65th Emmys celebration, both predictable and surprising

A strange combination of inexplicable surprises and predictable repeats characterized the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, which presented its awards on Sunday, Sept. 23. Below are some thoughts on those that were deemed worthy of television’s highest honor, and those that were not.

Emmy voters sometimes felt like stand-ins for Oscar voters in their choices this year. Recognizable film stars were continuously favored over their television counterparts – a strange trend considering the high esteem television has built in the industry over the past decade.

In what was unquestionably the biggest upset of the night, Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom”) won Best Drama Actor over recent Emmy champs Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Damian Lewis (“Homeland”). Daniels’ work is strong, but “The Newsroom” is weak – evidenced by the fact that he was the lone representative of his series for the entire telecast – and the program writing does not require half of what Cranston or Lewis bring to their respective programs.

Yet Daniels is a newcomer to the category – a film star with acclaimed, award-winning turns in “The Squid and the Whale” and “Gettysburg” – and towered over television veterans like Cranston, who had dominated the category facing off against actors with a very brief film resume. The list included Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”), Hugh Laurie (“House”) and returning nominee Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”).

David Fincher (“The Social Network”) won for directing the “House of Cards” pilot, an episode of television mightily stylish but relatively hollow to his fellow nominees. Yet, the Oscar-nominated director’s profile lifted him over directors like Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad”), who was nominated for a second time; her work this time around, for the episode “Gliding Over All,” should have beaten anybody. Fincher also defeated Emmy-winning directors Tim Van Patten (“Boardwalk Empire”), Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) and Lesli Linka Glatter (“Homeland”).

The TV Movie/Miniseries categories fall victim to this phenomena often. This year, it was represented both at its most logical and its most clear-cut case of awarding star-power over quality. Steven Soderberg (Oscar winner for “Traffic”) did stunning work for “Behind the Candelabra,” the HBO tele-film that won an astounding 11 Emmys, and deserved Best Movie/Mini Director. His star, Oscar nominee Michael Douglas, similarly deserved Best Actor for his immersive turn as Liberace.

Down the list, however, quality fails to take precedence. Laura Linney (“The Big C”) could not earn a nomination in Best Comedy Actress last year for her role as Cathy Jamison, but because of the series’ limited final season of four episodes, she was able to snag a nod for Best Movie/Mini Actress.

Despite Elisabeth Moss’ towering work in “Top of the Lake,” which earned her the Critics’ Choice Award, it was multi Oscar-nominee Linney that took home the award. Similarly, Oscar-nominee Ellen Burstyn (“Political Animals”) gave a passable performance – hardly anything award-worthy, and hardly something that would earn an Oscar nomination – but won Best Supporting Actress over the terrific work from actresses known for television work, like Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story: Asylum”) and Alfre Woodard (“Steel Magnolias”).

Perhaps epitomizing the point here, Emmy producers selected Will Ferrell to present the top awards of the night, Best Drama and Best Comedy. Despite the ample number of television legends who were at the ceremony – Bob Newhart an obvious example – they opted to select Ferrell, who has done virtually no television work but is the box-office king of comedy film.

They won again.

Very few predicted Daniels to take Best Drama Actor, or supporting actors Bobby Cannavale (Drama, “Boardwalk Empire”) and Tony Hale (Comedy, “Veep”). Surprises were frequent, but so too were the expected wins.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Comedy, “Veep”) and Claire Danes (Drama, “Homeland”) both picked up their second consecutive Best Actress trophies, and it would be hard to make an argument against either one of them. Both are in the process of creating iconic female protagonists in modern American fiction – Dreyfus’ vain vice president, Danes’ obsessive CIA agent – and continue to captivate.

Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang
Theory”) was put in elite company by winning a third Best Comedy Actor Emmy – but is his broad, sitcom-style performance really at that level? His win is a case of standing out in a fairly anemic category, but a farewell win for two-time winner Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) would have likely been a better choice. Still, Parsons’ win is not unfounded.

“Modern Family” is now tied for second all-time for Best Comedy wins with four, and this one feels a little more unearned than Parsons’. Most critics have turned against the show at least in terms of its former status as television’s top comedy, and this marked the first year the series did not win a single acting prize.

It defeated a slew of innovative half-hours, including the biting political satire “Veep,” which dominated the acting races; “Louie,” practically a great Woody Allen film in television form; as well as the great, touching final season of “30 Rock,” which could have also snagged that fourth Best Comedy win.

 

Women behind-the-scenes get their due.

 

This year marked the greatest number of wins for female writers and directors on scripted series. Six prizes are handed out – writing and directing for drama, comedy and movie/miniseries – and three were presented to women.

For the lone “Modern Family” win outside of Best Comedy, longtime television director Gail Mancuso finally won an Emmy for directing the episode “Arrested.” Her win was a surprise, defeating the favored Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and reigning champ Louis C.K. (“Louie”).

Tina Fey (along with writing partner Tracy Wigfield) returned to the podium for “30 Rock” one last time, recognized for the 3-time Best Comedy’s series finale script. Fey last won this award back in 2008, for the season two finale “Cooter.”

In a shocking upset, in just about the only category “Behind the Candelabra” did not win, Abi Morgan somehow triumphed for scribing the British miniseries “The Hour,” which earned no other nominations and had been canceled months ago. Besides defeating the year’s Best Movie/Miniseries, she topped Tony winner David Mamet’s “Phil Spector” script and Oscar winner Jane Campion’s work on “Top of the Lake.”

For those categories not won by women, they were damn close. The aforementioned MacLaren is ridiculously overdue for her stunning work as the principal director of “Breaking Bad,” but the star power of Fincher did her in. Along the same lines, Jane Campion’s helming of “Top of the Lake” irrefutably would have been the consensus choice if not for the presence of Soderbergh, one of the great contemporary American filmmakers.

 

Upon hearing “Breaking Bad” had been named the year’s Best Drama, many were shocked to learn that the series had never won in this category before. After losing to “Mad Men” three times, and “Homeland” once, this finally marked the year for the AMC flagship series.

“Breaking Bad” had some tough competition this year, but the odds were in its favor. “Homeland” suffered with a major loss of critical acclaim in its second season, so its odds at repeating were suspect. “Mad Men” faded considerably with nominations and wins, and “House of Cards,” despite its pedigree, did not have the quality of those three top-tier dramas. More than anything, though, it was time for “Bad” to finally win that Emmy.

Ironically, this marked its weakest year at the Emmys. Two-time winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul both lost their respective categories, and this marked the first year ever neither won. Anna Gunn, however, powered through in Drama Supporting Actress in a much-deserved win.

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