The easiest way to win an Emmy is to have already won an Emmy, and rarely has that wisdom proved more true than at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, where “Breaking Bad” and “Modern Family” repeated last year’s best drama and comedy series wins, and where you had to squint sometimes to find a person and/or show that hadn’t accepted one of these trophies before.
Beyond the top two prizes, 16 of the remaining 24 awards presented during Monday night’s telecast went to people who had won before – often in that same category, and for that same show.
The first hour of the show alone featured exactly zero new winners, and only Allison Janney from “Mom” was winning for a role (and category) for which she had not won previous – and it was her sixth overall Emmy and second this month (after a guest acting win for “Masters of Sex”). Jim Parsons won his fourth lead comedy actor award in five years, Louis CK his second writing award in three, Julia Louis-Dreyfus her third lead actress award in a row, “Modern Family” helmer Gail Mancuso her second directing award in a row, etc.
Our night’s first brand-new Emmy winner was “Sherlock” writer Steven Moffat – whose show wound up winning seven Emmys overall (also including stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) even though it was in its third season and had no real business in the movies and miniseries categories except for the vagaries of Emmy rules. (It doesn’t produce enough episodes in a season to qualify as a drama.) By the time FX’s brilliant “Fargo” and HBO’s star-studded “The Normal Heart” won the respective awards for outstanding miniseries and movie (the latter an enormous relief to awards-conscious HBO executives), it was almost stunning to not see “Sherlock” somehow winning both. The movies and minis categories are, in theory, the one segment of the show where something or someone new has to win the majority of the time, and yet many of the awards somehow went to an ongoing series. (And for added category confusion, “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” are considered miniseries, while “True Detective” was up as a drama, while long-running series “Luther” and “Tremé” were also nominated as miniseries.)
(It was also by far the weakest of the three “Sherlock” seasons, and the episode that was considered a “movie” wasn’t the best of the season. Maybe Emmy voters just caught up on the previous six episodes on Netflix and considered that a fair tribute to the video streaming giant?)
After “Modern Family” was mostly shut out a year ago before winning the comedy series trophy, this seemed like the year where another show was finally poised to take its crown, whether it was “Veep” or Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” Instead, “Orange” was entirely ignored in the main show (Uzo Aduba won a guest acting award last week), “Veep” only got its usual award for Louis-Dreyfus, while “Modern Family” won its fifth consecutive comedy series award – tying “Frasier” for the most ever in this category. (No drama series has ever won five times.) Emmy voters just love “Modern Family.”
The drama categories were potentially a place for new blood to shine, after HBO’s gamble to submit “True Detective” there rather than in the theoretically easier movies/minis arena. Instead, it picked up only one award on the night, while “Breaking Bad” received a coronation in its final appearance, with repeat wins not only for drama series, but for Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, along with the show’s first writing win, for Moira Walley-Beckett’s amazing script for “Ozymandias,” the show’s greatest episode and one of the best hours of dramatic television ever. “Ozymandias” proved so powerful, it carried Cranston over “True Detective” star Matthew McConaughey in what seemed like one of the night’s more obvious victories – a victory so seemingly preordained that fellow movie star Julia Roberts was asked to present it.
The TV business has always had an inferiority complex when it comes to the movies. That was apparent again early in the Emmy telecast, when Jimmy Kimmel delivered a long (albeit quite funny) routine about how McConaughey is too famous and handsome to be working in television, and when Roberts (nominated for “The Normal Heart”) was singled out at length in a tease before a commercial break. (Even Roberts seemed baffled that her fellow nominees in her category were being ignored.)
But as host Seth Meyers noted in his opening monologue, this is a great time in television, with exciting new series popping up seemingly every few weeks. The inferiority complex should have died a long time ago, and the fact that the Academy didn’t rubber-stamp McConaughey – who, in fairness, was pretty mesmerizing himself as Rust Cohle – was striking.
Then again, Cranston’s now done so many movies that he might have gotten that cinema bump. Or he may have just benefited from the familiarity that was so prevalent throughout the night.
Many of these winners were great, and deserving of recognition. Walter White is an all-time character, and Cranston an all-time performer in the role. Louis-Dreyfus is doing perhaps the best work of an impressive career. Louis C.K. is a great writer.
But at a time when television is constantly opening up new and thrilling frontiers, the Emmy voters instead prefer to stick to territory that’s already been explored, and honored – and/or work that’s for some silly reason been nominated in the wrong category.
Some other thoughts on the 66th Primetime Emmys:
* Host Seth Meyers did better post-monologue than he did during the opening, particularly as he got to interact with “SNL” pals like Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg, but he was genial throughout and worked quickly. In general, the show was often more fun as a television show than as a celebration of the most exciting work on television.
* Though Robin Williams’ death is still raw for all who knew him and/or loved his work, Billy Crystal gave a composed, beautiful tribute to his longtime friend and collaborator, capturing what made Williams both a brilliant comedian and a great friend. And the clip reel of Williams’ TV highlights ended on the perfect one: Williams in his classic “An Evening at the Met” HBO special imagining a conversation with his young son, tenderly escorting him offstage and assuring him things will be okay.
* It would have been nice for James Garner – whose TV impact was greater than Williams’ – to also get his own tribute, but his celebrity was much further in the past, he also lived a much longer life, and Williams’ additional fame from decades of movies also got him special (and poignant) consideration.
* Even if Cranston hadn’t won again for playing Walter White, he would have won the telecast as a whole with the payoff to an earlier gag where he tried to remind Julia Louis-Dreyfus that they had shared a kissing scene on “Seinfeld”: when Louis-Dreyfus won for “Veep,” Cranston interrupted her trip to the stage to lay on a smooch that put Adrien Brody’s Oscar winner to shame. (And was surely, unlike Brody’s with Halle Berry, planned in advance.)
* “True Detective” director Cary Joji Fukunaga won for the episode with the impressive single-take action sequence, but gave a less-than-impressive acceptance speech – he admitted he hadn’t prepared – that failed to mention writer Nic Pizzolatto.
* Billy Eichner isn’t always used well on “Parks and Recreation,” but he was in his “Billy on the Street” element in a taped bit where he and Seth Meyers harassed oblivious New York pedestrians to ask about Emmy favorites, longshots and snubs. (Eichner’s outrage over Tatiana Maslany’s non-nomination – and the pedestrians reacting to him like he was an escaped lunatic speaking in tongues – was priceless.)
* Weird Al’s attempt to provide lyrics to the theme songs for “Mad Men,” “Scandal” and other shows mostly didn’t land, but the “Game of Thrones” song at the end – which had backup singers reminding the audience they can pause the opening credits map, and admonishing Weird Al for spoilers – worked.
* Sofia Vergara is game for anything – including (or especially) jokes that play off of her famous curves – but having her stand on a rotating platform while Academy president Bruce Rosenblum gave a boring speech felt crass even for this gang.
What did everybody else think of both the show and the results?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org