The Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday night arrived at a moment when both the medium of television and the concept of awards shows are fighting the sense that they might be ... you know, old-fashioned. Innovative shows are pushing narrative structures in interesting directions, tackling social issues in new ways with highly personal stories being told about characters often ignored in the past. But the show, despite some COVID-related tweaks, remains strictly traditional. Here are five things to know about how it went.
1) The wealth was not shared widely
Voters responded to the desperate need for new material that can reach new audiences by giving every drama series award they handed out Sunday night to “The Crown,” the Netflix drama about the British royal family. Drama series, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, writing, directing ... only one drama series was deemed worthy of recognition.
In fact, very few shows were recognized overall. Comedy awards were divided between “Hacks” and “Ted Lasso,” and limited series awards — perhaps now the most prestigious ones of all — divided among “Mare of Easttown,” “The Queen's Gambit,” “Halston,” and, fortunately, Michaela Coel's “I May Destroy You.” It's not clear what all the factors are that are leading to this concentration of nominees and winners, but it doesn't feel particularly auspicious. Last year, “Schitt's Creek” won all the comedy awards too, but it was that show's last season and it had never won anything, which made it a little less stifling than what happened this year with “The Crown” in particular. This looked early on like it might be a year of entirely sweeps, and at this rate we'll eventually get that. And that will not be good.
2) The Emmys have an acute representation problem
Just as the great majority of awards do, and probably to an even greater degree than most. This was glaringly obvious as regards on-camera talent: Not one actor of color won an award Sunday night. There were 12 actors honored: Brett Goldstein, Hannah Waddingham and Jason Sudeikis of “Ted Lasso;” Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson and Evan Peters of “Mare of Easttown;” Jean Smart of ”Hacks;” Ewan McGregor of “Halston;” and Olivia Colman, Josh O'Connor, Tobias Menzies and Gillian Anderson of “The Crown.” Behind the camera, Coel won for her writing, but the rest of the scripted programming that was honored was mostly by and about white people.
You could make an argument for the people who won, that they are talented and deserving. These are good shows, mostly. The issue is that in many categories, everyone is talented and deserving, and in many more, at least multiple people are. Even if you believe “The Crown” is a worthy and good show, that doesn't mean “Pose” isn't, or “Lovecraft Country” isn't, or any of the many things that weren't even nominated aren't. It's not a matter of undeserving nominees being honored, necessarily; it's often that out of a whole world of deserving artists, the recognition over and over again leaves out artists of color, Indigenous artists, trans artists, disabled artists, and on and on. To continue to press the narrative that this is a coincidence requires more and more closing of one's eyes to reality.
The entire idea that there exists a correct single deserving winner is always deeply silly, so there are other factors at work. Who gets the benefit of an Emmy campaign, who knows a lot of people, who's well-liked, who's been in other things that have won awards, whether voters actually watched the show at hand — and, always, what story the industry is currently telling about itself. And the story that television told about itself this year at the Emmys was discouraging, narrow, and dated, even as they honored a lot of good work. That's the paradox of more good television making less satisfying celebrations: the more good stuff you could choose to reward, the more striking your peculiar fixations and omissions become.
3) They have to figure out the orchestra
Bless Debbie Allen, recipient of the Governor's Award, for getting up there like the legend she is and telling the person with the clock running on her speech that they might as well turn the clock off, because she wasn't going to pay attention to it. She deserves it. She is special. She is different. She is Debbie Allen.
Just after she spoke, Scott Frank, the director of “The Queen's Gambit,” won for that show and came up on stage and began to talk. He just kind of waxed poetic in tributes to various people, and when the music came to play him off, he stated that he wasn't going to listen. So he just talked for as long as he wanted, through multiple attempts to coax him into abiding by time constraints that were respected by people like, oh, Olivia Colman. He, to clarify, is not Debbie Allen.
Look, it can't work this way. You can decide people can talk as long as they want — if they'd cut the regrettable comedy "bits" with host Cedric The Entertainer, who was great in the monologue and not so much thereafter, they'd have had more time. But if you do that, it has to apply to everybody. It can't just be that if a person gets up there and refuses to politely do as they've been asked to do, they can talk as long as they want. That's just rewarding people who are rude. (Obviously, I'm not talking about recipients of special honors, or people who are in the middle of discussing a deeply personal tragedy, or even people racing through a list of names. For that, give them a minute. But if they're just reading the long address they wrote, they can go ahead and wrap it up when the music comes on.)
4) Seriously, enough with the bits
It was a good monologue! Cedric the Entertainer is an actual working comic; it helps. But the bits. My friends, the bits were regrettable. One, in particular, involved the fly that landed on Mike Pence's head during a debate leading up to an election that's been over for almost a year — a fly that was pretty well used up as a meme about eight hours after he was first spotted. How that fly bit made it all the way to air, I'm not sure, but I would gladly have taken a few minutes of showbiz stories from Debbie Allen (or, heck, Scott Frank) over the fly.
5) As always, some good wins helped
To say it was exciting to see Michaela Coel honored for writing “I May Destroy You” would be understating it; I startled my dog, I was so pleased. She is a great talent, and for her to go home with nothing would have been deeply disappointing. The wonderful Jean Smart gave a terrific speech when she won for “Hacks,” sad and funny and wise, and that's a performer who's been good in a lot of things for a very long time. Hannah Waddingham gave a stirring salute to theater actors, and Olivia Colman congratulated Coel with a burst of bleeped profanity. Julianne Nicholson is one of those actors who's been around forever being good in all kinds of things, and recognition for her was great. If you love “Ted Lasso” — some do, some don't, I do — then it was heartening to see such a strong showing for a show that was originally pitched as "a spin-off of some commercials" and didn't sound particularly promising.
It's not that the people who won Sunday night aren't good at their jobs. It's just that a lot of people are good at their jobs, and some are great at their jobs, and they got no encouragement, no congratulations, no recognition. Awards shouldn't matter to people in theory, perhaps, precisely because they're meaningless, but it would be better if they weren't meaningless. And if they're going to be meaningless, at least bring them in on time.
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