‘Modern Family,’ ‘Mad Men’ and other Jewish thoughts on the Emmys

Not even a last minute save by Leonard Nimoy could save the Emmy Awards ceremony from its usual sterile simplicity. Relying on its predictable mix of soft comedy and repeat honors, the show was safe from controversy but sorely lacking in entertainment.

Nimoy’s appearance in the “schlocky and too long” opening number, as host Jane Lynch described it, came after Alec Baldwin defected from the show when Fox refused to air his joke about phone hacking. 

“Naughty behavior was banned,” New York Times’ television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote. “This was a night that was streamlined to avoid controversy or criticism. Acceptances were brisk, and not all that embarrassing. The show even finished on time.”

Indeed, as far as awards shows go, the best thing the Emmys has going for it is that the telecast is shorter than the Oscars. Still, both could borrow a lesson or two from MTV, whose Video Music Awards and Movie Awards are the most enjoyable of the annual trophy-giving ceremonials, largely because they allow entertainers to entertain, without hindering them with silly scripts and stiff rules. Staying so carefully inside the lines puts the Emmys in the awkward position of having the opposite impact of what it celebrates, which is good entertainment.

Even Charlie Sheen was surprisingly sober. A message he said was from “the bottom of my heart” did not include a single offensive slur. Usually titillating, Sheen was tame. It is hard to believe that that was the same guy who only a few months ago, as television’s highest-paid actor on CBS’s highest-rated show, was canned for losing control, having denigrated “Two and a Half Men” showrunner Chuck Lorre by calling him “Chaim.” Casual anti-Semitism gives way to contrition.

Despite the Emmy show’s evident lack of excitement, it was an energizing night for the creators of “Modern Family” and “Mad Men.” Steven Levitan, co-creator of “Modern Family” saw his show sweep the comedy category, including supporting actor awards for Julie Bowen and Ty Burell, outstanding writing honors for himself and Jeffrey Richman, and the top honor—outstanding comedy series. Levitan dedicated his award to his “somewhat satisfied wife and three traumatized children,” who, he explained, were the real-life inspiration behind the award-winning episode in which children walk in on their parents having sex.

Also big on sexual themes, the perennial favorite “Mad Men” took the top award for outstanding drama series for the fourth year in a row. The critically acclaimed 1960s-era drama, which is also big on Jewish themes, has won each season the show has aired, though that didn’t stop creator Matt Weiner from an embarrassing moment of hubris: “I did not think this was going to happen,” he blurted from the stage. Instead of banning peppery political jokes, all variations of feigned-surprise-upon-winning should be stricken from awards show acceptance speeches (hear that, Kate Winslet?).

Elsewhere on television, being politically astute and unafraid is actually rewarding. Jon Stewart proved this by taking home an Emmy for best variety, music or comedy show for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Noting a perceptibly different gender balance from years past, The Times’ Stanley wrote, “Mr. Stewart quite noticeably surrounded himself onstage with many women as well as men — in past years, Mr. Stewart has been chided for having almost no women or minorities in his army of writers.”

“Mad Men’s” Weiner has also taken heat in the past for turning out his female writers once they’ve been of use to him. But these incidents – or issues – stand in stark contrast to the upcoming season of television, which, as many have noted, is amply peopled by women writers, women characters and women actors. Perhaps as television, the reputed domain of family, becomes more fully infused with women, some of the craziness that transpires among families at home will be allowed to impact what happens on the Emmys stage.