70th Primetime Emmy Awards: TV Review

When an on-air proposal is a highlight, it's not a good show.
9/17/2018

With Michael Che and Colin Jost unable to set an amusing tone, the Emmys became a bloated 'Saturday Night Live' episode with a lot of wins for 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.'

Monday night's 70th Primetime Emmy Awards finished basically on time at 8 p.m. PT/11 p.m. ET.

For this, we can celebrate the Emmys! They gave out a ton of awards, mostly didn't play off the winners and even found time for:

1) A multi-part gag with Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in which the stars of Amazon's acclaimed comedy Forever did a variation on several nervous, improvisational characters they introduced on Saturday Night Live. Armisen and Rudolph played Emmys experts who actually knew nothing about Emmys. They had at least three reprises for the bit, without ever landing a single genuine laugh.

2) Will Ferrell to walk out on the stage very slowly to present outstanding comedy series. There was no joke to it. He just walked slowly and then pretended to be out of breath. As best I can figure, somebody must have told him that the show was coming in early and asked him to vamp.

3) Five minutes with Betty White. Give or take. This one I'm not quibbling with. If Betty White is available and wants to come talk to a room of grateful stars, we let Betty White do literally whatever she wants to do.

Why was White there, though? She was probably there because Lorne Michaels was producing the show and made the truly questionable decision to turn the entire telecast over to Saturday Night Live and Saturday Night Live-adjacent personalities in a way that no single show has ever dominated the Emmy proceedings in my lifetime.

The selection of presenters was so myopic that Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson opened the show as part of a mediocre musical number that also featured Aidy Bryant and Andy Samberg, and they also got to return to present later in the show, as did Samberg and Bryant. Heaven knows I'm an appreciator of Thompson and his marvelous SNL legacy and his impressive pre-SNL legacy, but there's a statement you're making when you have Kenan Thompson present for outstanding drama series and it's something along the lines of, "The history of television is, for tonight, all about just one show." Other SNL favorites or SNL-affiliated stars who got roles on the telecast included Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Jones, Tina Fey, Larry David, Bob Odenkirk and recent SNL hosts Tiffany Haddish, Dave Chappelle and Sterling K. Brown. [Wins for Bill Hader and John Mulaney, Saturday Night Live partners in crime for years, helped add to the bloated SNL aroma of the evening, though Michaels can't be blamed for those victories.]

Imagine CBS using its platform a decade ago to only let various castmembers from CSI and its respective spinoffs present. Or ABC doing an Emmys telecast in which each award is presented by somebody from the Bachelor franchise. This was a bad look for NBC and for Michaels, and it'd be hard to begrudge any future network in this Emmys rotation thinking that skipping NBC talent for presentations would be fair play.

That's before you even mention the evening's hosts, Michael Che and Colin Jost, who did a flat monologue and essentially vanished, confirming pre-show suspicions that the "Weekend Update" anchors were ill-matched to the event.

The best thing Jost was involved with for the entire telecast was a plea for donations to Hurricane Florence victims in the Southeast. Che was a bit better off because the filmed bit about the Reparation Oscars, featuring the likes of Marla Gibbs, Jimmy Walker, Jaleel White, Kadeem Hardison, Tichina Arnold and John Witherspoon, was rather fantastic.

This is, of course, the sort of thing that normally makes conservative pundits all antsy as if it impinges on their insular worldview to say that this group of African-American TV legends is worthy of more respect and recognition than they've received.

Will we hear those same pundits acknowledge that Monday night's show was almost shockingly apolitical? If the name "Donald Trump" was mentioned more than once, I must have missed it. Rachel Brosnahan urged people to register and to vote, without saying who they should vote for. Ryan Murphy dedicated the American Crime Story: Assassination of Gianni Versace limited series win to the LGBTQ community. Hannah Gadsby, in what was probably the funniest minute of the entire show, did a riff on men not getting jokes, or something to that effect. Some of those things are probably political if you want to reach. Also, everybody who hasn't watched Gadsby's Netflix special Nanette should watch Nanette.

The show was light on political statements, other than the inadvertent exposing of Hollywood hypocrisy. The opening "We Solved It!" musical number was clearly meant to be ironic and not self-congratulatory, but there were many other references to the inclusive nomination base that felt like self-conscious back-patting, which would have looked better if the first hour of the awards show wasn't a parade of white winners rising out of those inclusive nomination fields. Personally, I was astounded by the degree to which Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel dominated and how little room that left for anything else in the comedy realm, particularly Atlanta. Amy Sherman-Palladino's double win for writing and directing was historic and I have such respect for her, yet a Hiro Murai directing win for the "Teddy Perkins" episode of the FX series would have been deserved, added inclusivity to the group of winners and prevented Atlanta from getting shut out in the big show. (Teddy Perkins was even spotted in the audience.)

At least the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sweep was the culmination of a wave of love for the comedy. The drama series win for Game of Thrones was more like a shrug, coupled only with a Peter Dinklage triumph in a supporting actor category in major need of an overhaul. Those two wins tied Game of Thrones with The Crown (winning for Claire Foy and drama direction) and a wonderful Emmy farewell for The Americans (winning for Matthew Rhys and for writing). A win by The Crown or The Americans for drama series might have felt like an uprising of some sort from the Emmy voters. A win by Game of Thrones was business as usual and if you're a betting person, you'd be foolish not to count on it and Veep both winning next year in their last seasons, regardless of quality. The drama series category is positioned as the culmination of the show, and this was a major anticlimax. 

In part because of how poorly the show began, it felt like there were at least memorable moments worth cheering. Henry Winkler's first career Emmy brought the crowd to its feet for the evening's first category. Oscars director Glenn Weiss took what could have been a dull patch of the telecast and made it something thrilling with an unexpected proposal to his girlfriend Jan, who thankfully said "Yes." Rick & Morty did an animated introduction that somehow didn't feel like pandering and made me laugh out loud.

There were a couple good presenter bits. Samberg and Sandra Oh — mostly Oh, really — had a great back-and-forth complete with an above-average Oscars/La La Land joke. Michael Douglas had an OK rant about how the night's losers should internalize and be inspired by their defeats. Benicio del Toro said something scary that made people laugh. And now I'm reaching.

For the most part, presenters were shoehorned in as part of a rarely attempted innovation in show structure. Categories were introduced and clips were played and then presenters came out. Getting clips in always benefits awards shows, and I'm sure there's some way that this improved show efficiency, but it left presenters doing banter between the reading of nominee names and the announcement of winners, a major momentum suck. When the presenters didn't have funny things to do, the result was both peculiar and awkward, like, why did they bother having Eric Bana come out onstage at all if he was just going to say "They make the news funny" and leave?

If I had to reach for other "new" things attempted by this Emmy production team, I'd say I liked the giant stills that filled the screen behind the accepting winners. The show director was obviously instructed to frame the winners so that they were sharing the screen with huge images of themselves in character, and the result had a dynamic look that resembled propaganda or a political rally.

The chosen winners, some excellent and some a little disappointing, muddled the narrative of what could have been a Hollywood rally on behalf of Hollywood. The general feeling was, instead, one of Lorne Michaels making the Emmys all about him and his friends, with entirely too many conspicuous missteps.