The Emmy awards are usually nice and predictable, both in good ways (the show is typically fast paced) and bad (too many lazy repeat winners). But the 62nd Emmys contained several mild surprises and a couple of true stunners. There was genuine suspense when the night's final award was about to be handed out, and even the most automatic winners happened to involve the two best shows on television, so who can really complain about that?
Host Jimmy Fallon was the biggest question mark heading into the evening, and he comes away with his reputation enhanced. We didn't see any of the nervousness that has been a problem for him in the past, as his energy and puppydog eagerness to please was welcome.
The night began with a Glee-influenced song-and-dance to the tune of "Born to Run," with Fallon aided by Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Jorge Garcia (!) and Randy Jackson in addition to the kids from Fox. He had a hard act to follow here -- remember that last year's Emmy host was Neil Patrick Harris, who excels at this sort of thing -- but the bit managed to come to a halt just at the point where it would have stopped being cute.
The night's bests and worsts:
Best duel: The evening-long battle between Glee and Modern Family was finally resolved when the latter took home the night's final award, for best comedy. In between the shows shared the supporting actor awards (Jane Lynch for Glee and Eric Stonestreet overcoming two Modern Family co-stars). Of the major comedy awards given out Sunday, only Jim Parsons's best actor Emmy went to a veteran series (there were two seasons of Nurse Jackie in the last eligibility period) -- proof that this is truly a revitalized art form.
Worst innovation: As feared, Fallon's attempt to bring Twitter into the telecast proved to be an excuse to quickly flip the channel to see if Alexander Skarsgard was getting naked this week. Absolutely none of the tweets read on the air were memorable in the least.
Best interloper: Has there ever been anyone like Ricky Gervais before, someone who award show producers approach to plead "Just come on out and do a moderately topical monologue for a few minutes?" Gervais got mixed reviews for hosting the most recent Golden Globes, but he was very much in form Sunday, making a viciously wonderful crack at the expense of Mel Gibson and decrying the lack of alcoholic nourishment. He then proceeded to have fun with the name of Emmy-winning Olympics producer Bucky Gunts (the only person from NBC who won anything all night).
Best ending of domination: The seven-year run for The Amazing Race as winner of best reality competition show is finally over, as it was beaten out by Top Chef (probably the best of the nominated options). It's still apparent that the Emmys acknowledge reality only grudgingly, but this was a startling changing of the guard.
Worst continuing of domination: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart won its zillionth Emmy for best variety program, but while it has shown no lessening of quality, we were deprived of the spectacle of Conan O'Brien winning for The Tonight Show and trying really, really hard not to rub NBC's corporate nose in it. Give the producers credit, though, for not ignoring the whole Conan/Leno controversy in the clip segment.
Worst cameo: Putting Kate Gosselin in the opening musical number was a total misstep. Never mind that the intent was to show her poking fun at her inability to dance -- if there's one thing we know about her, it's that she has no genuine capacity to laugh at herself. So while we might accept watching Hamm sending up his button-down '60s persona rehearsing with Betty White, Kate just brought the bit to a halt, literally and figuratively.
Best multiple cameos: HBO's Temple Grandin had a huge night, and no one seemed to enjoy herself more than the real Grandin, who was shown in the audience cheering for winning actor David Strathairn, and later came onstage when the film won the best movie Emmy. This behavior from most biopic subjects might be seen as grandstanding, but the scientist/autism advocate's apparent comfort in the glitzy setting, contrasted with her struggles as depicted in the film, proved just how far she has come.
Best trivia answer: Bryan Cranston (who looked a lot healthier this year now that he's no longer playing a man in chemo) became only the second person to win best actor in a drama for a third straight year. The other man to manage the feat? Not Dennis Franz, not James Gandolfini, not Peter Falk, not even James Spader -- it was Bill Cosby (I Spy).
Worst manners: There are very few people on an Emmy telecast who have the juice to simply blow off the request that acceptance speeches be kept short and sweet. One of them is Al Pacino, winner of best actor in a movie/miniseries for You Don't Know Jack, who rambled on and on to diminishing returns, finally wrapping it up after an apparently sheepish plea popped up on the prompter. Hey, who's going to tell Michael Corleone to shut up? Julia Ormond, a winner for Temple Grandin, was nearly as bad. Contrast this with Tom Hanks, who was both brief and focused outside himself when accepting his Emmy for The Pacific.
Best surprise winner: This has to go to Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad, prevailing in the stacked best supporting actor in a drama field despite the relatively low profile of his show and sentiment working in favor of Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson of Lost. Paul deserved the award last year too, but as anyone who ever worked on The Wire could tell you, deserving Emmys and winning them aren't the same thing.
Next best surprise: Jim Parsons taking home the best actor in a comedy Emmy for The Big Bang Theory, a sign that the critical grumblings about the most recent seasons of 30 Rock (Alec Baldwin) and The Office (Steve Carell) might have filtered down to the voters.
Worst surprise winner: Kyra Sedgwick. Why now? She's been nominated for best actress in a drama almost every year The Closer has been on the air, so it's not like it's the hot new show. She compounded the injustice with one of the few annoying speeches of the evening. Connie Britton or (especially) the non-nominated Katey Sagal or Anna Gunn would have been vastly superior choices here.
Best proof that fame is fleeting: Remember how the world came to a standstill three months ago when Lost had its finale? The series was totally forgotten Sunday night, not a single major Emmy for a signature program of the past decade.
Worst impersonation of a happy winner: What was up with January Jones when she was onstage with the rest of the Mad Men winners? She looked as glum as if she had just been reading her old Saturday Night Live reviews, or gotten a note describing why Sally Draper was sent to the principal's office.
Best acknowledgment that Emmy may have made a mistake: Edie Falco, accepting the best actress in a comedy Emmy for Nurse Jackie, protested "I'm not funny!" She can be funny, but her show isn't much of a comedy, and her win seemed like a paint-by-numbers honoring of an old favorite.
Worst thing about the 2011 Emmys: Neither Cranston nor Paul will be around to defend their titles, as the fourth season of Breaking Bad won't air until next summer, after the eligibility period for the next Emmys has expired.
Best example of where the Emmys stand in Hollywood: Jeff Bridges was nominated and didn't show up. But he sure picked up his Oscar in person, didn't he?