THR TV Critics Debate: The Few Highs and Many Lows of the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards

Prime Video Emmys Celebration 2018 - Amy Sherman-Palladino, Rachel Brosnahan, Daniel Palladino - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Daniel Fienberg: We're still in the afterglow of the 70th Primetime Emmys, the biggest night on the TV calendar (if you have a rather restrictive approach to the 500-plus shows on television). There's a lot to say about the winners and losers, but let's start with the telecast itself! Tim, were you so grateful that the Emmys ended basically on time that you're willing to call the show a triumph?

Tim Goodman: No. It was the worst Emmys telecast I've ever seen. That's not hyperbole. (Maybe there was a telecast as bad when I was a teenager and wasn't paying attention?) It was lifeless, it was dull, it was poorly produced, terribly written and it had hosts who should not have been hosting (they aren't well-known enough and, last night, were not funny enough and not engaging enough). The pairing of presenters was ill-conceived. The material given them was pathetic. Nearly every "bit" in the show imploded upon itself. The staging looked like it came from 1978. People looked like they didn't want to be there. The fact that the television industry, on a night when it is supposed to celebrate its own achievements, can't actually make a TV event that is interesting is really pathetic.

DF: There are plenty of people who are less well-known than Michael Che and Colin Jost — for better or for worse centerpieces of one of NBC's flagship shows and drawing just under 10 million viewers — who would have done a fantastic job of hosting, but I definitely agree that they were, in all ways, the wrong choices to host and then they were also presented in the least appealing light, with both a lame monologue and weak follow-up appearances. Certainly Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen had to be the centerpiece of one of several bits that simply never evolved from "idea" to "executed thing that was funny," and I imagine several people at Amazon are lamenting the promotional opportunity for Forever this morning. Do you have anybody else you want to single out for ire?

TG: Well, it's a long list. But really, this is on the Television Academy. It needs more oversight. It can't just let Lorne Michaels and NBC take over the Emmys and bore the life out of the country. That was, as you said in your review, essentially an SNL production and long ad for NBC. I would argue (again, sigh) that the Television Academy's most urgent issue is expanding every single category to 10 nominations. But after that, doing something — anything — to fix the Emmys as a telecast is essential. And I'm done with it being on broadcast television. I'd rather see it on Netflix. Both the TV Academy and Netflix could easily find a way to pay for it. There would be no need to worry about or pander to "ratings" — something Trump (hey, there's a name that didn't come up last night) will use as a cudgel against the entertainment industry if they are down, which they are sure to be. Put the emphasis on the nominees and the winners and worry less about the spotlight. If it never goes back to broadcast TV and that stupid revolving format, I'd be happy. The telecast needs to be revamped. It needs fresh ideas, new directors and writers (perhaps tapped from a less "hey, these people do awards shows, so let's use them" field of qualified people) and a change of scenery.

DF: Is there any more annoying cliche on TV than when, after one character goes on a long rant, the person they're talking to replies, "But tell me what you really think"? The funny thing is that Monday's show actually made room for clips, which isn't always the case on award shows, and I think that if you had trimmed Fred & Maya, it would have made room for an additional four nominees and clips per category. I'd put the inclusion of clips in any positive category about the show, even if they were very oddly wedged in before the announcement of the presenters and their usually weak banter. Do you have any positives you wish to acknowledge?

TG: Uh, that you had to review it and not me? OK, yes, the clips thing. Agreed on that.

DF: Betty White! Glenn Weiss' marriage proposal! The Reparations Emmys! From there I'd probably have to start making things up.

TG: Well, as you said, White is a legend you let do what she wants, but also as you mentioned it was unclear exactly what her purpose was other than a marker of time to the advent of TV. Weiss' proposal was lovely and conveniently took attention away from the fact that yet another Emmy went to directing an awards show. The Reparations Emmy bit was good, but on a much better telecast it would have been the fifth or sixth thing we'd be noting. So, yeah, we should probably move on to the actual winners and losers. It was … interesting?

DF: "Interesting" sounds right. Do we want to start with big picture? Is it particularly meaningful that this was the first time Netflix was able to tie with HBO for most Emmy wins? Does that require an asterisk given how many wins, including a couple on the telecast, came from treating Black Mirror episodes as TV movies or treating something like Seven Seconds as a limited series?

TG: Category shenanigans have been going on for a long time, and while they do annoy me and tilt the percentages, as you note, this is yet another thing that the Television Academy could and should address (or actually fix). It's not that hard. Perhaps some common sense? Regina King is amazing, but even she seemed to be stunned that she won (or maybe that anyone remembered the show?). Big picture, I'd say this was clearly Amazon's night with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I certainly have thoughts about that. Ahem. (And if only Rudolph and Armisen could have been given material that was good, Amazon could have built some interest for Forever, which I reviewed and quite liked.) HBO certainly reminded people it wasn't going away. And FX did extremely well for its size once again, even if Keri Russell didn't win as I'd hoped (in a very, very competitive category) and, sadly, The Americans didn't win on its last chance, either (as it probably should have, but at least it got slayed by a gigantic, worthy series like Game of Thrones; as much as I like Claire Foy, that trophy should have gone to Russell).

DF: Lots to touch on there, but let's start with The Americans. Coming into last night, it had only two Emmy wins, both for Margo Martindale, at least one of which was for an episode in which she might have appeared in two scenes. How gratifying did you find the two rather major wins in this, its final shot at Emmys glory?

