69th Primetime Emmy Awards: TV Review

Lots of meaningful firsts dominated Emmys night.
9/17/2017

Landmark winners and memorable speeches upstaged Stephen Colbert's turn as host, but maybe that's not such a bad thing for the Emmys.

There were good parts and bad parts to the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards telecast, but before I can address any of them, can we talk about the legends?

When Margaret Atwood took the stage with the creative team behind outstanding drama series winner The Handmaid's Tale, she brought the last stragglers to their feet and capped off a night in which one legend after another took a moment in the spotlight and the audience rose to salute them.

Granted that the Emmys, like the Oscars and Grammys and every other Hollywood kudofest, are orgies of self-congratulatory banalities and hypocritical indignation. This is a room of outspoken liberals and alleged Trump haters who roared when former White House press secretary Sean Spicer came out on a rolling podium and then stood in line to take pictures with him during bathroom breaks.

But whatever insincerity one might accuse the show and the crowd of having, they stood for Atwood. They stood for Norman Lear and Carol Burnett. They stood for Oprah Winfrey. They stood for Cicely Tyson. The TV Academy found ways to honor some of the biggest, most powerful and most venerable names in the business and the audience was appreciative. 

The crowd also stood for Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari, in what was a landmark win for writing on a comedy series, making her the first African-American woman to win in the category. And that was just one of many landmark wins on Sunday night.

Donald Glover's win for comedy directing the magnificent "B.A.N." episode of Atlanta made him the first black winner in that category. Reed Morano was the first woman to win a drama directing Emmy in 22 years. Sterling K. Brown was the first black actor to win lead acting in a drama in 19 years. Apparently, and this may be the most mind-boggling thing to me, Riz Ahmed's win for lead actor in a movie or miniseries was the first acting prize for any male actor of Asian descent. Ever.

And guess what? Every single one of them was deserved. Might I have had a different preference here or there? Sure. That's the way preferences go. But man, that's a great list of winners showing not just how special this creative moment is in television, but how the inclusion of a vast array of voices is a major part of how great it is. And the Emmys are just beginning to recognize what is just the tip of a creative iceberg. The inclusion of Issa Rae as a presenter, when she wasn't nominated for any of the things she does so well on Insecure, was a reminder of that. This was not a night that showed how TV has achieved glorious equality, but man, it showed a medium that's trying hard to let voices have their space, whether it's on broadcast, premium cable or streaming.

Especially in the homestretch of the show, winners starting calling attention to progressive issues as well, and I'm assuming viewers on one side of the political aisle will probably complain, but Waithe celebrated the power of difference, Ahmed called out xenophobia and praised the Innocence Project and Nicole Kidman and the Big Little Liars team spoke to the importance of visibility for victims of domestic violence and the telling of female stories. If those are partisan political issues, they shouldn't be.

That's not to say that the Emmys would have been a safe space for our president. Host Stephen Colbert started by chuckling about Donald Trump's lack of Emmy wins, a fact that Alec Baldwin also harped on. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, breaking a record for individual acting wins and proving white people could also set landmarks at these Emmys, made an impeachment joke. Reunited 9 to 5 stars Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, speaking of legends whom the crowd stood for, probably delivered the harshest Trump critique, but since they didn't use his name, I guess we can't be sure. Wink wink.

Going back to the deserving winners, there were a lot of satisfying victors in the telecast, and it wasn't just those breaking boundaries and trumpeting illustrious firsts. Personal firsts could be good, too. Elisabeth Moss, front and center in so many TV classics in our Golden Age, finally won an Emmy and was so emotional about her Handmaid's Tale trophy that she swore twice. Ann Dowd, a consummate character actor who has been telling people not to call her a character actor, can now replace "Character Actor" with "Emmy Winner" in front of her name. The Handmaid's Tale became the first streaming series to win a comedy or drama series Emmy and that was an important boundary crossed, one that Netflix or Amazon probably were sure they'd get there earlier. Veep remains one of the best comedies on TV, and even if it added yet another comedy series bauble to its mantle, Atlanta still won a couple big ones for Glover, a breakthrough for the freshman FX comedy.

You'd look at Sunday's Emmys and really feel like TV is in a good place, and that made for a show that was gratifying for this critic to watch.

It was still a flawed telecast. They all are.

Stephen Colbert was an above-average host, but definitely nothing better. Like so many hosts, he nearly vanished after his early segments, with only a funny bit with Jimmy Kimmel after their variety/late-night loss coming across as truly memorable (and marking the only time anybody referenced the envelope screw-up at the Oscars).

