Watching the Emmy Awards Sunday was an educational experience. The first thing it taught me is I don't know much about television anymore.
Just enough to recall the names of some of the shows, to recognize some of the stars, to have seen some of the ads but not enough to see the big picture. TV "reality" isn't my reality. Premium cable channels are another galaxy, far, far away.
Still, there was something comforting in watching the Emmys. TV is like that, providing friends in the living room whenever you need them. And so I followed along, as though I knew who Neil Patrick Harris was, acknowledging the wins of the few shows I do occasionally watch ("The Daily Show," "Mad Men") with a knowing, pumped-fist "yes!"
Other things I learned was where those GM bail-out funds went: into advertising. Is repeating "May the best car win" really the best use of our tax dollars? The ads that weren't for cars were for computers ironic, since computers represent competition, if not the death knell, for TV as we know it.
New York Times TV reviewer Mike Hale detected a siege mentality amidst the usual award-show glitz. Post mortems for network television were an underlying theme. And it's true, between all the cyber alternatives and TiVo's power to lose the ads, the medium does feel overdue for a new paradigm.
President Obama took a crack at it earlier that day. He didn't make the rounds of the Sunday morning news shows - he brought the pundits to him, (hey, someone forgot to invite Fox). His media-blitz strategy got attention from, uh, the media - even if the reporters-in-musical-chairs format is usually more typical of entertainment junkets than hard news. To further blur that distinction, he topped it off by doing David Letterman Monday night.
The Emmy broadcast tried to laugh off its digital competition, even using PC poster boy John Hodgman to deliver made-up color commentary as the winners made their way to the stage. With touches like that, along with mikes in the control room and interviews with writing and directing nominees, the show was smart and engaging. But I kept noticing what wasn't there as much as what was.
To Sarah McLachlan's plaintive "I Will Remember You," the traditional tribute to artists who had died this past year didn't just seem longer than usual, but deeper. It wasn't solely the loss of icons like Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson or Patrick Swayze, but the loss of integrity embodied in giants like Paul Newman or Walter Cronkite.
It also signaled the loss of the connection television once embodied, when there were only three channels to choose from. For all the talk of a "vast wasteland" in those days, the medium was also a vast unifier as the young networks explored their roles and responsibilities to inform as well as entertain a democratic society. The choices were about style, not substance. Underlying that was implied consensus.
That's what had gotten lost since the last time I gave TV a good look. It's ironic that the night's big winner - "Mad Men" for best dramatic series - is set in the early '60s and chronicles how advertising ushered us into the modern age of illusion.
Even as the Emmys honored that show, they were closing its chapter of history. Wondering about what sorts of illusions are coming next - seemingly more and more polarizing, more and more fragmented -seems less important to us than trying to figure out what kind of screen we'll be watching them on.
But TV is still better than a lot of movies these days.
The trickiest part of "Jennifer's Body," for example, is knowing when to laugh. Even though it comes from "Juno's" brilliant Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (whose "United States of Tara" star Toni Collette won her own Emmy Sunday), this high school vampire comedy starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried can't decide whether it wants to be clever, cute, sexy or gross and keeps managing to be the wrong one at the wrong time.
Matt Damon's '80s whistle-blower comedy "The Informant!" - done with his Oscar-winning "Ocean's 11" pals, director Steven Soderbergh and producer George Clooney - also feels a little too clever for its own good as the deadpan jokes keep flying by, almost unnoticed by the audience.
It's no wonder that the week's box-office winner, the animated adaptation of popular children's book "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," is the funniest, and most satisfying comedy of the bunch.
As warm-hearted as it is whimsical and original, it's more concerned with making its viewers laugh than reminding them how smart it is. That's the same formula that used to work so well for television, back in the day.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org