This may have been the weirdest Emmy Awards in recent history. And that, unfortunately, was not such a good thing. • The best example from Sunday's broadcast? Comic Will Ferrell ambled onstage with three kids in a t-shirt and sandals, saying he was asked at the last minute to announce the night's two biggest awards. Moments later, he handed the befuddled cast and producers of ABC's Modern Family their third consecutive award as best TV comedy.
"This may be the saddest Emmys of all time, but we could not be happier," cracked executive producer Steve Levitan, referring to a slew of tributes to deceased celebrities which appeared throughout the show. "None of us grew up feeling like winners. So thank you to the bullies …who taunted us. … Without you, we would have never gone into comedy."
Ferrell also handed out the best drama Emmy, to Breaking Bad — a surprise win after several of the show's stars were passed over in earlier categories. "Holy crap … I did not see this coming," said show creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan, echoing a sentiment expressed often in the evening.
One source of weirdness: In major categories, Emmy voters seemed to veer between picking winners who were well-established favorites and head-scratching honorees so unexpected that even they had no clue they had a chance of walking home with Emmy gold.
"Well, crap … I didn't expect this," best drama actor Jeff Daniels said upon taking the stage, summing up the reaction of an industry full of experts who predicted bigger names such as Mad Men's Jon Hamm, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston or House of Cards' Kevin Spacey were more likely contenders.
Likewise, Boardwalk Empire co-star Bobby Cannavale, who beat out Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul and Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage in the supporting actor drama category, seemed so surprised that he hadn't even written an acceptance speech. And Merritt Wever, whose win as best comedy supporting actress for Nurse Jackie was hailed as a promising change, offered the shortest acceptance speech ever: "I gotta go. Bye."
"This just in: Nobody in America is winning their Emmy office pool," host Neil Patrick Harris cracked after a commercial break. But the surprising wins seemed to snub those who critics agreed had done some of TV's best work, leading some to wonder if Emmy voters had actually seen all the shows they were judging.
In other categories, Claire Danes won her second consecutive Emmy as actress in a drama for Homeland, Jim Parsons won his third Emmy as comedy actor for The Big Bang Theory, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her second consecutive Emmy as comedy actress for HBO's Veep.
But it was Louis-Dreyfus' co-star on Veep, Tony Hale, who was a welcome surprise winner as best supporting actor in a comedy. He touted his roots growing up in Tallahassee with a shout out to the Young Actors Theatre, which he said made "a huge difference in my life."
Wins by Hale and Wever snapped Modern Family's winning streak in the supporting actor categories, leading to fears Emmy love for the show had disappeared. And Mad Men star Hamm, who has now been nominated six times with no wins, runs the risk of looking like the Susan Lucci of the prime time Emmys, mimicking the soap opera diva's infamous longtime losing streak in the daytime awards.
Harris, usually a smooth and entertaining host, seemed to flounder a bit in the show's early going, starting off with a lackluster pre-taped comedy bit in which the president of CBS played a security guard (did anybody who doesn't work in TV even catch that amazingly inside industry joke?) and a live sketch where several past Emmy hosts joined him onstage, including Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Jane Lynch.
Usually, unexpected twists are a welcome turn for the often-stale and predictable rhythms of a major awards show. But few of the changes intended to improve Sunday's Emmys felt like upgrades; too often, they were miscalculated backfires that damaged the flow of the show.
Exhibit A: a new way of paying tribute to TV legends who died over the past year. Typically eulogized during an In Memoriam segment in which names and photos are flashed and the crowd applauds for their favorites, such displays often feel like a morbid popularity contest.
But to help ease that problem, producers placed tributes to some notable figures right before several different commercial breaks — among them, Glee star Jane Lynch read a touching tribute to co-star Cory Monteith and Rob Reiner eulogized his All in the Family co-star Jean Stapleton. The effect was to constantly remind the view of death throughout a program dedicated to celebrating television — not the best way to spark a celebratory mood.
An attempt to acknowledge the achievement of Scandal star Kerry Washington's nomination as one of the few African-American women in contention as best dramatic actress also fell flat.
Diahann Carroll, the first black person to be nominated in a major acting category back in the 1960s, gave a passionate speech about diversity at the Emmys without noting that, at that point, all the winners had been white people (Washington and Don Cheadle, the only two major black nominees in acting categories, both lost).
In all, it was a oddly off-kilter show honoring quality TV at a time when there has never been more of it on the small screen. TV's best shows — and their devoted fans — deserved better.