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Emmy Watch: As TV Enters the Future, Its Academy Remains Stuck in the Past

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! August 26, 2014 at 12:21AM

If you watched tonight's Emmys and suddenly felt as though it were 1974 rather than 2014, you're not alone. Amid profound changes in how, where, and why we watch television -- to the point that "television" increasingly feels like a misnomer -- the medium's flagship organization seemed confused as to which 'Golden Age' to celebrate.
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Three wins for Emmy standby "Modern Family," including Supporting Actor Ty Burrell (above), symbolized a preference for tradition over change.
Three wins for Emmy standby "Modern Family," including Supporting Actor Ty Burrell (above), symbolized a preference for tradition over change.

If you watched tonight's Emmys and suddenly felt as though it were 1974 rather than 2014, you're not alone. Amid profound changes in how, where, and why we watch television -- to the point that "television" increasingly feels like a misnomer -- the medium's flagship organization seemed confused as to which 'Golden Age' to celebrate.

From the outset, with host Seth Meyers' oh-so-meta monologue (including one-liners about HBO's dominance, the strong showing of Netflix originals, and the heavily dramatic slate of nominated comedies), the ceremony played a strange sort of defense. You don't think we're cool? Well, we know we're not cool! Meyers' very first joke, about this year's shift to a Monday-night time slot in the dog days of summer, set the tone for the entire three-hour telecast: "The Emmys," he quipped, "are about to get cancelled."

On its own, Meyers' inside baseball approach was witty, and (to the TV Twitter set of stars, execs, and critics, at least) played successfully into the broader narrative of an art form in flux. There were plenty of other nods at new media. Weird Al Yankovic, in an appropriately oddball spin on the viral video parodies that recently sent his album "Mandatory Fun" to the top of the charts, reinterpreted the wordless themes to "Mad Men," "Scandal," "Game of Thrones," and others; Chris Hardwick, of Comedy Central's "@midnight," showed up to call out Internet trolls for their poor grammar; Ricky Gervais, reading from his prepared "victory speech," twisted the knife with his remark that "Emmy voters... are never wrong."

Self-awareness isn't new to Hollywood -- the behind-the-scenes showbiz narrative, from "A Star is Born" and "The Player" to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Newsroom," is a genre unto itself -- but the intermittent playfulness sat uneasily alongside tone-deaf traditionalism. Musical bumpers transitioned into and out of commercial breaks with funk-inflected renditions of TV themes from the days of yore. Stephen Colbert's in-character joke about getting a call from "the president of television" recalled the iconic boardroom screed in "Network" (1976) more than it did than his own victorious variety series, "The Colbert Report." And, on a night marked by Lead Actress winner Julianna Marguiles ("The Good Wife") proclaiming, "What a wonderful time for women on television," Sofia Vergara ("Modern Family") twirled silently on stage like a life-size Emmy statuette as TV Academy chair Bruce Rosenblum droned on beside her. The Emmys should have awarded period dramas "Mad Men" and "Masters of Sex," rather than aping the sexist politics on display therein.

As a piece of pop entertainment in its own right, the Emmy telecast toggled uncomfortably between past and present. But as a representation of TV Academy voters' tastes, the Emmys were happy to stick with the present in the face of a fast-approaching future. Despite the critical steam behind the likes of "Orange is the New Black" (Netflix) -- which challenged mores, remade the distribution model, and came up empty-handed save for Uzo Aduba's Guest Actress win at the Creative Arts Emmys -- uninspired perennial "Modern Family" (ABC) kept its streak alive with three awards, including Best Comedy. Bucking expectation, CBS (3 wins) and PBS (3, all for "Sherlock: His Last Vow") fared almost as well as HBO (4 wins). The least surprising of the evening's developments was the triumphant bow of "Breaking Bad" (AMC), which won for Drama, Lead Actor (Bryan Cranston), Supporting Actress (Anna Gunn), Supporting Actor (Aaron Paul), and Writing. Even when the Emmys got it right this time around, it felt like a blast from the past.    

In the end it was consummate professional Billy Crystal, paying emotional tribute to the late Robin Williams, who finally nailed the balance between television tradition and this new "Golden Age." Like his ingenious subject, Crystal was neither old-fashioned nor faddish, but classic: "What a concept."

Full list of winners after the jump.

This article is related to: Emmy Awards, Awards, Awards, Emmys, TV, TV Reviews, Television, Television, Reviews


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.