CRITIQUE: The TV Academy got half the equation right, with producer Don Mischer learning from the past.
Give the folks at the TV Academy credit: They learn from their mistakes.
Now, if only Emmy voters were as ambitious as the show's producers. The safe, utterly predictable choices once again sucked much of the life out of what was otherwise a brilliantly executed three-hour broadcast.
Of course, it would have been hard for Emmy not to improve on its recent past.
Last year's ceremony was a low-point for the industry, a bloated bore of a show that seemed to symbolize everything that's wrong with show business these days. From the indecisiveness of having multiple hosts to the boring clip packages, virtually nothing about the 2008 Emmys worked.
The disaster of last year prompted much soul-searching at the Academy. For a few minutes, there was even a plan to pre-tape some categories in order to give more time to entertainment elements.
But guess what? Even with a full roster of 245 awards, it turns out you can produce a great awards show if you have the right elements.
And this year, the key ingredient for success was the casting of Neil Patrick Harris in the role of host.
From the moment he stepped on stage, Harris elevated this year's show high above last year's debacle.
His opening song and dance was sly, subtle and spectacular all at once. It avoided the camp of a Rob Lowe/Snow White misfire, but also offered some clever inside jokes for the industry crowd ("Put down that remote," he sang, as if praying for a return to the good old days of three networks and no DVRs).
Production numbers have been all but banned from awards shows in recent years, but Harris and the Emmy producers proved they can still work when done right. (As with a later segment featuring hoofers from "Dancing with the Stars").
Overall, Harris was exactly what you want from an emcee: He gave the show an emotional core, popping up every so a with a well-written aside or a clever intro.
And yet, he never made the show about him. When a joke or bit bombed — and more than a few did — he quickly found a way to move on, making fun of himself or the joke.
How good was NPH? So excellent that several winners and presenters took time from their acceptance speeches to praise his skills.
"This is how you host the Emmys," said "Survivor's" Jeff Probst, one of last year's unfortunate gang of five hosts.
But as good as Harris was, he wasn't the only reason this year's show worked so well.
Producer Don Mischer, perhaps sensing that this might be a do-or-die year for the notion of Emmys on broadcast TV, wasted no opportunity to fill each minute of the show with some new, interesting element.
The reading of nominees' names, usually a snooze, this year featured actors comically sporting eyewear (the supporting comedy women), or writers joking about the secrets to their craft. It's a trick long used by the writers of variety shows; Mischer was wise to spread the idea to other categories.
When Harris introduced presenters, rather than hype their upcoming or current projects, he mentioned their most obscure credits. It got a little old by later in the show (and wisely, Harris switched to more conventional intros), but for the most part, it worked.
A pre-taped bit featuring Harris as Dr. Horrible also worked nicely (though it needed more singing!)
Clip packages didn't just focus on nominated shows but instead featured scenes from a wide variety of shows. It felt inclusive and made for far more interesting viewing.
And when winners walked to the stage, an off-camera announcer offered up offbeat (and often just plain false) information about the winners. It was as if David Letterman's team took control of the Emmys.
There was also an unofficial theme to the night. Several times throughout the evening, presenters and Harris seemed to be making a pitch to viewers that broadcast TV was good and was worth saving.
The Dr. Horrible sketch took a mild jab at Internet hype. Harris' opening song lobbied viewers to just sit back, relax and enjoy some TV. Even Julia Louis-Dreyfus quipped that this was the last year of broadcast TV as we knew it (a little insider-y, but it was funny).
Not everything worked. It was nice having a live singer perform during the tribute to the legends we lost.
But Sarah McLachlan crooning a 14-year-old tune? There had to be more current choices.
A bit about the winner of a contest getting shafted with bad seats also didn't pan out. But Harris, again, made the best of it– and no long-term harm was done.
Overall, the 2009 Emmys are a model for what award shows should be: Quick-paced, a little bit irreverent and yet still respectful to nominees and winners. It's almost a shame Mischer can't be nominated for an Emmy for the Emmys, because this year, he'd have a darn good chance of winning.
Despite the great job producers did making the show move and even sing at times, there was nothing they could do about the fact that the Academy's ultimate choices for winners offered little to get excited about.
The best symbol of this: "The Amazing Race" and "The Daily Show" picked up their seventh consecutive wins for best reality competition and best variety/music/comedy series. Both are records.
Nothing against either broadcast, but what's the point of an awards show when the same cast of characters ends up winning year after year? The Academy needs to find a way to make sure new blood gets a chance at winning.
Other categories were equally predictable. The drama actor and actress awards were both repeats from last year; ditto the best comedy and drama.
Things got off to a promising start at the beginning of the night. Kristin Chenoweth's win for best supporting actress in a comedy was a surprise to many, and she rewarded the Academy with an electric speech.
But after that, the awards headed to snoozeville.
It's not that winners were undeserving. They were, however, utterly predictable (anyone with a big film resume had an edge).
Jeff Probst is super-talented. But he won last year. You don't get to win "American Idol" two years in a row. Maybe some categories should be one-time-only affairs (it'll never happen, but one can dream….)
Now that the Academy has figured out how to make its broadcast better, it needs to get to the job of reforming the rules for Emmys.
A best new series category is a no-brainer. An award for actors under 30 could be a crowd-pleaser. And capping wins in a category at, say, three consecutive years might not be such a bad notion, either.
In the end, though, kvetching about the winners is, let's face it, part of the award show experience. What's most important is that producers put on a show that celebrates TV and does all it can to entertain viewers.
On that count, Mischer, Harris and the team that produced the 61st Annual Emmy Awards succeeded wildly.
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