Emmys Embrace Change — A Lot of It

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and 'Game of Thrones' aside, the 2016 TV honors favor new blood and niche series. 

The 2016 Emmys seemed poised to go one of two ways — proven but familiar or fresh and invigorating. 

That's not a slight on any of the nominated series or actors. The numbing abundance of quality TV now assures worthy nominees. But it feels like we've been at this juncture before, blessed with a slew of beloved underdogs — who almost always go home empty-handed in favor of TV Academy favorites. This year's show made its best effort to defy that, achieving some optimistically mixed results. 

The only assurance heading into Sunday's telecast was Sarah Paulson's coronation for playing Marcia Clark in Ryan Murphy's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Everything else — perhaps ignoring her co-stars Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance locking up wins, alongside their celebrated limited series — was up in the air. Even perennial favorite Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who nabbed a record fifth win for Veep, was guaranteed nothing.

Sunday started on a particularly promising note for change, with Louie Anderson's supporting actor win for Baskets. The audience for the FX comedy isn't much larger than the Academy pool itself, but somebody was clearly paying attention. Netflix's Master of None may have registered a bigger blip on the cultural radar, but it's still a decidedly niche show. Its writing win, shared by Aziz Ansari, is nothing short of a coup, considering it was up against vets Veep and Silicon Valley. Kate McKinnon, the Saturday Night Live darling, also managed a rare win in comedy's supporting race beating out actresses from more traditional scripted TV. 

Fans of tumult may say that Jill Soloway's second directing win and Jeffrey Tambor's best actor repeat for Transparent are expected and boring, but they'd be forgetting that the episodes of the show appear between auto parts and running shoes on a website most famous for suggesting toilet paper delivery by drone. Transparent's thrall over critics endures, even if the top prize in the comedy race ultimately went to Veep

With Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's stranglehold on variety talk now a thing of the past, John Oliver broke through during his second year of eligibility for Last Week Tonight. And, up for the last time, Key and Peele stole Amy Schumer's thunder in the variety sketch competition. Both were surprises, though neither shocking. 

If there were upsets on the night, they were assuredly Mr. Robot star Rami Malek and Orphan Black actress Tatiana Maslany taking the top lead acting honors in drama. Their shows are not in the wheelhouse of any stodgy voting body — though the elder statesmen did not go unrepresented. Dame Maggie Smith received the supporting actress nod for the final season of Downton Abbey. (And while it likely prompted a few eye rolls, the woman is 81 and a global treasure.) And while few people expected mention of Bloodline in any envelopes, Ben Mendelsohn did score a win in the supporting actor race. 

The night ended on perhaps the least surprising note. And it's not exactly one anyone can argue with. Game of Thrones, with its critical praise and record-breaking ratings for HBO, is the closest thing to consensus television in the era of the evolving water cooler. It's also easy to forget that this is only the second year it has claimed the best drama crown, one it was all but assured after wins in both writing and directing. 

This Emmy will have to tide the Game of Thrones team over until 2018, by the way. The show's delayed production schedule will leave it out of next year's race. 

So there you have it. As the Oscars get flak for the same old choices, and the Golden Globes remain as predictable as hurricane season, the Emmys prove to be Hollywood's most forward-looking kudos. This year's winners might not please everyone, but no one can fault them for predictably. It's a trend that only stands to grow as the volume of TV offerings surge toward a still-unknown ceiling.