IT was Open Mike Night at the 59th Annual Emmy Awards, organized by your server, um, host Ryan Seacrest. After putting in four hours on the pre-show red carpet meeting-and-greeting for E!, the chillingly ubiquitous Seacrest was presumably too fatigued to do anything like an opening monologue or actual hosting.
So with a quick congratulations to himself for all his hard work ("I am a full-service host") and a display of couture wisdom, he wisely turned it over to the professionals. Ray Romano riffed on marriage ("Guys, if your wife ever complains you're not home enough, stay home for two years. Marriage is hard when you're not on TV"), Ellen DeGeneres took on the curiosity-killing nature of caller ID, and Steve Carell, Lewis Black, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart all stepped up -- a movable host, as it were.
But even with its new theater-in-the-round set, it was a show without a center, unless you count Katherine Heigl, who had the best line of the evening: correcting an earlier mispronunciation of her name. "It's Heigl," she said, stressing the hard "g" the moment she hit her mark to present the award for outstanding supporting actor in a movie or miniseries. "I know, hard name to pronounce."
Oh sure, Seacrest returned at odd, very odd, intervals to make a few jokes -- "To power tonight's show, we've got the entire cast of 'Kid Nation' backstage on treadmills. Stay hydrated, guys." Rim shot. Other than that, he made himself fairly scarce, proving there is a first time for everything.
But then that's what happens when you hire a host to host -- as opposed to a comedian, actor, writer or even Al Gore, for that matter.
Now, Gore knows how to sell an idea -- interactive television will take back democracy! Elaine Stritch would have been another good choice -- squinting to read the teleprompter, she riffed on Ellen's bit: "And I'm not making this up. I really don't know what the hell I'm doing."
Slow on the uptake
Which pretty much sums up the show. While the role of award show host is an easy target, it's also an actual job. It would have been nice to have had some sort of commentary on what was, in many ways, a very unpredictable Emmys. Sally Field got bleeped, for heaven's sake, at the end of her antiwar, pro-motherhood acceptance speech. The Flying Nun -- bleeped! That's Award Show Host gold, yet after the commercial we were back to our regularly scheduled Emmys as if nothing had happened.
Even "The Sopranos," which should have provided an anchor on its last Emmy go-round, seemed somehow adrift. Losing in most of its categories until it picked up outstanding drama, the show that built cable was paid what can only be described as a baffling musical tribute -- some of the cast of the Broadway hit show "Jersey Boys" took to the stage with their very best Four Seasons impersonations. Suddenly, Journey makes so much sense.
Some ballast was provided by Helen Mirren, who continued her tyrannical hold over every awards show in the world -- the final "Prime Suspect" brought Mirren yet another trophy. (Maybe she can host next year. Or Tina Fey; she's funny and smart.) And after Ricky Gervais was a no-show for his best actor in a comedy award, presenters Colbert and Stewart decided to give it to Carell -- their joyous cavorting was, perhaps, the show's high point.
Who's in charge?
Hostless and unmoored, the show had the choppy pacing of a real award show -- that is, one put on by a group other than television professionals.
Real estate agents, perhaps, or journalists. In a way, the flailing tone reflected the awards themselves, which were a mishmash of real surprises (Field for outstanding actress in a drama, "30 Rock," outstanding comedy) and no-brainers (Robert Duvall, outstanding actor in a miniseries and "The Sopranos" for drama).
Or perhaps it was all just an intentional homage to "American Idol." Certainly that was the reason behind the circular stage. The new set made it easier for the TV audience to see all the famous faces, which is, of course, the reason most people watch the Emmys -- to see stars in their natural habitat.
At any given point, however, a large number of people in the actual audience were looking at backs, which is television heresy.
"I've been to thousands and thousands of concerts in my life, and I can tell you these are the worst seats I've ever had," said best actor in a drama series winner James Spader. Meanwhile, the swirly camera work the setup required occasionally provoked motion sickness.
Also not a good thing in an awards show.