Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights" wins the Emmy Award for… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
The high point of Sunday night's telecast of the 63rd Primetime Emmys, hosted by Jane Lynch, came fairly early in the evening. As Rob Lowe and Sophia Vergara announced the nominees for lead actress in a comedy series, the women, beginning with Amy Poehler, took the stage as if they had already won. It was a moment both hilarious and poignant — as they stood together, arms linked, the actresses silently made the point virtually every winner subsequently repeated: That every category was so jampacked with talent, it was an honor to be included. (They also proved that one does, apparently, have to be precisely as tall as Tina Fey to be nominated.)
Then, as if that weren't enough, underdog Melissa McCarthy won for "Mike & Molly," and stood, with a tiara on her head and a huge bouquet of roses in her arms, blinking back the tears — "sorry, I'm a crier" — and saying great acceptance speech things like "I'm from Plainfield, Ill., and I'm standing here and it's kind of amazing."
Photos: Emmys 2011's best and worst
At its best, last night's show celebrated the easy intimacy of the many diverse people who create television and their ability to take chances that surprise us. At it worst, it slid into long stretches of snoozy awards-parceling (Is there another comedy on the air besides "Modern Family"? Will "The Daily Show" or "The Amazing Race" ever lose? Shouldn't, at this point, Jon Stewart go on "The Amazing Race" and collapse the categories further?) These were, at times, dotted by moments of painfully bad judgment — Charlie Sheen presenting the award for lead actor in a comedy series so he could appear sober and conciliatory and wish "Two and a Half Men" luck, and yet another hijacking of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," this time for the in memoriam section.
Fortunately, the host and the surprises kept things pleasant if not scintillating — in the evening's biggest double upset, the beloved but beleaguered "Friday Night Lights" beat out perpetual odds-on favorite "Mad Men" in both the writing and lead actor categories, and Barry Pepper won lead actor in a movie or miniseries for his astonishing performance as Bobby Kennedy in the controversial but little-seen "The Kennedys."
Unlike other academies we could name, the television academy is filled with people who are both comfortable on television and willing to forsake mutual reverence for a little fun. If it doesn't work every time, well, at least they tried.
Taking a page from last year's host Jimmy Fallon, Lynch opened with a big musical number in which she wandered through the apartment building in which all the TV people apparently live, singing (or rather lip syncing) an ode to this "vast wonderland where people spend most of their lives." "I hate it when musical numbers come through the apartment," groused Jim Parson's as "The Big Bang's" Sheldon. "Can you get me some coffee?" ordered Don Draper (Jon Hamm) before ordering Lynch out of the room when she tells him she comes from a time people can watch television and skip the commercials.
In another similarly cross-pollinating bit, nominees from all manner of shows invaded the set of "The Office" to address the camera and act out odd moments — "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul arriving to "drop something off," "Two and a Half Men's" Ashton Kutchner showing up on the wrong set. Ricky Gervais, in his pre-taped introduction of the comedy writer nominees, apologized for not being there but claimed he was "not allowed. Not after the Golden Globes. In fact, during award shows, I'm not allowed in the states."
Lynch made a sensible number of wardrobe changes and stayed on her toes. After losing to "Modern Family's" Julie Bowen for supporting actress in a comedy, she admitted that losing "really hurt, and that if I didn't have to host this show, I would be home eating a tub of turkey meatballs. In the dark." And after Kate Winslet's win for "Mildred Pierce," she noted that so many film actors are taking TV roles that TV actors were forced to voice video games, which then became movies starring the film actors who replaced the TV actors in the first place.
As it should be but so often isn't, the best bits came from the winners, even the expected ones. "Modern Family's" Ty Burrell, after winning supporting actor in a comedy, gave a lovely funny acceptance speech in which he imagined what his father, who died before seeing his son ever perform, would think. Margo Martindale could not believe she won supporting actress in a drama for "Justified" even though every single person who saw her performance knew she would, and Peter Dinklage, winning for "Game of Thrones," thanked his dog sitter, which was wonderfully bizarre and just what you would expect from someone playing a character called "The Imp."
Photos: Emmys 2011's best and worst
Even when the jokes went flat and things got a bit boring, the Nokia Theatre remained, essentially, a happy place. The stakes are high, but the personal drama seems less so — many of the nominees have been nominated or won before, and even a few people who aren't Jon Stewart will no doubt be back again next year. So why not act like you've won when your name is announced as a nominee? Why not wear a tiara and cry or talk about your dad and thank your dog sitter? You get to work amid the pixilated pixie dust of television where, as Lynch warbled, "dancing with Bristol Palin…is dancing with a star."