Neil Patrick Harris shines in Emmys telecast otherwise beset by filler

The headline from Sunday night’s Primetime Emmys telecast turned out to be the wealth of upsets and out-of-nowhere surprises among the winners, to the point that the event itself was at risk of becoming an afterthought. But sometimes that’s ideal; after all, an awards show is best when focusing its attention on the achievements being honored. (For the complete list of winners, click here.)

The best parts of the telecast did just that. Host Neil Patrick Harris opened with a segment in which he prepared for the show by binge-watching the nominated programs, which seemed to talk back to him — from “Breaking Bad” to “Girls” to “The Voice.”

Even better was his opening monologue, which was interrupted by recent Emmy hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, and Conan O’Brien, a nice nod to the recent history of the event. Following that, Kevin Spacey spoke directly to the camera in character as Francis Underwood from “House of Cards” to take credit for the on-stage fracas. Did everyone at home get the joke? Perhaps not if they haven’t seen “House of Cards,” but for anyone who has it was stroke of genius.

The excellent opener ended with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, recently a hit as hosts of the Golden Globes, urging Harris to drop trou and twerk.

Other bits and segments were a mixed bag. Harris took to the stage at the show’s halfway point to perform a song and dance number about performing a song and dance number in the middle of the show. It was a clever, cheeky self-reference, but in a telecast so pressed for time that major winners like Jeff Daniels and “Modern Family” were abruptly played off in the middle of their speeches, it didn’t seem like the wisest use of those precious minutes.

Similarly, Carrie Underwood performing the Beatles‘ “Yesterday” to pay tribute to the major events and milestones of 1963 seemed only tangentially relevant to the awards at hand, and though Elton John‘s words of admiration for Liberace were meaningful and heartfelt, the song he subsequently performed served as much to promote John’s new album as to pay tribute to the late pianist.

The dance number planned and executed by this year’s nominees for Best Choreography (pictured left) worked better, mostly because it was directly relevant to this year’s awards, but as we’ve learned in previous years from the Oscars interpretive dance is always a risky gambit; trying to work “Breaking Bad” Hazmat suits and periodic table cubes into one number was especially goofy.

But the idea is sound. More Creative Arts categories should get a chance to bask in the spotlight of the primetime telecast. Perhaps stunt coordinators could ply their trade in a segment at next year’s awards. Or the nominated costume designers could put on a fashion show. Maybe we could watch a performance of the Best Music and Lyrics nominees; wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for Jane Krakowski to sing “The Rural Juror” on Emmy night than for Carrie Underwood to perform “Yesterday”?

The “In Memoriam” segments were touching, especially Rob Reiner and Edie Falco‘s respective tributes to Jean Stapleton and James Gandolfini, though it did raise the awkward question that sometimes arises when paying tribute to deceased artists at award shows: why were those individuals singled out over other notable names who were not given separate tributes, like TV legends Jack Klugman and Larry Hagman?

And why was the audience not instructed to hold their applause during the final “In Memoriam” tributes? The most recognizable names received audible ovations denied some lesser-known artists who nevertheless contributed to the medium, making the segment feel like a morbid popularity contest.

But Harris was a fine emcee throughout. Like last winter’s similarly imperfect Oscars telecast hosted by Seth MacFarlane, a lot of the major shortcomings may be unfairly attributed to the host when it’s the production that most has room for improvement. From that perspective, there are a few lessons to take away from the event: include fewer musical numbers — or none, unless directly applicable to the achievements being honored — and always place the emphasis on the nominees and winners.

Indeed, some of the night’s biggest highlights involved the contenders themselves: the nominated writers and directors discussing their work in funny and creative ways, including Best Comedy Directing winner Gail Mancuso giving herself a Hitchcock-esque cameo in “Modern Family.” And of course the announcement of the nominees for Best Variety Series Writing is always a unique delight: this year the “Daily Show” writers were replaced with Muppets, and the staffers from “Jimmy Kimmel Live” were enthusiastically introduced by Oprah Winfrey.

When you take the time to honor the art and artists that way and set aside the filler, that’s when you really have something to sing about.

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