Neil Patrick Harris Triumphs in a Much-Improved Emmycast

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Congratulations to CBS, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, producer Don Mischer and producer-host Neil Patrick Harris for putting together the most entertaining Emmy telecast in recent memory.

That said, the future still looks bleak for this beleaguered awards franchise. Even at its best it seems to run on forever, especially for viewers who don’t have a professional interest in the show.

Sunday’s telecast was a hit with critics and everyone else who has anything to do with the television business. But we seem to exist in a different dimension than ordinary citizens. I cannot name a single friend or family member outside of the media who had any interest in the Emmys whatsoever (even the Lost fans). Most of them chose not to watch. Those who did bailed by the end of the first hour, including the people I watched with, who left me alone to go watch the Giants-Cowboys game or kill time on their computers. This happened despite a number of exciting new additions to the Emmys, including a dazzling technology rich set that visually enhanced the proceedings, a charismatic host who opened the evening with a fun musical number in which he implored viewers to put down their remotes and pay attention, the very smart decision to group the awards by genre and generous servings of clips from popular shows, including those largely ignored by the Academy.

There was even a series of surprises that added some suspense to it all, at least until the end when several of last year’s big winners repeated themselves. Kristin Chenoweth of Pushing Daisies, Jon Cryer of Two and a Half Men, Michael Emerson of Lost and Cherry Jones of 24 were all honored in supporting categories, each of them defying popular predictions from critics, bloggers and other industry observers. (Personally, I was thrilled for Chenoweth and Jones and happy to see Cryer receive some long overdue Emmy love. I would have preferred to see Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad included in the winners’ circle, though I can’t complain about Emerson having his moment in the spotlight.)

Tellingly – and perhaps unnervingly – the most entertaining segment of the show was the surprise appearance by host Harris and the wickedly funny Nathan Fillion as their combative characters from Joss Whedon’s Internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. Mad-scientist Horrible hacked into the telecast during the usually windy explanation of the official voting procedure and declared that television is dead. “That’s right, sofa monkeys,” he cackled. “No more corporate entertainment! No more self-congratulatory award shows with athletic yet luminous hosts! The future of home entertainment is the Internet!” His message: Why watch TV on spectacular flat screen TVs when you can watch it in tiny little boxes on your computer? While Horrible was boasting about the medium that made him a star the picture periodically froze and went into all-too-familiar buffering mode.

Dr. Horrible’s nemesis Captain Hammer then stormed in to clobber the TV doomsayer. “I’ve mastered this Internet and I tell you it’s nothing but a fad!” Hammer declared. “TV is here to stay . . . like the Ottoman Empire, the music industry and Zima!” Horrible seized control back from Hammer and began to rant about controlling the Emmys, only to realize that the battery on his computer was about to die. “Noooo!” he cried as the picture broke up and disappeared. The Emmy telecast resumed just as the accountants were finishing their explanations. (By the way, Dr. Horrible won the Emmy for Outstanding Special Class Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program at last week’s Creative Arts Emmy Awards. “We are honored to accept the award for the most incomprehensible category,” Whedon joked as he was handed his first-ever Emmy.)

For what it’s worth, the least entertaining segment was the stupidly violent Family Guy skit in which Stewie beat Brian the dog to a pulp. It drove the last hanger-on at my sad Emmy gathering from the room.

So what could the Emmy telecast include that might make it more appealing? How about a song or two by popular American Idol veterans or a dance number that includes past celebrities from Dancing with the Stars? Creative music performances have pumped up ratings for other awards shows in recent years, from the Grammys to the Tonys to the Academy of Country Music Awards. It couldn’t hurt for the Emmys to try.

Then again, more entertainment might not be the answer. I guess there’s just no getting around the fact that most of the television audience does not watch or maintain any interest in most of the programs that take home the biggest awards, some by the bushel. This year that group included Mad Men, 30 Rock, Breaking Bad, Damages, United States of Tara and the hot HBO movie of the season, Grey Gardens – all of them deserving of the top honors they received and most of them superior to the majority of feature films released in recent years, including those honored with Academy Awards.

The only suggestion I can make at this point, beyond the broadcasters bailing on Emmy and a number of basic cable networks teaming up to simulcast the show, would be to remove the pace-killing movie and miniseries awards from the main event and add them to the Creative Arts ceremony, which takes place one week earlier. Even if the big Emmy show were to continue in broadcast rotation, perhaps moving movies to the Creative Arts event would make the latter more desirable as a possible live telecast in its own right on a basic cable network. (E! recorded this year’s Creative Arts ceremony and ran it on a Friday afternoon!) HBO might also be interested. Surely the pay-cable giant would consider freeing up its signal for one night so that all cable subscribers would have a chance to see so many of its own programs honored.

I’m good as long as the Emmys don’t end up online. One big buffer and I’d be out of there.

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