Prized, if not popular
Emmy awards go to '30 Rock,' 'Mad Men,' and other niche series in a broadcast that strained to satisfy
NBC's "30 Rock" swept the comedy Emmys! (Small applause.) AMC's "Mad Men" won! (Smaller applause.) Bryan Cranston from AMC's "Breaking Bad" triumphed! (Sound of one hand clapping.)
Last night, the Emmy Awards revealed just how fractured today's TV audiences are. Most of the major awards went to low-rated series that the average TV viewer hasn't seen or, in some cases, hasn't even heard of.
Along with "Mad Men" and Cranston, who plays a meth-dealing man with cancer, the drama winner's circle included Glenn Close and supporting actor Zeljko Ivanek of FX's "Damages" and Dianne Wiest for supporting actress in HBO's "In Treatment," a series whose entire viewership might populate one full group therapy session.
And the comedy statues - for "30 Rock," for actress Tina Fey, for actor Alec Baldwin, as well as for supporting players Jeremy Piven of HBO's "Entourage" and Jean Smart of ABC's "Samantha Who?" - all represent pretty small potatoes in the Nielsen basket. The night seemed to belong to niche programming, with very few nods to popular hits - Fox's "House," for example, or CBS's "Two and a Half Men." Even the reality-competition prize went to a small show - CBS's "Amazing Race" - as opposed to a crowd pleaser such as "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars."
Many of the big winners last night were from the cable side of TV - with "Mad Men" the first-ever basic cable show to win a best series prize. Not that pay cable didn't get its due: HBO's movies and miniseries were all the rage - "John Adams" took best miniseries, actor (Paul Giamatti), actress (Laura Linney), and supporting actor (Tom Wilkinson), and HBO's "Recount" won best movie. But officially long gone are the days of network dominance, with basic cable emerging as a threat even to revered pay-cable outlets such as HBO.
As if anticipating this disconnect between the winners and the Emmy telecast viewing audience, the entertainment on last night's show played to the mainstream, with an emphasis on reality TV. Giving us five reality hosts was the Emmys' not-so-swift effort to hold viewers, since these folks - Jeff Probst, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Tom Bergeron, and Ryan Seacrest - preside over some of TV's most highly rated shows, particularly "American Idol." Meanwhile, the random audience shots stayed away from the lesser-known likes of "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm.
After an intro by Oprah Winfrey, during which she managed to defend TV by reminding us she uses the medium to sell books, the hosts came onstage. Nominees in the new reality-host category, they jovially pretended to be winging it as if they were on reality TV, as if reality TV is really about winging it, as if we care.
They talked over one another and didn't manage to make a single decent joke. It was a disaster.
"This is not a bit," Mandel assured us. "We are on Sarah Palin's bridge to nowhere." And so they all strolled that bridge. And perhaps they are still strolling it today, with Probst smiling extra hard, since he won the award in the category.
Piven snarkily summed up the debacle during his acceptance speech: "What if I just kept talking for 12 minutes? What would happen? Oh wait, that was the opener."
If only the reality hosts had been a fraction as funny as Don Rickles or Ricky Gervais, who demanded his Emmy back from Steve Carell, referring to last year when presenters Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart gave the absent Gervais's Emmy to Carell. Gervais actually tickled Carell, who sat through the gag, deadpan, in the front row.
Lest the reality TV hosts make the Emmys look too trendy and opportunistic, the show was peppered with uninspired references to classic TV. They ranged from a TV-catchphrase-strewn sequence to a re-creation of the Monk's coffee shop set from "Seinfeld" that looked like it was pulled from the basement storage closet in an amateur theater. Also off: Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Alan Sues and other "Laugh-In" originals telling bad jokes.
Oh yeah, and Josh Groban singing TV theme songs, from "Friends," "Gilligan's Island," "South Park," and "The Love Boat" - how could I forget that. Seriously bizarre? Disturbing? Just wrong? Words fail.
ABC probably didn't like the fact that a number of acceptance speeches took on a political bent, but those moments did give viewers a periodic tweak during the long broadcast. Laura Linney paid homage to "the community organizers who helped shape our country," a reference to Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. Tommy Smothers, ranging unpredictably from irony to sincerity while accepting a belated Emmy for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," talked about the war, freedom of speech, and how there is "nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action."
And "John Adams" writer-producer Kirk Ellis was cut off as he began talking about the articulateness - and inarticulateness - of public figures.
"I don't do anything but fill time," Ryan Seacrest told Kathy Griffin early in the E! red-carpet preshow. It was as if he could read her - and all of America's - mind.
Of course, Seacrest's fluffing could have been worse - to wit, Giuliana Rancic enthusing a little too heavily "Your body is rockin' " to Nicollette Sheridan before asking, "What's your favorite body part?"
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe .com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.