the Show,” with Nathan Fillion trotting along behind him, I started to wonder if the whole thing was a wink at Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, whose fans might get a kick out of a Fillion-Harris song-and-dance reunion. Either way, it says a lot about this age of the superwatcher that viewers were trusted to get all the jokes.
No wonder Harris felt pressured to be able to comment on every last show. For his opening sketch, he binge-watched his way through the nominees in a room full of TVs. (The fact that Harris was mostly watching CBS programming was probably wishful thinking on the network’s part.) Certainly, you had to be caught up on previous years’ Emmys to follow his first monologue, which invited past hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, and Conan O’Brien up to the stage to talk about how bad awards shows are, an argument that people on Twitter were already making on their own. The whole thing fell totally flat until Tina Fey and Amy Poehler started heckling Harris from the crowd. (“Twerk it!” “It would be degrading, but we would be degrateful.”) If there was a message behind this meta-sketch, it was that television has gotten tiresome, even for the people making it. So it’s telling that Spacey’s nod to his Netflix drama saved the sketch: this was the first time an online-distributed series was ever referenced in the Emmys’ opening bit, and the fact that the crowd had watched enough of House of Cards to laugh at the reference showed just how much the industry has changed.
It’s strange, then, that at a time when TV is more forward-thinking than ever, the Emmys mostly focused on the past. Memorials to James Gandolfini, Corey Monteith, Jean Stapleton and others took up too much air time, though at least the new format — just a simple, personal tribute from a fellow actor, without the usual footage of the person’s career — was heartfelt. The fusty tributes to the Beatles, Ed Sullivan, and Elton John’s ode to Liberace all felt like they’d been YouTubed in from a bygone era. Even a choreographed dubstep tribute to Breaking Bad couldn’t freshen things up.
All of which begged the question: What does the Emmys really offer us, anyway, that we can’t get elsewhere? Witty banter? (There was more of that online.) Red-carpet gawking? (Nothing here that you can’t see on Instagram.) Exclusive access to the Mani Cam? If you’re only tuning in to see which under-appreciated shows to add to your DVR queue, well, Twitter can tell you that better than the Emmys, especially when a mediocre season of Modern Family wins against Louie, Girls, and Veep. The one thing the Emmys is still very good at? Creating consensus. But maybe that’s the problem. This year, the consensus was that the Emmys were bad.