Oscars lite? Surprises on Emmy night

Wise-cracking host Neil Patrick Harris’s tap-dancing and arch quips felt familiar, but the roster of winners on the night raised some eyebrows

When it comes to television award shows, the Emmys have consistently tried to emulate other awards shows. They think they’re the TV Oscars.

From ceremonies that last as long as an Oireachtas enquiry to competitive red-carpet fashion, it coat-tails on its bigger sibling’s set-up. Wise-cracking host? Check. Celebrities presenting awards and trying to sound natural while reading a teleprompter? Check. Nostalgic eulogies? Check.

The identikit glitter-shtick of the Oscars-Emmys hybrid shows how much the gap between film and television has narrowed. TV, that grassy paddock where dribbly old actors once grazed and thought of their Hollywood heydays, has become a much more interesting arena.

Would Michael Douglas, now in the twilight of his career, have gone near television a decade ago? Doubtful. And yet there he was on Sunday night, making gay sex innuendo jokes as he accepted his award for best lead actor in a miniseries or movie for Behind the Candelabra. Douglas's award is well deserved for a role where coquettish high camp is no substitute for acting. Television, once a poor man's movie canvas, is now where the bigger risks are being taken, from content to casting.


If host Neil Patrick Harris tap-dancing through arch quips and the medium of song is familiar, the roster of winners on the night was surprising. Even by Harris's standards, the mid-show cabaret tune, The Number in the Middle of the Show, was light on laughs and celebrity cameos. On the other hand, the opening segment had a genuinely funny moment, as Harris was joined by past hosts offering reasons why they weren't asked back: a tap-dancing Jimmy Fallon; a bombastic Conan O'Brien; and Glee's Jane Lynch pointing out that it was because she is a woman.

The show structure and tone had all the presence and originality of the seat-fillers who deputise for stars on bathroom breaks. The only moments that weren’t painfully choreographed and over-staged were the actual winner announcements.

Sure, there were accumulators from people who won last year – Claire Danes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus – but there were some genuine surprises. Merritt Weaver, who won best supporting actress in a comedy series for her role in Nurse Jackie, was one such. Clearly gobsmacked at her win, Weaver could only manage a pithy, "Thank you so much. Um, I gotta go".

No gong for Cranston
The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels's win for best actor in a drama series proves that a good actor in an okay role in a terrible TV show can still pick up gongs. It smarts all the more that he was chosen over Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston. In Walter White, Cranston has given us an iconic TV character, one whose multiple lives and personas are as contradictory as the morals and motivations that drive him. White the meek chemistry teacher would probably have clapped politely at the result, but Heisenberg the meth lord would have busted out the ricin. Vince Gilligan's show, which concludes next week, was finally rewarded with its first Emmy for best drama series.

Little joy for Netflix
For all the good it is doing in multi-platform TV consumption, Netflix had a decidedly underwhelming night. Its flagship show, House of Cards, picked up one win (David Fincher, for Outstanding Direction for a Drama Series) from 14 nominations. It makes Emmy history, though, as the first win for a web-only series.

Jason Bateman – a fine comic actor on another Netflix show, Arrested Development – is burdened with a part in a series whose return has been underwhelming. Bateman lost out to Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory for best supporting actor in a comedy series, but his Arrested Development castmate Tony Hale walked off with the award for his role in Veep. If it was an upset, no one seemed to mind.

Few could begrudge Laura Linney an award, this time for Hereafter (she won in 2011 for The Big C), especially in a category that included Helen Mirren and Sigourney Weaver.

Her standout competition, however, was Elizabeth Moss, who was exceptional (and overlooked) for her role in Jane Campion's Top of the Lake. The seven-part series ran in a regular BBC slot dedicated to longer drama, something the BBC does well. It also gave us The Girl, about the life of Alfred Hitchcock, whose star Toby Jones got an Emmy nomination.

This same drama slot fostered much quality, including The Hour. The 1950s broadcasting drama had loyal fans but its nicheness was a factor in it being axed earlier this year. It was a bad move by the Beeb, which watched the show's writer, Abi Morgan, collect an Emmy for Best Writing in a Mini-Series. Morgan was the only British winner, despite a slew of nominations across various categories.

Downton Abbey went home empty-handed, but after last Sunday's dreary fourth series opener, it's not difficult to understand why.

Worthy winners? The good, the bad and the sparkly

Bobby Cannavale
Cannavale, winner of Best Supporting Actor for his role in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, is a decent actor, albeit one with limited range. He was up against Aaron Paul of show du jour Breaking Bad, and the brilliant Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones, which makes his win all the more surprising.

Modern Family
This Marmite show divides people. Some like the slick writing, others think it is too obvious and knowingly clever. It was nominated in the same category as Lena Dunham's Girls (which faltered in series two) but Louis CK's self-titled show about a single dad and stand-up comedian is an exceptional piece of work and would have been a worthier winner.

Behind the Candelabra
Upon first hearing about this production, I tried to imagine the pitch. "Let's get Mikey – you know, Michael Douglas – to play Liberace in the style of Lady Gaga, but with Matt Damon as his boy toy. Gay sex! Diamante sailor outfits! Rob Lowe as the Bride of Wildenstein! It's gold. "