By Barry Garron
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Finally. An Emmy Awards telecast as good as the TV it sought to honor.
Tightly planned and smartly performed, this year's telecast with host Conan O'Brien was a welcome about-face from last year's sloppy post-Katrina affair. Put another way, when the worst thing to criticize was the inane banter of the presenters — which was unusually lame — you know the crew and the TV academy can be proud.
O'Brien was at his best when it mattered most, at the outset of the telecast. He flawlessly adapted Billy Crystal's successful approach to film parodies, putting himself in “Lost,” “The Office,” “24,” “House,” “Dateline NBC” and even “South Park.” He followed that with a monologue that touched on practically all the controversies surrounding this year's Emmy selection and still left room for zingers aimed at Hollywood's top two targets, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.
That would have been enough to win him praise for getting the show off to a flying start, but O'Brien took it one step further. He employed his vocal skills in a sparkling song-and-dance spoof on NBC's dismal situation with “Trouble,” set to the tune from “The Music Man.” Each line was funnier than the next, including “To prove things are going to hell, we're relying on Howie Mandel.” Tactfully, director Louis J. Horvitz, himself an Emmy winner later in the show, opted not to get a reaction shot from the “Deal or No Deal” host.
Invariably, some might complain that the trend toward placing strict time limits on acceptance speeches reached new heights in the telecast from the Shrine Auditorium. O'Brien playfully outlawed specific references, such as thanking parents, which have become cliches. He warned those who might talk too long that Bob Newhart would be in a glass booth with only enough air for the planned three hours of the show. Horvitz wasted no time in playing off winners with music that seemed louder than in the past.
Some argue that viewers are keenly interested in seeing and hearing the winners and it is a mistake to force them from the stage. This might be true if the winners didn't make comments that felt like credits rolling at the end of a broadcast. When so many winners do little more than spout a list of thank-yous so long that they need index cards to remember them all, the music can't come too soon.
Perhaps the enforced brevity was responsible for several winners arriving onstage well-prepared and with fresh thoughts. Said Blythe Danner, winner for her role on “Huff:” “I guess I have to thank Showtime even though they canceled us.” Greg Garcia, who got a writing Emmy for “My Name Is Earl,” gave examples of people with whom he would not share his award. Helen Mirren, of “Elizabeth I,” reflected on the promise of writers turning more stories about women into dramatic productions.
The first tribute went to Dick Clark and included a nice assortment of “American Bandstand” appearances as well as references to his roles as host and producer of other programs. Clark's brief but heartfelt comments from a podium demonstrated his determination to overcome the effects of a debilitating stroke.
The second tribute was for the late Aaron Spelling. Opening remarks by Stephen Collins, Joan Collins and Heather Locklear, as well as a clip reel, neatly summed up the career of the superproducer. Closing comments by the former members of “Charlie's Angels” dragged on interminably and were pockmarked with cliches.
Live shows are tricky, and keeping them on track invariably leads to some odd inconsistencies. For example, some of the early awards in the show — such as for supporting actress in a movie or miniseries — were accompanied by brief clips showing the work of the nominees. Later on, as things got tight, there was barely time to flash the names of recipients in more prestigious categories, like best actor in a drama.
Considering everything packed into the three hours, executive producers Ken Ehrlich and Jeff Ross put on quite a show. Production design by John Shaffner and Joe Stewart was attractive but not, thankfully, overwhelming. Horvitz, a veteran at these affairs, made everything look smooth and well-orchestrated.
Host: Conan O'Brien.
Executive producers: Ken Ehrlich, Jeff Ross; Producers: Renato Basile, Michael B. Seligman; Coordinating producer: Danette Herman; Line producer: Lisa Geers; Director: Louis J. Horvitz; Writers: David Wild, Conan O'Brien, Mike Sweeney, Ken Ehrlich; Production designer: John Shaffner, Joe Stewart; Lighting designer: Bob Dickinson; Music director: Tom Scott.