After a glacially paced first hour, Campaign 2008 intruded into Sunday night's 60th annual Emmy Awards—and not a moment too soon.
A few well-timed political jokes and barbs—plus star turns by Ricky Gervais and Don Rickles—were all that stood between this year's Emmys and complete social irrelevance. Between the amorphous collection of reality personalities blandly hosting the show, and the early list of ho-hum winners, things got off to a rocky start.
But then came the mini-flood of politically themed remarks.
Laura Linney, winning for "John Adams," gave a nod to the "community organizers" who helped found America. It was a subtle retort to the Republicans' attacks on Sen. Barack Obama's resume.
There was a dig at Sarah Palin (or was it George Bush?): "I'm living proof that anyone can play the president," said "John Adams" winner Paul Giamatti. "Any….one."
Emmy co-hosts Tom Bergeron and Ryan Seacrest called Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes the most unintentionally funny folks on TV. Probably not a wise move, as it will only strengthen the paranoia of those who believe Hollywood is made up of nothing but liberals.
Of course, New Yorkers Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert also felt the urge to weigh in with one of the best bits of the night. As Mr. Colbert ate a bunch of prunes, Mr. Stewart asked him if that was a good idea, prompting Mr. Colbert to extol the virtues of shriveled old prunes over shiny new plums who lack experience. It wasn't hard to figure out who was who in the analogy.
Earlier, Mr. Stewart had said he was looking forward to the next administration, "whoever it is."
And Tom Hanks, executive producer of "John Adams," talked about how early political campaigns in the U.S. were filled with lies and personal attacks. "How great we've come so far," he said sarcastically.
Not suprisingly, Tommy Smothers spoke most eloquently—and directly—to the current political environment with a moving speech about the importance of speaking truth to power. "There's nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action," he said, allowing the viewer to define ignorance for himself.
By contrast, even though this was the first Emmys since the writers strike, you'd hardly know that just a few months ago, Hollywood was torn apart by labor strife. "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner made one of the only references to what happened last winter.
While the political references will no doubt give bloggers plenty of fodder, and provided some mild distractions for viewers, they weren't enough to make this year's Emmys remotely interesting.
Pre-show predictions were that the 60th Emmys would likely be the least-watched ever. If that's true, viewers didn't miss much.
About a half-hour into Sunday's Emmys, it became crystal clear that the producers of the Emmys had overlooked the obvious choice for host.
In just a few minutes on camera, Ricky Gervais injected wit, drama and spontaneity into a broadcast that's offered very little of all three over the last few years. His "Give me back my Emmy" shtick with Steve Carell was obviously planned (at least a little) in advance, but it felt completely unrehearsed.
By contrast, when the five reality show hosts— let's call them Seaprobst Manbergaklum—vamped at the beginning of the show, you could feel the air draining from the Nokia Theater. It may have been a tad ungracious for Jeremy Piven to diss his hosts on-air, but he was probably speaking for everyone in the room—and millions more yawning at home.
An opening montage of familiar faces reciting familiar lines from TV history was an OK idea but not particularly interesting or funny. What's worse, producers ripped themselves off later in the show by using the same gimmick for a "Laugh-In" tribute. ("Sock it…to me?")
A much better stunt came at the end of the evening, when Jimmy Kimmel got to torture the reality hosts by making them wait until "after the break" to find out who had won. Predictable? Sure, but it worked.
As for the awards themselves, this year's batch contained the usual mix of head-scratchers (Jean Smart is great, but Jean Smart over the amazing Amy Poehler? Dianne Wiest in an HBO series most viewers had never heard of? And, I'm sorry to reveal my ignorance, but just who is Eileen Atkins?)
Likewise, as great a show as "The Amazing Race" is, giving the reality competition award to it six years in a row—more than any scripted or unscripted series ever—is an insult to the dynamic, innovative genre that is reality TV.
On the other hand, there were some very encouraging signs. Jeff Probst is one of the best personalities on TV and someone who is key to the success of "Survivor." His show should have won a series Emmy by now, but the hosting trophy will have to do for now.
It was also great to see "30 Rock" continue to rock at the Emmys, with wins for series and both actor and actress. Great to have Mary Tyler Moore and Betty White to present the award—and to see Tina Fey remember to tell viewers when they can watch the show (on TV).
And while "Mad Men" didn't sweep, it got just enough love to merit all of the hype surrounding it and to allow other shows to feel the love.
A few other observations about a show that came in on time and yet continually felt hurried:
--Cute moment of the show: Heidi Klum referring to "The Bones." I love "The Bones"! "The House," too.
--Sage advice award: Barry Sonnenfeld, who said, "Love TV and fear the Internet." Amen, brother Barry.
--Ms. Fey didn't make a Sarah Palin reference. Smart move.
--Conan O'Brien had me counting the days until June 1, when he takes over "The Tonight Show."
--Mr. Colbert's writing staff won an Emmy—and the less-publicized race for best montage used to visualize the writers of variety shows.
--A clip of the self-abuse- related "The Contest" to represent "Seinfeld"? In the 8 o'clock hour? On the Emmys? Really?