Rob Lowe, crowns Melissa McCarthy as Sofia Vergara, second right, gives her the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for "Mike and Molly" at the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011 in Los Angeles.

The Emmys we didn't expect

Jane Lynch rules a surprisingly non-boring broadcast, with big wins by \"Modern Family\" and unexpected losses

Matt Zoller Seitz
September 19, 2011 4:49PM (UTC)

"A lot of people are very curious why I'm a lesbian ... Ladies and gentlemen, the cast of 'Entourage.'" -- Jane Lynch

That was the best line of the 2011 Emmy broadcast on Fox -- a surprisingly non-boring awards show (during the second half anyway) that saw "Modern Family" dominating the comedy categories, "Mad Men" and "Mildred Pierce" getting their well-dressed derrieres handed to them in the drama and movie/miniseries categories, and outgoing "Two and a Half Men" star Charlie Sheen sporting what looked like a wig made of wolverine hair, and wishing the best of luck to his old co-workers in remarks that were so robotic that I kept anticipating a punch line that never came. (Earlier this year, Sheen was a crack-addled, woman-abusing pariah who blasted his boss Chuck Lorre as a "maggot"and a "nut-less sociopath" and called former costar Jon Cryer "a turncoat, a traitor and a troll"; now he's in the express lane to redemption and prepping another sitcom. Ah, Hollywood.)

The "Modern Family" steamroller (best comedy series, writing, direction, supporting actress Julie Bowen, and supporting actor Ty Burrell) would have been tedious and depressing if the show weren't so good. Its run was broken by awards for "Big Bang Theory" (repeat winner Jim Parsons) and "Mike and Molly" (Melissa McCarthy). Parsons beat outgoing "The Office" star Steve Carell, who hadn't won an Emmy yet and should have been a shoo-in. In an awkward but charming show of solidarity, the six best actress nominees went up onstage together, and the winner was handed a tiara and a bouquet of roses along with her statuette.


"I don't know what I'm gonna talk about in therapy next week now," said Bowen, accepting Emmy as best supporting actress in a comedy while rocking a dress slit nearly to the navel. Burrell reflected on his relationship with his father, who died before he had a chance to see his son perform: "If he were here tonight, I think he would say, 'But why the makeup?'" 

Lynch made light of the sitcom's sweep late in the program, telling viewers, "Welcome back to the 'Modern Family' awards. We’ve decided to throw them into the drama category to see what happens.”

"Mad Men" and "Mildred Pierce," the big dogs of the drama and movie/miniseries categories, came perilously close to going home empty-handed.


As the evening wore on, it became clear that Matthew Weiner's AMC series about a swank 1960s advertising agency was not going to sweep the awards as some had predicted. Instead, the just-concluded "Friday Nights Lights" got a bit of love, taking home Emmys for best writing in a dramatic series (by showrunner Jason Katims) and best lead actor (for Kyle Chandler, beating out Jon Hamm, who has now gone win-less for four straight seasons). Accepting his award, Katims quoted the series' slogan "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose." The show's only previous Emmy was for casting, in 2007. 

Margo Martindale won a deserved Emmy as best supporting actress in a drama for her performance as Mags Bennett, the redneck Mama Corleone on FX's crime drama "Justified." Martin Scorsese won an Emmy for dramatic series directing, for helming the opening episode of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," the most expensive pilot in the cable channel's history. Julianna Marguilies won best actress in a drama for CBS' "The Good Wife" -- her first Emmy win since 1995, when she took home a best supporting actress statuette for playing nurse Carol Hathaway on NBC's "ER."

HBO's miniseries "Mildred Pierce" went into the ceremony seeming a likely candidate for a sweep; even though the series got mixed reviews from critics, it was a ratings success, and the pay cable network has had a near-lock on the miniseries and movie category for the last 15 years. Instead, the PBS and BBC production "Downton Abbey" snuck in for several major upsets, including best miniseries/movie, best writing, best directing, and best actress (no-show Maggie Smith, whose award was accepted, somewhat surreally, by the cast of "Entourage"). Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce won best actress and supporting actor, respectively. It was a measure of the evening's genial volatility that by by the time "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner got up onstage with his co-producers and cast to accept the best drama award, it seemed like an underdog-makes-good moment.


 The coolest winner by far was Peter Dinklage, who is often cast in comic roles but projects a George Clooney-like, nothing-to-prove glamour in person. The "Game of Thrones" star thanked his wife and his dogsitter and exclaimed, "Wow, I followed Martin Scorsese!" It was the only major award for "Game of Thrones," a critical and popular success that already seems doomed -- like "Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other great fantasy and sci-fi series before it -- to be dismissed by its own industry as "Not bad for a genre show." (Only ABC's "Lost" managed to break this curse.)

Still, it was hard to argue that any of the awards were completely undeserved. It was an altogether strong crop of winners. And the ceremony itself was briskly paced, blessedly free of the saggy midsection that usually drags down televised awards shows. The musical components (provided mostly by the "Emmytones" -- Wilmer Valderrama, Jane Lynch, Joel McHale, Kate Flannery and Taraji P. Henson) were creatively iffy but mostly enjoyable, and there was one brilliant musical number two-thirds of the way through (a medley of songs from "Saturday Night Live," featuring Lonely Island, Michael Bolton and Akon) that felt like a Dada-esque spoof of every musical number on any awards show since the beginning of time. Co-presenters Rob Lowe and "Modern Family" costar Sofía Vergara -- who plays the trophy wife of  Ed O'Neill -- were the show's most unnervingly handsome couple. ("The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, whose program won two Emmys, joked, "If the world does need to repopulate at some point, the announcing team of Sofia Vergara and Rob Lowe would make nice children.")


Lynch was a capable and appealing host. She even managed to survive a clever but overlong videotaped musical opening that found her careening through rooms in an apartment building that was supposed to represent TV itself. Various series stars took part in confessions modeled on NBC's "The Office," and Leonard Nimoy played a sort of uber-network president -- a last-minute replacement for "30 Rock" star Alec Baldwin, who quit after the Fox network cut a joke about its owner, Rupert Murdoch, and the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

Kudos to "Modern Family" creator Steve Levitan, who somehow managed to make the sitcom's 4,328th win (for best comedy) charming even though it came at the end of a long night that it had completely owned.  Levitan even managed to acknowledge one of the show's groundbreaking aspects -- its refreshingly laid-back, Big Tent affection toward interracial and same-sex couples -- without coming off as self-serving.

Levitan said that during shooting, gay couples would approach him and say, "You're not just making people laugh, you're making them more tolerant." Then Levitan added, "We are showing the world that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a loving, committed relationship between an old man and a hot young woman. And looking around this room tonight, I see many of you agree!"

Matt Zoller Seitz

MORE FROM Matt Zoller Seitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Emmy Awards Television Tv

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •