We all know by now that television is better—or at least buzzier and more prestigious—than the movies, right? We’ve read the think-pieces; we’ve listened to Steven Soderbergh. TV is where it’s at. But judging from the Seth Meyers–hosted Emmys last night, the television industry never got the memo. The Emmys have always had a not unjustified inferiority complex. Not as relaxed as the Golden Globes, not as glamorously self-important as the Oscars, the best thing the Emmy ceremony has going for it is ending punctually. But instead of celebrating the year in television, this year’s ceremony showed the entire industry’s ongoing inferiority complex in the presence of some old-school movie stars.
Exhibit A: Matthew McConaughey. He didn’t actually take home any awards—he lost to Bryan Cranston, who picked up his fourth best actor trophy—but McConaughey’s presence was unavoidable throughout the evening. Jimmy Kimmel, visiting from some universe where Jon Hamm’s face doesn’t exist, joked that McConaughey was too good looking for television. When “Modern Family” director Gail Mancuso accepted her award, she announced her plan to make eye contact with McConaughey throughout her speech, at one point warning the cameramen that they were blocking her sight of him.
Along with his fellow “True Detective” star, Woody Harrelson, McConaughey presented the award for best actor in a TV movie or miniseries (a category they would have competed in if HBO hadn’t illogically labeled “TD” a series). This was a big deal for the Emmys, so major that viewers at home were given a countdown: an onscreen chyron flashing “Six Minutes to Matthew McConaughey,” lest an ill-timed bathroom break force someone to miss this historic moment. The duo were preceded by Meyers and his old Weekend Update pal Amy Poehler, who traded lines on how to introduce the “True Detective” pair. This gave us one of the best jokes of the night—Poehler’s “Please welcome two gentlemen who seem like they’d be chatty in the sack”—but it was another reminder that we should be anticipating a highlight of the night. This was a movie star! An Oscar winner! (Never mind that McConaughey’s Oscar win last March was as much for his “True Detective” performance as it was for Dallas Buyers’ Club.)
Then there was Julia Roberts, nominated for her role in HBO’s “A Normal Heart,” who received her own random clip package before the show went into commercial break, reminding us that this cool kid had decided to sit at the Television Academy’s lunch-table for the night. Roberts seemed appropriately embarrassed by the display, but then gave an odd performance later while presenting the award for best actor in a series, strangely drawing out her syllables in an unnatural cadence, and over-emphasizing the names of fellow movie stars’ Woody and Matthew.
But if the Emmys’ producers were starstruck, the voters weren’t: They snubbed Julia for Kathy Bates, McConaughey for Cranston. The blandly affable Seth Meyers used his monologue to joke about “network TV holding an award show and giving all the trophies to cable and Netflix.” But the cultural narrative that monologue advanced—HBO as a dominating force, TV as the “booty call friend of entertainment”—was contradicted by the actual awards. Netflix went home empty. (Uzo Aduba of “Orange is the New Black” had won a guest actress award at an un-televised ceremony held last week.) HBO won only two. TV may be changing, but Emmy voters were as traditional as can be.
The ceremony also took aim at another growing narrative: That, as Julianna Margulies remarked in her acceptance speech for best actress, it’s “a wonderful time for women on television.” That’s not not true. For women over 45, so often ignored by Hollywood, Monday night was a triumph: Just look at Margulies, Anna Gunn, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Allison Janney, Kathy Bates. Moira Walley-Beckett took home an Emmy for writing the extraordinary “Breaking Bad” episode “Ozymandias.” (Her win was well-deserved, but it also demonstrates Vince Gilligan’s menschiness and generosity toward his writers’ room, unlike some of the egomaniacal show-runners who hate sharing credit.) But then Stephen Colbert, in picking up an award for best variety show, thanked his writers as “those guys—and one woman,” then added a half-hearted apology tasted sour. “Sorry for that, for some reason.”
A few minutes later, Sofia Vergara began to spin onstage, providing “something compelling to watch” as the Academy’s CEO discussed, of all things, diversity. Vergara has defended the grossly sexist scene, but the queasy objectification was hard to forget in a ceremony that reflected the worst aspects of modern television.
So here’s my advice for next year: 2015 Emmy host Jon Hamm. The “Mad Men” actor lost for the sixth time this year and has become the Susan Lucci of anti-heroes. Why give him one more year to graciously lose when he could spend the night onstage being charming and goofy? He represents the prestige of dark, self-serious cable drama, while reveling in the fun of classic comedy. Academy of Television Arts and Sciences: The ball’s in your court.