Last night, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences colluded with NBC to bring us The 58th Primetime Emmy Awards, and the broadcast exceeded the widespread expectation that it would be tedious to the point of punishment. Things were looking dreary even before host Conan O'Brien had reared his ginger head: Near the end of the official preshow, summoned to dis the most egregious red-carpet fashion faux pas, Project Runway's Tim Gunn would only allow that the actresses Sandra Oh and Cheryl Hines had perhaps overaccessorized, missing a fine opportunity to suppose that Tyra Banks had borrowed her gown from an Atlantic City, N.J., production of Wicked. That's the kind of night it was; even the bitchery was on a short leash.
The Emmys were not so much put on as dispensed with. The presenters bolted through their patter, and the producers forced the winners through their acceptance speeches with rude haste. Did someone have a bus to catch? That the show would allow little time for showmanship occasioned a couple of its better gags. In the first half-hour, stagehands wheeled out Bob Newhart, who was locked, so O'Brien told us, in an airtight booth containing three hours' worth of oxygen: If the broadcast went long, Newhart would be buttoned down for good. (Disappointingly, they did not play this premise through. O'Brien and a liberated Newhart awarded The Office its Best Comedy Series hardware. Conan must have been shirking some basic tenet ingrained at the Harvard Lampoon.) Another joke debuted the timesaving "Segway podium," an innovation that allowed actor Christopher Meloni to steer across the stage, pick up a trophy, and give his shout-outs on the fly.
Playing the role of Hollywood airhead, Meloni thanked his chiropractor, his feng shui master, and his fourth wife as he sped toward the wings—a nicely mocking touch and yet a sadly representative one. All televised awards shows poke fun at themselves, but the Emmys wore the embarrassed self-awareness of an eighth grader. In a dance number modeled on The Music Man, O'Brien donned a boater to make inside-showbiz sport of his network's sorry ratings: "We got trouble/ Right here at NBC." (How did this play in Peoria and Pittsburgh and all the other river cities underwhelmed by Variety?) Later, in what was either an anxious feint at tech savvy or a plain display of generational anxiety, cameras showed us audience members viewing the nominees in the "outstanding variety, music or comedy series" category on their iPods. The winner, Jon Stewart, later got a chance to make fun of the very concept of reality television. And poor Eva Longoria, of Desperate Housewives, was made to prostrate herself on behalf of the entire medium when presenting an award with James Woods, of the Cinema, who's got a new show on CBS. "As James comes to television," she said, "it just proves that the little screen keeps getting bigger." Then they gave a drama prize to The Girl With the U.K. Accent Who Ended Poverty, or some such wet sack of prestige and good intentions from HBO.
Obviously, a show is in trouble when its most exciting moments involve the frail and the dead. A tribute to the ailing Dick Clark featured a montage of Clark-produced programs that made a sound case for his enduring coolness and a rousing rendition of the Bandstand theme. Never have I been so thrilled to hear Barry Manilow. Meanwhile, an homage to the late Aaron Spelling must have had many viewers wishing they could switch to Fantasy Island. Spelling "cared about everything from scripts to skirts," as Joan Collins said, a wonderful sound bite of eulogy for the undisputed master of the guilty pleasure. TV is big, the Spelling tribute seemed to say. Maybe it's the networks that got small.