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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Sunday's Emmy Awards provided an easily overlooked reminder that the best method for energizing an awards show is the one thing producers can't engineer: upset victories.
The tsunami of new winners that swept key categories notorious for stale sameness helped keep momentum going well past the inspired opening musical number featuring host Jimmy Fallon, who didn't stay sharp as the evening wore on.
It wasn't just the sheer volume of rookies that rocked the Emmys that made it compulsively watchable; it was the way they built into a crescendo of preposterousness. Multiple wins for ABC's "Modern Family" and Fox's "Glee" set the tone early but weren't entirely unexpected. Then came true jaw-droppers including Bravo's "Top Chef" unseating CBS' "The Amazing Race" in the reality competition category and Edie Falco of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" winning for lead actress in a comedy.
By the time little-known Archie Panjabi picked up supporting actress in a drama for CBS' "The Good Wife," just about anything seemed possible. When an eighth consecutive victory came to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" in the variety, music or comedy series, it almost felt as if order was being restored to the universe.
The surprises compensated for Fallon's gradual fade. He couldn't have started stronger, following up on the "Glee"-fueled opener with the highly anticipated hat-tip to Conan O'Brien. "NBC asked a late-night host to go to L.A. and host another show," Fallon said. "What could possibly go wrong?"
But then Fallon lost the freshness as he relied too much on recurring bits that just weren't funny, including reciting Twitter suggestions to introduce award presenters and toting an acoustic guitar into the audience for quickie sing-alongs with the likes of Kim Kardashian and Julianna Margulies.
It didn't help that the evening's best jokes weren't delivered by Fallon. In fact, one of the funniest lines came at the expense of Fallon: Last year's host, Neil Patrick Harris, took this clever jab from the stage: "I want to thank the academy for allowing a gay man to host for the second year in a row. Thanks, Jimmy."
The Emmys also benefited from a laugh-riot pretaped skit featuring the "Modern Family" cast getting suggestions on improving the show from a fictional empty-suit network executive. The last one was a doozy, depicting George Clooney lying in bed between "Family's" resident gay couple.
When Clooney wasn't breaking up the crowd, he was adding a touch of elegance to the proceedings. His characteristically classy acceptance of the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award was poignant without knocking the evening too far off its loosey-goosey vibe. Same goes for Jewel's stirring performance during Emmy's "In Memoriam" segment.
Luckily, the Emmys also were helped along by reordering the categories into genre clusters. The one-two punch of comedy and reality got the night off right, so by the time drama followed the brisk pacing that eludes most award shows was evident.
That said, the telecast was brought back to its usual lumbering pace by the movies/miniseries section. Although HBO no doubt was thrilled to see this portion turn into one long commercial thanks to the network's dominance of the genre, Emmy producers might want to rethink cutting the reality-host category in favor of doing a little trimming here. What gets seen by more viewers, "Survivor" or "Temple Grandin"?
Those in attendance at the Nokia missed a real comedy standout on the telecast: Infiniti commercials featuring the cast of the NBC sitcom "Community." The spots were quite possibly the best demonstration that brand integration actually can be accomplished, rare as it was (an inevitable future Emmy category, no?).
Another unexpected bonus came online, with a raw feed of Emmy backstage footage coming from Emmy.com and NBC.com. In contrast to the tightly choreographed extravaganza that is Emmy, it was a treat to see behind-the-scenes line readings of jokes Fallon would deliver onstage just minutes later.
Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Emmy was as taut a production as it was considering the live-on-both-coasts approach demanded it come to a finish before 8 p.m. (when NBC reran the show on the West Coast). If that's what it takes to get a telecast that doesn't feel like a marathon, let's make the 5 p.m. PT telecast an annual tradition.