The 65th Primetime Emmy Awards was a reasonably tight affair (only running 12 minutes over) with fewer song and dance numbers than you'd expect from host Neil Patrick Harris and a fair number of upsets. But despite Harris's reputation for keeping things upbeat, the night often slipped into a somberness that made the show feel longer than its actual 192 minutes.
The show opened with Harris sitting down to watch an entire season of television in what must have been an editor's nightmare as clips from various shows talked to him and to each other. That led into a delightful traffic jam onstage as past Emmy hosts appeared to offer advice. Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, and Conan O'Brien heaped on unhelpful help until they were upstaged by an aside from Kevin Spacey (as his "House of Cards" alter-ego Francis Underwood). "I was promised the hosting job this year and they turned me down," he snarled in a nod to the show that received nine nominations this year. The segment ended on a high note as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler demanded Harris take his pants off and "Twerk it!" "It would be degrading, but we would be de-grateful," purred Poehler.
The awards opened with the first of many of upsets to come as "Nurse Jackie's" Merritt Wever beat out heavy-hitters like Sofia Vergara and category favorite Mayim Bialik to take Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. No one apparently was more surprised than Wever herself as was evident in her acceptance speech: "I gotta go. Bye."
This year, in addition to the "In Memoriam" montage, the producers added five personal remembrances of people who had passed this year. Robin Williams recounted experiences with his mentor, Jonathan Winters (although Winters preferred the term "idol") which were moving, but also light. Later such segments — for Jean Stapleton (by her "All in the Family" son-in-law Rob Reiner), Gary David Goldberg (by Michael J. Fox, who starred in two of his most well-remembered creations, "Spin City" and "Family Ties"), Cory Monteith (by his "Glee" co-star Jane Lynch), and James Gandolfini (by his "Sopranos" wife Edie Falco) grew increasingly glum and permeated the night with a sad, reflective mood that, traditionally, only used to fall during a single obituary montage.
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus took home a statue for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy. She was accompanied onstage by Tony Hale, mirroring their relationship on the show "Veep." His in-character whispering, "I'd like to thank my family. And I love them so much," was one of the better acceptance speech bits of the night. Later, when asked where she will keep her Emmy, Louis-Dreyfus said, "I'm going to sleep with it. I've lost ten times, it's delicious to win."
Continuing the death motif, Elton John paid tribute to Liberace with an original song, inspired by the late pianist's love of home, entitled "Home Again." It was a quiet, heartfelt performance, quite in contrast to Liberace's extravagant persona, but in keeping with the night's dreariness. Afterward, Michael Douglas said of John's song, quoting the man himself, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."
In a night already steeped in loss, writer Henry Bromell's Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series win for "Homeland" only magnified the problem. His wife came to the stage to collect the statue, Bromell himself having passed from a heart attack in March.
A crowd-pleasing moment came when Anna Gunn took Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. It was a stacked field including Dame Maggie Smith ("Downton Abbey") and Emilia Clarke ("Game of Thrones"), but "Breaking Bad" had a full head of steam this year and her win was one of three for the show. This was her first Emmy; as she headed up to the stage, she says co-star "Bryan Cranston just told me to breathe."
For those disappointed there was no opening dance number, the "The Number in the Middle of the Show" sought to make up that gap. The song's gleefully absurd and self-referential tone was further heightened by Nathan Fillion ("Castle") and Sarah Silverman ("The Sarah Silverman Show") who decided to appear in "The Number in the Middle of the Show" after seeing that there was a number in the middle of the show. "So you just arranged this cameo in the last 90 seconds?" asked Harris. "We have great publicists," shot back Silverman.
Diahann Carroll presented alongside Kerry Washington (nominated in another category for her show, "Scandal"). Despite her place in Emmy history as the very first African-American nominee, Carroll seemed more interested in the current state of the business. "The men are much more beautiful than when I was doing television," she said.
The award they were presenting, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, ended with another of the night's huge upsets as Bobby Cannavale won for "Boardwalk Empire." Vegas odds had him at 25 to 1, but he still bested Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad"), Peter Dinklage ("Game of Thrones"), and even Mandy Patinkin ("Homeland") who, Cannavale says, was "the first person I saw on stage." He didn't have a speech prepared, but appreciated the recognition for his work of "Twelve hours of beating someone to death using four different kinds of rubber wrenches."
That upset was immediately followed by another, perhaps the most stunning of the night: Jeff Daniels winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for "The Newsroom." Bryan Cranston was the presumed favorite for "Breaking Bad" (though he's already won three Emmys for the show and will be eligible again next year for the show's last half-season), though Damian Lewis ("Homeland") and Kevin Spacey ("House of Cards") were also strong contenders. John Hamm continues his unbroken streak of six nominations without a win for his role as Don Draper, but he'll still have two more chances for "Mad Men's" final two half-seasons.
Daniels joked that his last award was years ago for Best Actor Over 50 for "The Squid and the Whale." "We'll have to move the Golden Barcolounger the AARP gave me," he crowed to his wife in the audience
Don Cheadle presented a tribute to the year 1963, the birth of the television generation, in the same style as the earlier remembrances of Winters, Stapleton, and the rest. The televising of JFK's assassination and the frenzy of The Beatles signaled the ascension of television's power. Carrie Underwood, following Elton John's lead, gave a subdued performance of "Yesterday" that only served to further drag down the show's good humor.
Bob Newhart — one of the few people who could rival Susan Lucci for Emmy snubs (Lucci was nominated 18 times before winning a Daytime Emmy in 1999) — received a standing ovation when he came up to present an award with Jim Parsons in one of the most emotional moments of the night. "It's a thrill for me to present this award with this TV legend, who won his first Emmy just last week," said Parsons. Newhart won Best Comedy Guest Actor after 52 years at the Creative Emmy Awards for his turn as former children's show host Professor Proton on "The Big Bang Theory."
Towards the end of the night, for the first time, the award for Outstanding Choreography was given out on the main Emmy broadcast and to celebrate, they put on a show-stopping number featuring the song "Luck Be a Lady" from the "Guys and Dolls" musical that was remixed multiple times to pay tribute to "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "American Horror Story," "Boardwalk Empire," "Breaking Bad," and "The Big Bang Theory" before morphing into Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." A few more energetic performances like this would not have been at all unwelcome.
Bryan Cranston and Claire Danes presented Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie and Outstanding Miniseries or TV Movie, both of which went to "Behind the Candelabra" and star Michael Douglas. "This was a two-hander and you're only as good as your other hand," said Douglas to co-star Matt Damon with a double entendre bordering on single entendre that drew whoops from the crowd and left Damon in stitches.
Will Ferrell came out in shorts, a T-shirt and trailed by his three sons to present the final two awards. Claiming that Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith had dropped out at the last moment, "And I couldn't find child care, OK?" The children gamely stood there while Ferrell announced "Modern Family's" fourth Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Steve Levitan sent out a "thank you to the bullies, to the popluar kids, to the gym teachers." The show runner echoed the sentiment of many in his line of work when he said, "Without you we never would have gone into comedy."
And it was "Breaking Bad" that walked away with Outstanding Drama Series — its first win after three previous losses (though it has picked up nine other Emmys in various categories). Both Drama Series and Comedy Series were won by their categories overwhelming favorites, so while this year's show was rife with upsets, in the end, it was the old stand-bys that carried the day.