Emmys 2014: Tradition, tradition, tradition — and cable

It’s hard to pick a top moment from the 2014 Emmys because the telecast was reliably tame.

It was nothing like the exuberantly youthful flesh-factory of the MTV Video Music Awards, which aired the night before, and crested with a nearly 20-minute Beyoncé performance that doubled as an extended marital psychodrama. For those unfamiliar with Page Six, the music industry’s most glamorous power couple, Beyoncé and hubby Jay Z, have spent the better part of their summer performing together in their “On The Run” tour, while plagued by nasty rumors of an impending split.

At the VMAs Sunday night, Beyoncé didn’t exactly put those rumors to rest (especially the one about her husband having been unfaithful) but appeared to boldly address them. In an electrifying and raw performance, Queen Bey, as she is known, sang and danced her way through the pain. Wrapped in a glistening rainbow-mosaic bejeweled bodysuit, she not-so-subtly told her side of the story, taunting her husband, who was in the audience holding their child, with brazenly suggestive lyrics and bodily acrobatics worthy of the Moulin Rouge.

The Emmys felt like the next-day’s hangover.

Ratings reports claim it was the second-highest rated show in eight years, despite the unfavorable Monday night timeslot, which hadn’t been utilized since 1976. But frankly, giving viewers reason for a Monday night fiesta was probably the best thing about it, especially when the show awarded repeat winners like “Modern Family,” “Breaking Bad,” “Good Wife” star Juliana Margulies and “Veep” actress Julia Louis Dreyfus, all of whom took top honors. And even while ABC’s “Modern Family” went home with its fifth consecutive win, the big winner of the night was cable, with AMC and HBO taking home the most-talked about awards, leaving streaming-star Netflix empty-handed.

The Emmys is beginning to feel just like the Oscars in being utterly predictable and irrelevant.

The relationship between movies and television was one of the evening’s ongoing and ironic jokes. The master of ceremonies, Seth Meyers, host of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” on NBC, was eager to convey that no matter how wondrous the current era of television, movies are still roundly viewed as the gold standard of entertainment. “Television has always been the booty-call friend of entertainment,” he said in his opening monologue. “You don’t ever have to ask TV, ‘You up?’ TV is always up.

“Not like that high-maintenance diva, Movies, who expects you to put on pants, drive over to her house and buy $40 worth of soda.”

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson present the award for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie. Photo credit, Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Throughout the evening, movie stars Matthew McConaughey and Julia Roberts were repeatedly singled out for being a cut-above. Both Oscar winners and nominees last night, McConaghey and Roberts seemed to be enjoying their status as entertainment elite. Talk show host Jimmy Fallon delivered a winning monologue, teasing McConaughey, who was up for outstanding lead actor for HBO’s “True Detective” for his crossover success this year. “Why is Matt McConaghey nominated for a TV award?” Fallon asked incredulously. “You just won the Oscar like five months ago!

“You don’t belong here,” Fallon continued. “And take Julia Roberts with you while you’re at it!”

Roberts, nominated for her performance as Dr. Emma Brookner in the HBO AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” won even more hearts with her loosey-goosey presentation of the best lead actor Emmy, which went to “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston. Viewers seemed to get a kick out of her slightly tipsy appearance on stage.

Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, who won for her HBO special “We Are Miracles,” also added some flair to the evening when she accepted her award barefoot and showed off her marijuana vaporizer pen on the red carpet. The Twitter-verse was amply amused by her barefoot-and-bizarre acceptance speech (“We’re all just made of molecules and we’re hurtling through space right now”) as for the fact that she so openly carted her pot, offering E! host Giuliana Rancic a peek inside her purse. (“Marijuana takes center stage,” exclaimed a Fox News headline).

Leave it to Sarah Silverman to bring a little MTV to network TV, the kind of edgy spontaneity viewers are prefer. No wonder network TV is falling so far behind cable and Netflix, when the buttoned-up atmosphere of these awards shows reflect the quality of network content, or what New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley described as “committee-dulled compromise.” At a time when people can access almost any content they desire at any time, the stiff rules of network television feel more retrogressive than ever.

But old habits die hard. When comedian Billy Crystal paid tribute to his late friend, comedian Robin Williams, he also delivered the evening’s requisite Jewish joke, a staple of any awards show worth its salt. During a solemn paean to Williams who committed suicide earlier this month, Crystal recalled how the late actor would join his family for Jewish life cycle events — “weddings, Bar Mitzvahs… and [he’d] sit with my older immigrant relatives like he was one of the guys, and he would tell them about his journey from his little shtetl in Poland to America,” Crystal recalled. “One Uncle of mine said, ‘I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked,’ and Robin would say, ‘I waited til there was a 747 and a Kosher meal.’”

Another lovely moment was when an enfeebled Larry Kramer, the 79-year-old writer and activist responsible for “The Normal Heart,” was brought on stage to accept the award for best movie.

Playwright Larry Kramer and actor Mark Ruffalo pose backstage after winning the Outstanding Television Movie award for HBO's “The Normal Heart”. Photo credit Mike Blake/Reuters

In a rapidly changing landscape, there are still times in which honoring tradition is a treasure.