I always say that the easiest way to win an Emmy is to have already won an Emmy, and the 2012 Emmy Awards seemed to be going out of their way to prove me right. Twenty-five awards were handed out over the three-hour ceremony, and only eight of them went to people or shows that hadn’t won an Emmy before. The first seven in a row went to past winners, and eight of the first nine.
It got to the point where, when “The Daily Show” won its tenth consecutive Emmy as the best variety, music or comedy series, presenter Ricky Gervais moaned, “Not again,” and Jon Stewart ended his acceptance speech by saying, “Years from now, when the Earth is just a burning husk and aliens come to visit, they will find a box of these, and they will know just how predictable these (bleeping) things are.”
But it was a night when one of the genres honored had some real surprises to offer. “Modern Family” may have predictably won every award for which it was nominated, but very few people(*) were picking Showtime’s “Homeland” to dominate the drama categories. “Homeland” won not only for Claire Danes’ performance – the safest bet of the night after a “Modern Family” win for Outstanding Comedy Series – but Damian Lewis beat out Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm and the rest of the heavyweights in the drama lead acting category, the “Homeland” pilot script beat out three different “Mad Men” episodes for best drama writing, and “Homeland” became the first show to beat “Mad Men” for Outstanding Drama Series, a category the AMC drama had won for the first four years of its existence. (Had the streak continued this year, “Mad Men” would have passed “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law’ and “The West Wing” for the most wins ever in the category.)
(*) Credit where it’s due: Fienberg (who live-blogged the whole show) was one of those people, in that he predicted “Homeland” for both writing and drama series, and said Lewis had a shot to win if “Homeland” was a juggernaut.
On a night when Emmy director Glenn Weiss ruthlessly had the orchestra play over any winner whose speech ran long – including his own, when he won for directing the Tony Awards – “Homeland” showrunner Alex Gansa began his drama series acceptance speech by saying, “I don’t know when they’re going to cut me off, but this is the biggest night of my career. I’m going to keep talking until they do. I want to start by congratulating Showtime on its first best series Emmy ever.”
Danes was a mortal lock to win for her work as bipolar CIA analyst Carrie Mathison. As liberated prisoner of war Nicholas Brody, Lewis had the less flashy part – he had to keep us guessing on whether Brody had been turned in captivity – but was just as impressive in his own way. I had hoped that if anyone was going to break “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston’s own seemingly unstoppable Emmy streak, it would be Jon Hamm from “Mad Men” – who, like his co-stars, has yet to win an Emmy for acting on the show(**) – but I can’t complain about Lewis, who’s been doing tremendous work on television dating back to his lead performance in HBO’s “Band of Brothers.”
(**) Technically, a “Mad Men” actor did win an Emmy, but it was Danny Strong, who played copywriter Danny Siegel in the show’s fourth season and won here for writing the script to HBO’s Sarah Palin film “Game Change.” Maybe Hamm or Christina Hendricks need to get into writing, too?
Many categories had results where you could say, “yeah, but…” In the drama supporting actor category, for instance, I wanted to see Giancarlo Esposito win in his first and only shot for playing iconic “Breaking Bad” villain Gus Fring, but I can’t object to his co-star Aaron Paul (who won this award the last time he was eligible two years ago) getting another trophy for what’s consistently one of the best performances on television. Or I wanted “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan to win for directing last season’s insane final episode, but Tim Van Patten’s Emmy-winning work on the “Boardwalk Empire” season 2 finale was great, too.
As for the “Homeland” drama series win, I would rank its debut season third behind “Breaking Bad” season 4 and “Mad Men” season 5, but there’s no denying that it was a thrilling, excellently-crafted year of TV, and one that obviously struck a chord with Emmy voters. (The voters have honored “Breaking Bad” actors, but seem reluctant to embrace the series as a whole, in the same way they keep not recognizing the “Mad Men” cast.)
Things were less exciting on the comedy side of things – at least if you agree with me that “Modern Family” had a very uneven season that too frequently settled for repeating the same character quirks over and over again. In particular, I felt the show ruined Cam, who had once been my favorite character, by asking Eric Stonestreet to play the same overly sensitive/dramatic note again and again and again; that Stonestreet won his second Emmy in three tries suggests things will not change this season. Julie Bowen beat out co-star Sofia Vergara for the second year in a row, co-creator Steven Levitan won for directing the season finale, and when the show won its third Outstanding Comedy Series trophy in a row, Levitan said everyone on the show considers themselves “Lucky not only to have jobs in these challenging times, but to have jobs we love with people we love.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy for her third different comedy series, this time for “Veep” (after “Seinfeld” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine”), and while she’s excellent in that role, Amy Poehler should have won for her work on “Parks and Recreation.” (And for the second year in a row, Poehler got the biggest laughs with a pre-planned comedy bit, this time pretending to switch her acceptance speech with Louis-Drefys while giving her a congratulatory hug.) Jon Cryer won the comedy lead actor award after getting promoted out of the supporting category (where he had previously won) thanks to a strong submission episode where his character has a heart attack – once again illustrating how strange it is to honor someone we’ve watched for an entire season of television on the basis of a single episode.
“Something has clearly gone terribly wrong,” Cryer said, self-deprecating. “I am stunned. I did not actually win this. This did not happen.”
Louis C.K. (who had shared an Emmy as a member of “The Chris Rock Show” writing staff in the ’90s) won the comedy writing award for his work on FX’s “Louie” (and another award for writing his Internet comedy special “Live at the Beacon Theater”). On the one hand, the episode he submitted (the season 2 premiere, “Pregnant”) was easily the weakest of the five scripts in the category, and the award is allegedly for a single script. On the other hand, season 2 of “Louie” was an incredible achievement, and one that warranted recognition.
After the “Homeland” rout, the most surprising aspect of the night – and only modestly surprising, at best, given the subject matter and HBO’s track record in these categories – was the success HBO had with “Game Change,” which also won for Julianne Moore’s performance as Palin, Jay Roach’s direction, and the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie award. The movies/minis categories seemed to be a showdown between the old-fashioned success of History’s “Hatfields & McCoys” and the modern excesses of FX’s “American Horror Story,” but those projects instead only won for their former movie star castmembers: Jessica Lange from “American Horror Story” and Kevin Costner and Tom Berenger (who seemed most surprised of all the nominees to get played off by the band) for “Hatfields.”
Some other Emmy thoughts:
* Jimmy Kimmel had an uneven first turn as host. He wasn’t as vicious as he often is in this kind of self-congratulatory setting – every year he rips ABC (and the other networks) to shreds at the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers – but he got off some good lines and sketches, and he didn’t disappear from the show in a way that some hosts do as the night moves along.
* Speaking of comedy bits that worked, hands up, everyone who wants AMC – or any network, for that matter – to greenlight “The Breaking Bad Show,” with Mr. White and Jesse committing murder on their way to the fishing hole.
* The telecast got around the issue of whether to end the In Memoriam clip reel with Andy Griffith or Dick Clark by having Ron Howard deliver a separate tribute to his TV dad Griffith before leading into the clips. (Where I got the biggest chills from that great “M*A*S*H” clip where Harry Morgan as Colonel Potter toasts his dead comrades: “I drink to your memories. I loved you fellas, one and all.” Clark was the bigger/more important star, but that would have been an awfully perfect note to end the clip package on.)
* Unless my brain just shut off at some point, the only category where we saw extended clips of the nominated performances was for drama lead actress. Odd planning, that; my guess is the show started to run ahead of schedule for a few minutes, then caught back up again.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com