Emmys Analysis: Late-Breaking Momentum and Split Votes Result in a Crazy Night

The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist Scott Feinberg tries to make sense of a night of surprises.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Cast of 'Fleabag'

Well, that was weird. Sunday night's 71st Primetime Emmys probably cost Las Vegas bookies a lot of money, as there were more upsets than anticipated wins, reflecting the challenges of reading a voting body as large as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (which is comprised of some 25,000 members) in the era of Peak TV (with its roughly 500 shows), when it is harder than ever to gauge who is watching — much less loving — what at any given time.

Where to begin? The final seasons of HBO's two hallmark shows — Game of Thrones and Veep — were received very differently. Both received special tributes — and standing ovations — on the bloated telecast. But then, on the drama side, Thrones, for its much derided eighth season, won for best series and supporting actor (Peter Dinklage's fourth win for the show), while on the comedy side, Veep lost across the board — not just for best series, but even best actress. Julia Louis-Dreyfus had won for all six prior seasons of the show, which were shot before she was forced to take a year off to battle cancer, and had she won she would have broken a tie with Cloris Leachman for most wins across all acting categories by an actress.

The comedy categories were dominated by Amazon — but not by the show from that streamer that most people anticipated. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won for best series last year, when Veep was sidelined, and the TV Academy has often rubber-stamped past winners for series awards, even shows less strong than Maisel, which also did well at last weekend's Creative Arts Awards, which are often a bellwether for success at the Primetime ceremony. But Maisel showed a crack by failing to land any writing noms, creating an opening for Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

When 34-year-old Waller-Bridge won that award early in the ceremony, many were happy that she received a moment in the sun. But as it turned out, it was Waller-Bridge's night in the sun, as Fleabag — a show that was a non-factor at the Emmys for its first season back in 2016, and that Waller-Bridge announced would end with its second season — won for best series, directing (Harry Bradbeer) and actress (Waller-Bridge), too, way outperforming expectations. Indeed, considering that Fleabag is a feminist and female-centric show, it is a sign of progress that it did so well with the largely male voting body.

Was Maisel hindered by the fact that its nominated season dropped last Dec. 5, whereas Fleabag's nominated season came along as recently as April 1? Perhaps. But Maisel still bagged a few major prizes: best supporting actor and supporting actress for Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein (already the incumbent title holder), respectively, to go with the guest acting Emmys won last weekend by the show's Luke Kirby and Jane Lynch.

Not even Amazon insiders, with whom I spoke in recent days, dreamed that Fleabag and Maisel would combine to have the kind of showing they did, sweeping the comedy categories, save for one. (Best actor honors went, for the second year in a row, to Bill Hader for HBO's Barry).

Competing streamer Netflix, meanwhile, had a night of surprises, too. For the third year in a row, an installment of its Black Mirror anthology series won best TV movie, this year's being the interactive Bandersnatch. But a series win once again eluded the service, with dramas Bodyguard and Ozark, comedy Russian Doll and limited series When They See Us all coming up short. When They See Us seemed the best bet — until, that is, HBO's Chernobyl started running the tables, winning for writing (Craig Mazin), directing (Johan Renck) and eventually limited series. (Fun fact: The Emmys capped a remarkable month for alums of the Hangover film franchise — Mazin, who wrote two of the films, also created and penned Chernobyl, and director Todd Phillips helmed the potential Oscar contender Joker).

Losing best limited series and Ava DuVernay losing best directing of a limited series, TV movie or dramatic special was less than ideal for Team When They See Us, particularly with the real Central Park Five — or "Exonerated Five," as DuVernay calls them — in attendance. But they enjoyed one very special moment when 21-year-old Jharrel Jerome topped a bunch of vets to win best actor in a limited series for his heartrending portrayal of Korey Wise, eliciting a standing ovation. Jerome's work on his series' fourth installment probably sealed the deal.

And Netflix also celebrated two wins for Ozark, best supporting actress in a drama for Julia Garner (who probably benefited from four Thrones actresses splitting the vote in her category) and best direction of a drama, Jason Bateman (claiming his first Emmy mere seconds after losing out on best actor in a drama for the same show).

Perhaps the two most hotly contested races of the night were best actor and actress in a drama. The distaff category pitted Killing Eve's leading ladies Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer against one another — and Thrones' Emilia Clarke. Oh, unlike Comer, was nominated last year (succumbing to The Crown's Claire Foy), and no female castmember from Thrones had ever won an Emmy going into the night, so the smart money was on Oh. But, in the end, in perhaps the most surprising moment of the night, Comer prevailed — perhaps a recognition of the multifaceted demands of playing a villain as conniving and chameleonic as Villanelle.

Meanwhile, the best actor category, having been won last year by Matthew Rhys for the departing The Americans, seemed wide open, with past winner Sterling K. Brown a possibility, along with perennial bridesmaids Bateman and Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk. In the end, Better Call Saul was totally shut out, a disappointment for AMC, and the winner was Pose's Billy Porter, a triumph not only for FX — which also celebrated a best actress in a limited series win for Fosse/Verdon's Michelle Williams — but for progress, as Porter, a Tony and Grammy winner, becomes the first out gay black man to win in the category, and for a show about trans life in the 1980s. Porter, outfitted memorably as always, received a hearty standing ovation.

In the supporting categories for limited series, two Golden Globe winners saw very different outcomes at the Emmys. A Very English Scandal's Ben Whishaw repeated, but Sharp Objects' Patricia Clarkson was upended by another Patricia, Patricia Arquette, for Hulu's The Act. (Most assumed Arquette stood a better chance to be tapped as best actress in a limited series, for her work in Showtime's Escape at Dannemora, which instead was shut out.)

Even though HBO is losing two of its biggest shows ever, in Thrones and Veep, it received an encouraging signal about its prospects next year, for its hugely popular season two, when Succession won best writing for season one; it could be joined in next year's drama series race by the network's Big Little Lies, too. And the cabler's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver was named best variety talk series and best writing for a variety series yet again — both for the fourth consecutive year. Variety directing honors went to Saturday Night Live, as did best variety sketch series Emmy, for the third year in a row. And VH1's RuPaul's Drag Race won for best competition series for the second year in a row.

Thus ends the TV awards season — and begins months of additional head-scratching and second-guessing about how so many got so much wrong.