Death Stalks the Emmys

Pantoliano: Psyched, not whacked

Bill Cosby, accepting the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at last night’s 55th Annual Emmy ceremonies, recalled the time he took his then-young son Ennis to see the making of a Fat Albert episode. Ennis was surprised and delighted to see his father recording the various voices. “Dad!” Ennis exclaimed. “You’re Fat Albert!” “We’ve been tight ever since,” Cosby said, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses as he used the present perfect to describe his relationship with his son, who was murdered in a senseless roadside killing on a Los Angeles freeway nearly seven years ago.

I don’t mean to be a downer. And I don’t think I’m projecting. But the spirit of Thanatos loomed large over this year’s Emmy telecast. The ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium near downtown Los Angeles, nestled between the San Gabriel Valley to the East and the San Fernando Valley to the North. But even before Cosby—unusually sour all night—made his heartbreaking slip of the tongue accepting an award named after the just-deceased Hope, and before he saluted the recently deceased Fred Rogers, it seemed like the event was happening somewhere nearer to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The unexpected death of John Ritter a week ago has been an especially big deal here in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times noted Saturday that “the TV industry buzz in the last several days has had less to do with whether ‘The West Wing’ will beat out ‘The Sopranos’ for best drama than with how the Emmys will handle Ritter’s passing.” Of course, special attention already had to be paid to Hope’s death. And a Hope tribute was going to be in addition to that staple of every major awards show, the “necrology,” in which an industry figure of appropriate gravitas (this year, it was Dennis Franz’s turn) notes the passing of various greats, near-greats, and never-heard-of-’ems. So, Ritter’s death put the Emmy producers in a bind. Should they give Ritter a stand-alone tribute àla Hope? Or should they only acknowledge Ritter’s passing in the litany of the deceased? The Emmy producers solved this problem by giving Ritter a stand-alone tribute just before the usual slide-show of the departed but long after the special encomium to Hope.

Another kind of death hovering over the TV landscape was also on display last night. Preshow red-carpet banter and postshow Q&A focused on the impending demise of television’s popular sitcoms: Friends, Frasier, Sex in the City, Everybody Loves Raymond (which finally won an Emmy last night for Best Comedy Series). There are no new hits to replace these warhorses, and no new stars to get nominated for and win Emmys. It’s pretty much the same actors getting nominated and winning year in and year out. An exception to this rule was Tony Shalhoub’s upset win as Best Actor in a Comedy for Monk. But in keeping with this year’s dark undercurrents, Shalhoub teared up during his acceptance speech, shaken by what he explained was the unexpected death this week of his nephew.

Then there’s Joe Pantoliano, who won Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for playing a guy whose head was cut off and stuffed into a bowling bag. As the actor repeatedly and with increasing impatience explained to reporters before and after the show, Ralphie wasn’t “whacked”—a whack is a sanctioned mob hit—but merely “killed.”

Great comic bits and memorable one-liners and zingers were in short supply, even as the number of comics serving as host swelled to nearly a dozen. Memo to Emmy: Give us a single host next year! If the host is good—the current gold standard being recent Oscar host Steve Martin—you don’t need to get them in and out of there to keep things fresh. Just a little bit of Conan O’Brien, Martin Short, and Bernie Mac isn’t enough; just a little bit of Wanda Sykes and Dennis Miller is too much. Give us a single face to welcome us back from commercials, keep things moving along, and, most important, say onstage the things we’re yelling at the screen in our living room. It’s a way for us to feel connected, which in turn is a way for us to stave off—well, you know what.