TG: Well, I loved that Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields won for writing. I mean, the story as it was told through six seasons of The Americans was fantastic. I thought the series finale was brilliant, and so that really felt like a well-deserved, overdue win. Matthew Rhys is superb and has been from the start. The real tragedy here is that he and Keri Russell work that magic together — that was a meaty, intriguing depiction of marriage onscreen, and it's hard to conjure up happiness for one without feeling deflated for the other not winning. Especially since this final season might have been Russell's best. Were the wins enough for you or is there disappointment lingering there? And then, you know what? We need to talk about Atlanta, Dan. We do.

DF: It was basically the identical last-season Emmy double that Friday Night Lights did when Jason Katims and Kyle Chandler won, but heaven knows Connie Britton could have won, but didn't. Here, Russell just found herself in an almost impossible category in which almost anybody's win, including Foy's final nod for The Crown, would have been deserved. When it comes to Atlanta, it's hard to talk about how disappointed I am that it got totally shut out on the telecast, because then it sounds like I'm insulting The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and I love that show and I love Amy Sherman-Palladino and their achievements have a landmark importance as well. But geez, oh, man — Hiro Murai should have won for directing the "Teddy Perkins" episode, and that's just the bare minimum.

TG: Well, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a fine show — and now a juggernaut for Amazon — but I was thinking Rachel Brosnahan was the only real lock. And that Atlanta was going to get best comedy, best actor for Glover and best directing for Murai. Maybe more? Despite the song and dance at the beginning of the telecast and all the back-patting about diversity, I think it's hard to ignore that Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the quintessential TV Academy-type show and Atlanta is not.

DF: I think probably a lot of people misread the "We Solved It!" musical number as being sincere, which it very clearly was not. The whole point of the show was about how hollow back-patting is and how superficial gains in inclusivity can be, and then the show and the awards went and underlined that point. I think Marvelous Mrs. Maisel looks fairly adventurous if you hold it to the standard of, say, the long run of Modern Family as an Emmy juggernaut, but very little looks adventurous if you compare it to Atlanta. I think Barry was probably deserving of its two wins, and I think Brosnahan and Alex Borstein were deserving of theirs. Give Sherman-Palladino her writing win and give Atlanta wins for directing and comedy series and then you get three terrific shows that feel adequately honored, not to go all "Everybody gets a trophy" on things. You're more enthusiastic about Game of Thrones than I am these days. I still applaud the show's scale and ambition, while thinking that in terms of execution, there were a lot of superior alternatives for recognition. You're satisfied enough with the Game of Thrones drama series win?

TG: No, not at all. Basically my thinking is that The Americans should have won, hands down, and if it didn't win then the award should have gone to Counterpart on Starz, but of course that show wasn't even nominated when it was, in my opinion, the second best drama this year. I mean, if The Americans is going to lose, better to lose to Game of Thrones — which now has three wins and had a very strong season — than anything else in the category. I remain gutted about The Americans losing.

DF: At least The Americans will always have its TCA Awards! And when was the last time the winner of a major Emmy thanked TV critics? All hail Joe and Joel! Probably Game of Thrones was a more Emmy-appropriate winner, because although it's clearly a show about the cost of power and all sorts of eternally relevant virtues, it's not a show about anything explicitly contemporary. The same is true of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show about feminism couched in the safety of a period setting, as opposed to the confrontational commentary of an Atlanta. That feels relevant for a night on which almost nobody felt like using the stage as a political pulpit. Tim, did you find the lack of Trump bashing to be a welcome escape or a disingenuous abdication of an important platform?

TG: I saw it as another wasted opportunity and was surprised and disappointed by its lack of presence. This country is in a culture war. There's just no way around that truth. And yes, Trump supporters and Republicans in general would have decried liberal Hollywood for mixing politics into pop culture, but that is precisely the opportunity and necessity. It should be "no, you don't get to enjoy our entertainment talents without hearing our constitutionally protected right to free speech and a searing opinion on whatever the hell it is we feel like talking about." That's the opportunity that was lost. People will always lie and say, "I'm never going to watch your show/movie/etc." but then almost never back that up. And even if they do, good riddance. Celebrities shouldn't be afraid of losing fans or hurting their "brand" by speaking up. That nobody directly mentioned Trump or assailed his leadership is disappointing (oh, sure, put John McCain in the "In Memoriam" section, but nobody say a word about the shameful way Trump and the administration treated his passing). That nobody mentioned Brett Kavanaugh is truly surprising. That there wasn't a continued, strong beating of the #MeToo message was also unfortunate. Now is not the time to go silent. Politics in your pop culture is the advantage Hollywood needs to use for change.

DF: It felt like there was some fear that because of #MeToo, Hollywood didn't or doesn't have any moral high ground, rather than treating #MeToo as a sign of clear rot in the industry and acknowledging that the entertainment business is in the process of change and that can be a change that ripples out to all corners of society. On Monday night, we didn't get anything more engaged or engaging than Rachel Brosnahan reminding people to vote. That's a start, I guess? As we wrap up this bemoaning of Emmy night, is there any chance we can just agree that Game of Thrones and Veep are going to be iron-clad locks to win best drama and comedy next year for their respective final seasons and that, as a result, we can just start looking to prognosticating about 2020 (on several levels) right now?

TG: Actually, I'm going to predict right here, one year prior to it actually happening, that neither of those shows will win. I think there will be some truly amazing drama nominees — particularly if categories expand to 10 — and that three victories for Game of Thrones will be it. Something else will win. Same for comedy — although right now it's hard to see the TV Academy falling out of love with Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, so maybe that's the odds-on favorite.