Producers of The 55th Annual Emmy Awards wanted last night's program to be daring and transgressive - like the MTV awards show that featured a much-discussed kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears, or the Tonys' telecast with its open celebration of gay Broadway. After all, that's how an awards show creates a buzz, gets talked about the next day and subsequently is dubbed a success.
But like the mainly conservative medium of network television itself, the program - aired on network TV - didn't have the nerve to truly reach for the edge. As a result, the broadcast veered between traditional moments such as a tribute to the late John Ritter and a series of awkward sequences such as the one in which comedian Wanda Sykes teased Bill Cosby. The legendary comedian responded by questioning Sykes' language, and he was not smiling as he did so. Sykes and the camera moved away as fast as they could.
Later during the evening, Cosby won the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in a segment surprisingly devoid of emotion, perhaps because of the overall disjointed nature of the telecast.
The attempt to produce an edgier program began with the selection of 11 comedians to act as hosts, including a few from cable like Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show with Jon Stewart regularly pushes the envelope of TV respectability. The idea was to have more diversity.
But during three hours of television, there were just two African-American hosts - Bernie Mac and Sykes. There was George Lopez, star of ABC's The George Lopez Show, who identified himself as "the Mexican in prime time." There was Ellen DeGeneres representing gay Hollywood.
And there was little or no diversity in attitude or observation. DeGeneres, one of the most mainstream comedians going, went nowhere near gay identity. Bernie Mac, who can do race humor with the best of them, went nowhere near race.
Lopez did try to live up to his billing, and was one of the only hosts to get any applause for his material which included a series of jokes about reality programs presumably from a Hispanic point of view.
A representative Lopez riff: "I'm a big fan of reality shows. I thought the first one, The Dukes of Hazzard, captured white people perfectly."
Perhaps, the best measure of the 11-host format came when Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, declared the performances and the telecast a great success shortly before introducing Walter Cronkite (who eulogized Bob Hope).
"Well done, folks, don't you think? Let's give them a big hand," Zabel urged.
The Hollywood crowd offered barely audible, tepid applause. The camera caught one of the hosts, Brad Garrett (who won for his supporting role in Everybody Loves Raymond) making a face that suggested disagreement.
Even Stewart, whose biting humor generally catches the perfect pitch of cable, took the safe route last night only going after such easy targets as Geraldo Rivera instead of, say, the president of the United States as was done at the last Oscar telecast.
Nothing typified the telecast's lack of daring so much as its references to Madonna's MTV kiss. Just as Garry Shandling, the first host to take the stage, finished fumbling through a series of lame jokes about gay-themed TV shows, Garrett rushed onstage to give Shandling a long and strong kiss on the lips. That's network television: It can imitate or try to comment on those who have done something daring, but don't expect it to take the risk itself.
The good news is that talent was largely served in the awards. Winners included Edie Falco and James Gandolfini, of HBO's The Sopranos, as outstanding actor and actress in a drama series. In comedy, no one deserved the top acting award more than Tony Shalhoub, of USA's Monk and, thankfully, he won. The same goes for the two awards collected by Jon Stewart's Comedy Central show, and the three major awards won by William H. Macy's made-for TV movie, Door to Door, which aired on cable channel TNT.
An emotional Shaloub dedicated his award to a nephew who died last week. Gandolfini, Macy and Falco were earnest in their brief acceptance speeches.
Earnest is the tone that Emmy has always done best. Maybe it should leave the edgy and daring stuff altogether to cable telecasts like MTV's.