68th Primetime Emmy Awards: TV Review

TV's finest get a fine show, and a short show.
9/18/2016

Jimmy Kimmel's status as a solid host is cemented after a show highlighted by surprise winners and emotional speeches.

In terms of both the broadcast and the winners themselves, the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards offered a study in contradictions.

How, for example, does an award show that starts by playing its very first winner — the marvelous Louie Anderson, whose well-deserved win was probably the first time millions of viewers learned Baskets existed — off the stage somehow end up finishing ahead of schedule?

Well, it helps that Ben Mendelsohn and Dame Maggie Smith weren't there to collect their trophies, the latter triumph foretold so fully in host Jimmy Kimmel's monologue that the reading of her name earned laughter from the crowd. Generally, though, the show suffered from confusing time management. Obviously with a show like this, you want to give yourself a cushion, which was why many early winners joined Anderson in being played off, including the production team from big winner The People v. O.J. Simpson and writing winner Aziz Ansari, who let co-winner Alan Yang go first. But then Matt Damon came out for a lengthy bit with longtime late-night nemesis Kimmel, a bit that both could have been trimmed, but also presumably would have been completely different if Kimmel hadn't lost in the variety talk category. Nominee lists were raced through at breakneck speed, but then somehow there was time for clips representing the lead actor in a drama nominees, but not clips for the lead actress in a drama. By the point at which Larry David appeared to present the outstanding comedy prize with over 10 minutes left and only two remaining awards, you could sense he was being told to milk it a little and the Curb Your Enthusiasm star did, indeed, milk it.

Managing time on a live awards show may be one of the most difficult things to do in Hollywood — not to be confused with coal mining, brain surgery, teaching or countless other, harder jobs that people do outside of our bubble here — and producer Don Mischer left a lot of the wires visible in this telecast, trimming and stretching on the fly. He came in on time, though, so that counts as a win.

I'd give the same verdict to Kimmel, the man who served as the face and snarky voice of the elastic show. I know plenty of readers and colleagues who disagreed with my assessment that Kimmel's filmed intro was pretty mediocre, but I definitely thought he improved from there, both with his monologue and filling space between the awards. Kimmel joshed with audience members ("At this point, you could probably drop the 'P.' Are there other Taraji Hensons you're being confused with?"), made smart and meta observations about winners ("[Transparent] was born a drama, but it identifies as a comedy") and kept the show moving well.

I don't know if there were big winners among Kimmel's longer bits. Getting young stars of Stranger Things to deliver peanut butter sandwiches, prepared by his mother, to hungry audience members was a chuckle, but like the filmed intro it was derivative of past Oscars and Emmys bits. The Damon bit went well in the room and, as always, showcased what a great sport he is in those circumstances, but it went on far longer than it needed to. There also weren't big losers for Kimmel. Known in this industry town for his often scathing routines at ABC's May upfronts presentations, Kimmel has now hosted the Emmys twice without going anywhere near "scathing," but he was a solid and professional host his first time and he was better this time. When the Emmys come back around to ABC again, if Kimmel's the pick to host, audiences will know what to expect and what to look forward to. I don't think he's the Billy Crystal of the Emmys, but he's good at this job. Kimmel also has probably put himself in position to be a reasonable option in future years if Oscars producers need a safe fallback.

It helped Kimmel's cause that this year's winners were a dramatic, emotional and surprising lot, which brings me back to the Emmys as a show of contradictions.

To wit, how does a show in which the big winners were either repeaters or juggernauts end up feeling so unpredictable? Veep and Game of Thrones won comedy and drama series for the second straight year and they're record breakers. The People v. O.J. Simpson swept through the limited series/miniseries category with an authority far greater than its margin of qualitative superiority (or lack thereof) over the second installment of FX's Fargo. Those wins were not surprises, nor were the various acting, writing and directing prizes the shows took on the side. If we often blame Emmy voters for complacency, how does Sunday's show avoid that charge?

Well, first of all there were the awards that actually were true shockers, starting with Anderson at the top of the show. Tatiana Maslany, who spent two years as critically adored and Emmy snubbed for Orphan Black, scored an unexpected win for her second nomination. Kate McKinnon thanked Hillary Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres, two of her popular Saturday Night Live impression subjects, but also seemed straight-up amazed to have won. Rami Malek knocked off some powerhouses to win lead actor in a drama for Mr. Robot and had one of the lines of the night quoting his show to inquire, "Please tell me you're seeing this, too."

And even the winners who were foregone conclusions gave great speeches. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose stranglehold on Emmy would be a bore if it weren't so totally deserved, gave a speech that started with humor as she apologized for the current political climate and ended with emotion as she paid tribute to her father who passed away on Friday. Jeffrey Tambor got to be the butt of a joke in Kimmel's monologue, got the win everybody predicted and also made a plea on behalf of transgendered performers.

All of the People v. O.J. Simpson stars gave lively and loving speeches, from the shared professional lovefest between Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson to Courtney B. Vance attempting to one-up his castmates in expressions of spousal love, his directed at wife Angela Bassett, glowing with pride.

Vance closed with the declaration "Obama out! Hillary in!" and this was probably the most political award show in recent memory. Kimmel made jokes about Donald Trump and also about television's diversity, but one didn't need to discuss the inclusiveness to see it was alive in almost every category. Masters of None writing co-winner Yang talked about offering new visual representations of Asians and Asian-Americans. Acting awards went to African-Americans, an Egyptian-American, a Brit, an Aussie and the rare Canadian to win for a show shot and produced in Canada. While so much of the telecast must have been a nightmare for a certain segment of the potential audience, one probably not watching the Emmys anyway, the show's inclusiveness extended to a win for The Voice producer Mark Burnett, credited in Kimmel's monologue with birthing Trump as a political figure.

"Topple the patriarchy," yelled repeat winner Jill Soloway at the end of her acceptance speech as outstanding comedy director for Transparent, and that felt like a running theme in the show. But also fitting the running theme of contradictions, both big series winners — Veep and Game of Thrones, in case you've forgotten from a couple paragraphs ago — are shows about toppling the patriarchy that got speeches from their white male showrunners.

Society, television and the Emmys, they're all works-in-progress. Sunday's show got a lot of things right, though, and put a lot of emphasis on progress.

A few other quick observations from Sunday's Emmys telecast:

*** It's always hard to do individual tributes for a limited number of luminaries who died in the past year. Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall got the stand-alone tributes and both deserved those tributes, but as the Necrology showed, this was a year in which TV lost some important names in all facets. How, then, did Prince come to get the closing slot in the In Memoriam reel? And surely somebody could have given an introduction or on-screen ID for Tori Kelly, who did a fine version of "Hallelujah."

*** The night was full of little great moments, like Keegan-Michael Key briefly geeking out that the trophy for Key & Peele was handed to them by In Living Color star and sketch comedy pioneer Damon Wayans.

*** Leslie Jones and the accountants felt like a good way to simultaneously troll that audience segment that wasn't watching anyway and also a good way to get a chuckle or two out of introducing the accountants without also insulting the accountants, which is always a struggle.

Next year, the Emmys are on to CBS and it's hard to imagine anybody other than James Corden hosting them, right?

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