NEW YORK — Sometimes three’s the charm, but No. 2 fell short at Sunday’s Emmys.
Neil Patrick Harris’ return gig as host wasn’t up to his standards as an overall entertainer (or habitual Tonys emcee). Lukewarm writing and a lack of pizazz kept the Emmys at a low pitch even a pro like Harris couldn’t overcome.
Sure, he did fine in a production number at roughly the half-way point of the slightly more than three-hour CBS broadcast. Titled, appropriately, “The Number in the Middle of the Show” (with explanatory lyrics that included “Opening numbers are so old hat”), it briefly livened things up, but didn’t match Harris’ song-and-dance extravaganzas on Broadway as Tonys host.
The Emmycast began uncertainly with a pre-taped introduction that found Harris attempting to binge-watch the entire past season of TV to prepare for the big night, surrounded by dozens of screens in a mash-up of prime-time programming. It didn’t work as a comic bit.
Then Harris’ so-so monologue was interrupted by a select group of hecklers — previous Emmy hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
It probably seemed like a funny idea, rounding up these funny folks. Instead, the bit seemed to never end, and mostly reawakened memories of what in too many cases were unsuccessful past hosting displays.
A shout-out to the evening’s most delightful moment: the acceptance speech by Merritt Wever for the comedy supporting actress trophy.
In words that should go into the Emmy Winner’s How-to Guide: “Thanks so much. Thank you so much. I gotta go. ‘Bye.”
She was fittingly saluted right afterward by Harris: “Best speech ever.”
A decision to highlight the year’s choreography nominees with a dance number was preceded by clips of those nominees creating the number. The finished product (which included Harris) was deft and action-packed, but the entire enterprise, including, of course, the announcement of the winner, was labored and too time-consuming.
A much-anticipated feature of the evening was a set of tributes to deceased TV notables that was notable no more for these who were remembered as for the TV legends it neglected (notably Jack Klugman and Larry Hagman, who were included fleetingly in the “In Memoriam” segment).
The five tributes were somber declarations that found Rob Reiner choking up as he recalled his “All in the Family” co-star Jean Stapleton, yet felt hollow when Robin Williams was describing Jonathan Winters’ indescribable brand of comedy without a moment of footage exhibiting Winters in action. (This IS television, after all: Show, don’t tell.)
A tribute to a pair of historic events conveyed by television a half-century ago (the assassination of President Kennedy and the Beatles’ bursting on the scene on “The Ed Sullivan Show”) served as little more than a setup for a much-hyped musical appearance by Carrie Underwood, who sang the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
Before that, Elton John, no less glorified, sang his song “Home Again” with an even more tenuous excuse for being on this broadcast: He said the song “reminds” him of Liberace, the great pianist-entertainer portrayed in the HBO film “Behind the Candelabara” this past season by Michael Douglas, who introduced John along with co-star Matt Damon. It was a reach.
In short, the Emmycast seemed desperate to sparkle and to make a splash. It didn’t quite trust its host and its winners to do that.