Big, glossy, shiny, gloss-covered entertainment
It’s an odd thing to celebrate excellence in the medium of telegrams just at the moment the phone takes over, and this weekend’s 61st Emmy Award ceremony was well aware of the strangeness. Julia Louis Dreyfuss deadpanned that she was honored to be presenting an award on this, the last year of broadcast television. In his acceptance speech for Mad Men, Matthew Weiner mentioned that he looks forward to the Emmys joining him on cable television for next year. Before presenting an award to The Daily Show, Ricky Gervais’ joke about the relative unattractiveness of television actors morphed into a more indirect comment on the state of the medium. After noting that Rainn Wilson looks weird in any crowd, Gervais amended, “I can have a go at The Office because I’m executive producer…[which means] I sit at home and wait for the checks to come through, oh yeah. Syndication.” The Office, which airs new episodes on NBC, also airs reruns every weeknight on cable, a small but welcome percentage of which must end up with Mr. Gervais.
The very nature of its existence has always led the Emmys to self-reflection, a weirdness often encapsulated in the bizarre Escher-like twists when another awards show wins an Emmy for live variety television production. This year, though, felt like the turning point, the moment at which the entire crowd of people felt the necessity of questioning the whole premise of their presence. The Emmys have yet to reach the point of the MTV Music Video Awards, which have long since coped with their complete irrelevance by transforming into the most absurd spectacle possible. Still comfortably consequential, the Emmys nevertheless found plenty of opportunity to comment on the state of TV.
Nowhere was the commentary more apparent than in host Neil Patrick Harris, who did an admirable job thanks to his skill and suaveness but also his willingness to point to the new media elephants in the room. The show opened with vintage footage of television broadcast towers transmitting the nations’ vital news to each other, accompanied by an olde timey narrator. “Television. Useful science of the electronic age…Your instant connection to the most sophisticated entertainment the world has ever known.” As though the internet weren’t enough of a reason for that line to be funny, the video then cut to a shot from that sophisticated classic, Wipeout.
The best joke of the night took the point even further. Interrupting a presentation by the accountants responsible for tabulating Emmy results, a video feed from Dr. Horrible appeared on-screen, announcing to the audience he had hijacked the ceremony. The jokes went as follows: first, Dr. Horrible is a character from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, played by Neil Patrick Harris, the Emmys’ host. Next, Dr. Horrible touts the internet as the superior medium for entertainment (from the comfort of his video blog), only to be interrupted himself by hilariously inevitable buffering icons. Finally, the entrance of his nemesis Captain Hammer allows Dr. Horrible to mention that his sing-along blog actually won an Emmy. The biggest joke of all, of course, is that Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog actually did win an Emmy, despite its having been independently produced, made on a shoe-string budget, and never aired on either broadcast or cable television.
Speaking of which, if you’ve never seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog… I know I told you to watch The Soup last week, but even The Soup can’t hold a candle to the awesomeness of this.
Despite Dr. Horrible’s pronouncement, television is not dead. But it seems as though within the last year, the machinery of fancy television awards have realized that the landscape is shifting. As Captain Hammer comments while holding Dr. Horrible in a headlock, “people will always need big, glossy, shiny, gloss-covered entertainment, and Hollywood will be there to provide it. Like the Ottoman Empire, the music industry, and Zima, we’re here to stay.” Of course it’s an exaggeration, and one need only point to the continued existence of Mad Men, now a two-time winner for best drama, to argue that television is still a vibrant, meaningful medium for storytelling. Nevertheless it was pleasant, even reassuring, to see television’s usual self-recognition shape itself into if not acceptance, at least acknowledgement of the changing paradigm. Maybe by next year we’ll be a step closer to acceptance.
Maybe by next year, someone will have figured out how to monetize a live stream of the Emmys online so people on the West coast don’t have to wait three hours. Not that I’m bitter about that.