A faint smell of panic permeated the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday as the television industry as a whole finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis. "Tonight we celebrate the best of television," host Neil Patrick Harris said, joking: "For our younger audience, that's the thing you watch on your phones."
Content-wise, TV is in a remarkable place. But what exactly is TV in the 21st century?
That question hung heavy in the air on the CBS broadcast, everyone smiling gamely through the sweaty uncertainty. The solution, as offered by the Emmy show producers, was to continually look back. The opening monologue devolved into an unofficial tribute to Emmy hosts past, including Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jane Lynch and Jimmy Kimmel, who ran up onstage to offer a "smidge of advice... because there's a good chance they won't ask you back next year. They didn't ask Jane Lynch back, is what I'm saying."
Sitting in the audience, Kevin Spacey then turned around to face the camera: "It's all going according to my plan," he said, channelling the scheming politician he plays on House of Cards, twirling his moustache in the name of Netflix and its streaming-TV brethren. Addressing the collection of Emmy hosts on stage: "Look at that parade of blabbering buffoons. They couldn't host a child's birthday party."
And then last year's Golden Globe hosting duo, Tina Fey (a winner Sunday for comedy writing on 30 Rock) and Amy Poehler, riffed from the front row, but at least their bit was zany enough to really work. "Take your pants off! And twerk it!" Fey ordered Harris. Poehler: "It might be degrading, but we would be degrateful."
But it is the digital revolution -- of DVRs and streaming and commercial-free binge-viewing -- that wrought an Emmys broadcast as a rage against the dying light. Or at least a white-knuckled insistence, nay reminder, that broadcast television is still relevant. Harris and Co. repeatedly looked back to the medium's impact from days gone by with perfunctory tributes that stood apart from the standard In Memoriam segment, and Elton John performed a Liberace homage, among many moments that focused on a time when TV was something far more defined.
"Liberace left us 25 years ago and what a difference those years have made to people like me," said John, who is openly gay in contrast to the closeted Liberace portrayed in the TV movie.
Back in the present tense, Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her second Emmy in two years for her performance on Veep, bringing with her to the podium co-star Tony Hale (who also nabbed an Emmy for supporting actor, comedy) to hold her purse, a terrific gag that echoed the job Hale performs on the HBO series. "I would like to thank... she began, then stopped, at a loss, before Hale prompted her: ... my family."
Jim Parsons took home his third Emmy for Big Bang Theory, giving a straightforward, earnest speech before interrupting himself, "It's so silly to be emotional, isn't it?"
Anna Gunn, who has weathered an onslaught of fan backlash for her role as the compromised wife of a meth dealer on Breaking Bad, walked away with the award for supporting actress on a drama.
In a shocker, Bryan Cranston, who plays Gunn's husband, Walter White,on the show, lost to The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels for best actor in a drama.
But the shocks ended there, as Breaking Bad, AMC's soon-to-end tale of White's descent into depravity, won the Emmy for best drama. It was the first time Breaking Bad had won the award despite three previous nominations.
Modern Family won for best comedy.
Best actress in a drama once again went to Homeland's Claire Danes.
The Emmy Sunday represented the third time Danes has taken home a trophy in four years. She won a best actor award for a TV movie in 2010 for her role in HBO's Temple Grandin.
House of Cards, the Netflix drama, came away with only one Emmy on the night, for David Fincher's direction of the series set in the political halls of Washington, D.C.
Behind the Candelabra, the Steven Soderbergh-lensed HBO film about Liberace that was turned down by the big screen, won for best TV movie or miniseries.
By far the best speech of the night -- charming, flustered and succinct -- came from comedy supporting actress winner Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie): "Um." Long pause. "I gotta go, bye!" The soul of wit, as they say, is brevity.
-- Chicago Tribune, with files from The Associated Press