Host Seth Meyers speaks onstage during the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California August 25, 2014.
By Brian Lowry
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - After an inordinately glum, memorial-filled 2013 awards that "Modern Family" exec producer Steve Levitan only half-jokingly dubbed the "saddest Emmys" ever, the 66th annual Emmy Awards wisely erred on the side of comedy, with Seth Meyers bringing a breezy charm to his hosting role and the planned bits - like audience Q&A, with stars asking the questions - mostly working. Where the evening broke down, alas, was in the awards themselves, which so frequently dredged up familiar faces as to suck much of the vitality out of the festivities, giving this year's Tuesday-morning quarterbacks plenty about which to gripe.
To be fair, the Emmys have always offered a mix of old and new, and some of the repeat winners have exhibited such consistent excellence (Jim Parsons, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as to make a case for their continued laurels.
Nevertheless, the parade of repeat winners - and overlooking of projects that injected new blood and excitement into this year's races - simply flummoxed whatever plans the producers might have had. There was probably no bigger example of that, frankly, than the momentum-busting Emmy haul for the latest season of PBS' "Sherlock," which felt slightly deflating, no matter how red-hot Benedict Cumberbatch (an upset winner, and not in attendance) is right now.
For all the talk about TV getting over its inferiority complex vis-a-vis movies, it was also noteworthy how Matthew McConaughey - fresh off his Oscar win - became such a focal point of the evening. At first, all the jokes about his "True Detective" nomination classing up the joint (including a funny bit from Jimmy Kimmel) felt funny, but like most of what transpired on Monday, they came to yield diminishing returns as the night wore on. And when Weird Al Yankovic delivered an Emmy theme medley at the show's midway point, well, there was a strong sense that no amount of electricity thereafter could reanimate the body.
Not only was the number painful, but it conveyed an impression that those responsible for the show somehow thought (perhaps because of Andy Samberg's involvement) that this would be perceived as hip or cool.
That's too bad, since the show did become somewhat livelier at that point, including Ryan Murphy's poignant acceptance speech for "The Normal Heart," "Fargo's" well-deserved best miniseries win, Ricky Gervais' playful grousing about losing (again) to Jim Parsons, and Stephen Colbert's acceptance speech - by way of Jimmy Fallon - for the soon-to-be-defunct "The Colbert Report." (Even illustrating Television Academy Chairman Bruce Rosenblum's boilerplate with Sofia Vergara on a slow-moving pedestal was clever, if perhaps too drawn out before the punchline.)
Given the second-guessing last year's show endured for its heavy emphasis on necrology, the producers understandably limited those remembrances, despite the heavyweights who were lost. Billy Crystal's tribute to Robin Williams was heartfelt and moving, and corrected the 2013 gaffe of not including clips to show how brilliant he was.
That segment interrupted the drama categories, which were obviously the night's centerpiece, if not its salvation in terms of breaks, pardon the expression, over which the producers had no control.
Part of that had to with the outpouring of adulation directed at "Breaking Bad" - a worthy winner, certainly, but also unleashed a year after a finale that preceded last year's Emmy telecast, which made its 2013 victory feel like a valediction at the time.
Then again, those reading the Emmy tea leaves will doubtless see some blowback in all of this, inasmuch as most of the shows that could be accused of category shopping were overlooked for more traditional choices. So while "Modern Family" might be the old black and "Breaking Bad" old news, there's also no questioning the former's comedy credentials or the latter's drama series bona fides.
More practically speaking, NBC's latest use of the Emmys to showcase a latenight (or really, later-night) host worked out reasonably well. Meyers adopted a minimalist approach to open the show, delivering a straight stand-up routine aimed at the TV-literate crowd - both in the room and at home - that resembled some of the better Oscar intros of years past. Going with a monologue not only played to the host's strengths but reflected a sense TV has indeed grown up, without requiring inordinate bells and whistles to set the ball rolling.
Meyers' insider-ish barbs hit just the right targets, from the late-August timing of the awards this year (generally a dead period in the TV calendar) to controversy surrounding the actual voting - joking about comedies that make you laugh, and those that "made you cry, because they were dramas submitted as comedies."
That all seemed oddly prescient, though, once the winners started getting announced, leaving plenty of room for a follow-up routine lampooning not just the nominations, but this year's final results, too.