Colbert disappeared and that still couldn't prevent the show from threatening to run long. Kate McKinnon, the night's second winner, was played off. That was bad timing, because the music came at exactly the moment that she mentioned Hillary Clinton. Do I think for a second that she got played off because she mentioned Clinton? No. It just looked bad. That still looked better than playing Brown off as the This Is Us star was giving a gloriously nerdy speech that reference Andre Braugher's Homicide work as well as Webster and Martin. Awards speeches don't come much better, and the orchestra played over Brown and the camera pulled back, but the director didn't cut to commercial, so we lost at least 30 seconds of a speech that sure seemed to make the crowd happy and it didn't even save screen time. That was bad. It was also bad form to play off the night's biggest winner from a broadcast network show. I'm not sure Brown got a faster hook that Kidman a few minutes earlier, but people on Twitter sure thought so, and that's a loss for the Emmys whether or not it's true. (There's a stopwatch figure going around saying Kidman got at least an extra 45 seconds. Take that as you will.)

As always, that raises the question of how a show can finish promptly at three hours, but still allow the people who won to actually say the things the want to say and, as always, it turns out that the telecast was not without fat.

First off, I don't care if Spicer was only there for 30 seconds, that was 30 seconds too many. Hailing from an administration spawned by Hollywood and reality television that has still treated Hollywood and representatives of many of the groups earning recognition tonight with contempt, he shouldn't even have been welcomed as an out-of-place joke.

And speaking of reality TV, it's time to get the reality series category out of the main telecast. A decade ago, when reality was king on broadcast TV, the category felt important, as did the reality hosting category, and it kept being in the main show even though The Amazing Race kept being the only thing to win. Despite having become a show that rarely even achieves mediocrity, The Amazing Race keeps being nominated and now The Voice has become the unbeatable juggernaut that nobody's especially passionate about. If the Emmys can't figure out how to not make that category a boring reflex action, that's five minutes that could easily be bought back for speeches.

The filmed Westworld segment with Colbert and Jeffrey Wright was funnier than almost anything else Colbert did on the show, but it was also the only filmed bit of that type featured during the broadcast. And after winning some Creative Arts Emmys last weekend, Westworld was a non-factor in the big telecast. Either do more or don't bother is my opinion, but I know many people were glad that was there. (I forgot completely about the filmed conversation between Colbert and RuPaul playing the Emmy trophy. I'll continue to forget that, if you don't mind.)

The other side of the coin would be Rachel Bloom's musical tribute to the accountants. I love Rachel Bloom and can always happily watch her sing and dance for two minutes. I'm betting other people would be glad to ditch that.

The general presenter patter was weak. You've got to have it there. Otherwise, the stars are coming out, reading nominations and leaving and some of them won't get dressed for that limited exposure. So write better. Dave Chappelle's shoutout to DC public schools was almost certainly not scripted and gave John Oliver a very funny callback. I think Seth Meyers and James Corden tried being funny, and I think Craig Robinson and Adam Scott tried being funny, but those bits were too similar and wholly cuttable. And the less said about Jim Parsons and Iain Armitage failing to drum up excitement for Young Sheldon the better.

One thing I'm afraid we're all going to agree with is that the attempt to have Jermaine Fowler of Superior Donuts play announcer/DJ was an abject failure. I can accept Fowler yelling trivia as people walked to the stage. That's dead time; it has to be filled. I'm less tolerant of Fowler loudly inserting himself into the show's narrative as he did glibly topping Ahmed's salute to several justice organizations and Kidman's call for more roles for women. CBS also had him yelling product plugs and yelling the premise of the new Star Trek series, and it actually became quite tacky. Fowler's performance on Superior Donuts also started way too loud, and then the show's directors got him to tamp down the enthusiasm as episodes progressed. In the course of a live telecast, apparently nobody was able to do that. Getting rid of the announcer/DJ wouldn't have saved much time in the show and no network has ever attempted to have an on-air star play this sort of role before, but let's just hope and assume it won't happen again. (As attempts to awkwardly shoehorn a CBS star into the telecast, Christopher Jackson's (Hamilton, Bull) performance of "As" over the star-filled necrology was far better. Again, here, I ask why the director can't cut audio from the crowd. I don't need to know who the audience felt like inappropriately cheering for.)

In general, it was a good Emmys telecast and, like most of the best awards shows, it wasn't forced into being entertaining by its host or the show producers. I'm probably not going to remember Colbert for good or ill by the time we reach next year. What I'll remember is the show's winners and how reasonably well they reflect what continues to be a thrilling moment for those of us who watch TV for a living. The winners and their speeches and their visibility offered inspiration for viewers at home and future voices desperate to be heard. I'll take that over witty presenter repartee any day.

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