Share this article

print logo

Death was the star of Sunday’s Emmys

I think I’m in love.

But then, I’m not alone, and I know it.

The woman I’m in love with is someone whose name I never heard before Sunday evening’s Emmy Awards. That name is Merritt Wever. She started the evening’s prizes by winning Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for “Nurse Jackie,” a show I never watch.

She went up to the stage, accepted her Emmy and said a grand total of 13 words: “Thank you so much, thank you so much. Um, I gotta go. Bye.” If you want to be technical, you can’t count “um” as a word. But that might be offset by those who won’t accept my contraction of “got to” into “gotta,” but I’m telling you what I heard from her mouth was “gotta” not “got to.”

As award show acceptance speeches go, it was even more terse than the previous champion – Tommy Lee Jones evincing surly and unconvincing gratitude for his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Fugitive.”

Wever, on the other hand, seemed suitably grateful but a wee bit preoccupied. I took it that when she said “I gotta go,” she meant exactly what your 7-year-old in the back seat means when she says, “I gotta go.” After which most parents keep a sharp eye out for the next gas station, coffee shop or whatever in the sure knowledge that, as the Greek philosophers always put it, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

She was a comic high point on an Emmy Show that was surprisingly full of them amid all the downers of the show’s emphasis on death. I may actually watch “Nurse Jackie” sometime to see what it is that Wever does. Which leads me to one of three things that must always be kept in mind about the Emmys (and, in a couple of cases, all award shows):

1. They’re essentially promotional. They exist to get you to watch TV shows – or see movies or buy records. When ratings, rentals, box-office receipts and purchases go up, the business of pop cultural self-congratulation has succeeded, no matter what the award show ratings say.

2. The Emmys, specifically, are an annual game of musical chairs. The nominees are either obvious or constant repeaters. The awards either get stuck in a groove or change among themselves from year to year in musical chairs style. Even when the same names don’t continue to figure, the new ones are largely on an equivalent level of celebrity and endeavor.

That’s why the awards also have a tradition of thoroughly ostentatious attempts to break out of the tight usual patterns. When, for instance, a writer named Abi Morgan wins an Emmy for writing “The Hour” over David Mamet and Tom Stoppard for their contributions, you know that a whole lot of people have checked a name as far “outside the box” as they could. (Maybe, if they’ve worked with either one, out of spite.)

3. A New Rule, as Bill Maher might say: The Emmys are always better seen on your DVR than in “real time.” Fast-forwarding through commercials and production numbers – even featuring Neil Patrick Harris – is an incomparable joy bequeathed by modern technology.

There actually were some light moments to Sunday’s Emmys. Wever essentially introducing herself to a grateful America was almost immediately followed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and fellow “Veep” winner Tony Hale doing a hilarious rehash of their characters on their HBO show, as he held her purse and whispered obvious things to say in her ear, pretending to keep her from seeming more stupid than usual (as he often does on the show).

The question you’ve got to ask is this: Was Louis-Dreyfus tipped off in advance that she’d win? Or just so sure of it that they prepared for it thoroughly in advance? Hate to be ungrateful about a rare standout moment of pure comedy at the Emmys, but it’s a question someone ought to ask.

The best comedy of the evening came at the end, when predictable “Behind the Candelabra” winner Michael Douglas said that half of his best acting Emmy belonged to co-star and co-nominee Matt Damon and inquired whether Damon wanted the top half or the bottom. (A little PG-13 risqué humor referring to the movie’s dialogue by Richard LaGravenese.)

Other than that, and a couple of other moments of transient good cheer, it was, as so many tweeters and status reporters confided to the teeming digital universe, just about as somber as Emmy broadcasts can get.

A lot of that, for sure, came from the idea of having people periodically offer tribute to old friends and co-stars who died in 2013: Robin Williams’ praising his old idol Jonathan Winters, Rob Reiner’s movingly memorializing his “All in the Family” co-star Jean Stapleton, Edie Falco’s fighting tears as she talked about James Gandolfini.

That, during Death’s Emmys on Sunday, made for the evening’s oddest advance controversy. With all that going on, some wanted to know, how could they have Jane Lynch eulogizing her “Glee” co-star Cory Monteith, a tragically young drug casualty, and not someone paying tribute to either Jack Klugman or Larry Hagman, two genuinely huge figures in TV history?

Producers said in advance that it was a way of bringing front and center the horrible reason for Monteith’s painfully premature death. Sure enough, Lynch spoke of “the rapacious, senseless destruction that is brought on by addiction.”

Forget Klugman, for a moment, a truly great character actor in TV history over many decades. Assume that Hagman – TV’s legendary J.R. Ewing on “Dallas” – had been memorialized in an equivalent way. Anyone looking for unspoken messages could read it as “Isn’t it grand that an alcohol-abusing TV legend and household word can leverage money and fame into a liver transplant after blowing out his old one in abuse everyone was aware of?”

Maybe Lynch’s tribute to Monteith was a better message after all.

The accidentally sepulchral tone of the evening came from the posthumous Emmy for Henry Bromell for writing an episode of “Homeland.” Bromell died in his mid-60s in March after being instrumental in writing so many shows in TV’s “Third Golden Age” (“Homicide,” “Brotherhood,” “Rubicon”). His widow accepted the Emmy for an episode of “Homeland.” Claire Danes mentioned him later when she picked up her statue. Added to all the eulogies, it was an awful lot of memorial.

As gum-chewing Jeff Daniels won Best Actor in a drama series over Jon Hamm for “Mad Men” and Bryan Cranston for “Breaking Bad,” it was clear to me he was a good choice for this year’s musical chair.

It isn’t easy to deliver Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly self-righteous lines so that their brilliance is maximal and their self-righteousness minimal. And Daniels has done it from the show’s beginning. There are far stupider reasons for getting an Emmy.

So much darkness was, in a very weird way, very entertaining.

An odd way for an Emmy show to appeal, to be sure, but appeal it did.