The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards: TV Review

Emmy voters saved the Emmy producers on this one.
9/22/2019

Going without a host didn't work out so well for the Emmys, which were saved by a great slate of winners and speeches by Michelle Williams, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jharrel Jerome, Billy Porter and more.

The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards concluded Sunday night with HBO's Game of Thrones tapped as outstanding drama series, the night's climactic award.

Yawn.

Normally, when a show that was this much of a foregone conclusion ends an awards ceremony triumphant, especially a series I was this mixed on — for its final season, at least — that's a recipe for a bad awards show. But Sunday night saw the TV Academy largely break out of years of heavily mocked complacency and banality. The results weren't perfect, but they were often outstanding and very frequently surprising. For every thing that made me confused or frustrated — Jason Bateman for the self-imposed task of directing Ozark episodes without turning on the lights? — there were four or five wins that made this normally grumpy critic sit up and go, "Holy cow, they got that right!"

But normally when an awards show gets this many winners correct and is able to deliver this many passionate, emotional and thought-provoking speeches, that's a recipe for a good kudocast. Nope. I'm going to praise the voting, but I'm here to critique the things producers Don Mischer and Ian Stewart did right or wrong, not to reward them for things they got lucky on and as a telecast, the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards got lucky a lot and made one bad choice after another.

We have to start at the beginning, where I'm afraid that it must be said that if the Oscars in the spring proved that award shows don't require hosts to kick an evening off and carry momentum, the Emmys proved that sometimes hosts can be very, very, very helpful.

Instead of a host, the show started with Homer Simpson getting hit by a piano and Anthony Anderson running around frantically stealing Emmys and Bryan Cranston giving a speech so pompous — "Television has never been bigger. Television has never mattered more. And television has never been this damn good" — it would have felt like parody, except that it was in no way parody. This is not to blame Cranston. Or Anderson. Or even Simpson. Hosts come out to set a tone. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail. So maybe this show didn't need a host, either, but it definitely needed better material. The three-pronged non-hosted opening was manic, wildly deficient in terms of establishing a mood of any consistent sort. I'm sure some viewers will appreciate that it was ostensibly apolitical and therefore surely didn't offend the multiple Emmy loser in the White House — I don't recall Donald Trump's name being mentioned the entire night — but it's almost impossible to imagine anybody walking away from those first 10 minutes saying that it was a good use of time.

It got worse. The Nick Cannon/Ken Jeong Tik-Tok shtick felt like an embarrassing effort to pander to a younger demographic that, if we're being totally frank, hasn't watched the Emmys for years, certainly didn't watch the Emmys this year and wouldn't have tuned in if you'd told them, "Ken Jeong is going to do five-plus minutes of his finest Tik-Tok material." It was brutal.

What else did the producers bring to the table?

Well, you had Thomas Lennon as a snarky announcer who candidly admitted, "This is why people don't do this, because it sucks!" halfway through the telecast and yet kept on fumbling. Credit where it's due, I laughed once at a vicious Felicity Huffman prison joke — the only nod to the college admissions scandal in the show — and once at "Chernobyl, the little nuclear disaster that could." Otherwise, it was very bad. The only thing worse might have been the random and inconsistent play-up musical cues. I'm a fan of irony, and I can accept that using "Feeling Good" as walk-up music for Chernobyl might have been meant as ironic, but why? And why in this case and not most others? This is what happens when you have no orchestra: Sure, nobody gets played off, but there's no cohesive musical voice to the show.

What else?

Both Game of Thrones and Veep, presumptive winners six months ago, got full clip package treatment celebrating their respective final seasons and had their entire casts welcomed out onstage to standing ovations. This actually could have been much worse and more redundant if Veep and Game of Thrones had won all of the awards most pundits expected. Instead, Veep was shut out and Game of Thrones won for drama series and for Peter Dinklage, avoiding overkill. That, again, was dumb luck and not a decision made by the producers.

But what of other shows that ended this year? Fox executives claimed part of why they decided to go hostless this year was to use to time to salute the various exiting shows. So Veep and Game of Thrones got stand-alone tributes, and then there was another five minutes later in the show focusing on Gotham, House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jane the Virgin, Broad City and The Big Bang Theory — probably worthy, for reasons of popularity and multiple winner Jim Parsons, of its own tribute. I know the awards show was on Fox, but is there another reason why Gotham was worthy of that spot when nary a mention was made of shows including You're the Worst, Catastrophe and even ("even" because I pray every night that it isn't really over) Fleabag? Maybe instead of leading into the variety awards with an extended and excruciating number featuring Adam Devine — really just an excuse, another excuse, to plug The Masked Singer — they could have had a number spotlighting a song or two from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a departing show that just won an Emmy last week?

I could go on and on. There were almost no good presenting partnerships or good presenting gimmicks. Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz's "We just got Lasik" thing started off cute and went forever. Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert complaining about the lack of host hit too close to home. Bill Hader and Phoebe Waller-Bridge were better, and I can't help but assume they had at least some hand in writing their material, even if it wasn't exactly Shakespeare (or Fleabag).

Criticizing the production choices correctly isolates many of the things that went wrong with the show — Fox could have just forced the Masked Singer judges up onto the stage as hosts if all they wanted was an extended commercial — but those really aren't the parts of the show I'm going to remember.

I'm going to remember Michelle Williams' fantastic acceptance for Fosse/Verdon, a celebration of female empowerment that spoke to all of the ways the industry can and should work to better be allies to women and women of color on both sides of the camera. The actress gave the best speech at the TCA Awards two months ago, and somewhere I'm sure there are Oscar voters being jealous at how much positive exposure she draws when you actually give her the awards. You lose, movies! Michelle Williams belongs to TV now.

I'm going to remember each and every one of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's increasingly giddy acceptances for Fleabag. I went into the night hoping that she would just win one and instead she won for writing, acting and producing and she got a shout-out when Jodie Comer won a well-earned lead actress prize for Killing Eve. In a different world, Waller-Bridge could have capped off the most remarkable night in Emmy history if Killing Eve had won for drama series as well. David E. Kelley may have won for drama and comedy in the same year, but did he also win lead actress? No, he did not.

I'm going to remember the utter joy of Billy Porter's milestone victory for Pose, where every cutaway to his co-stars showed how much the nod meant to everybody associated with that landmark show.

I'm going to remember the heartbreak of Patricia Arquette's tribute to her late sister Alexis and her call for increased trans visibility after winning for The Act. Arquette could just as easily have won for Escape at Dannemora as well, only then we wouldn't have gotten Williams' speech. So it's all good.

I'm going to remember the standing ovation for the Exonerated Five that came as part of Jharrel Jerome's deserved Emmy for Netflix's When They See Us. Probably When They See Us could have snagged another award or two in the ultra-competitive limited field. Voters just loved Chernobyl. And Chernobyl is great, but be it writing or directing, Ava DuVernay needed to leave with something shiny of her own Sunday night.

I'm going to remember Alex Borstein's tribute to her Holocaust survivor grandmother and the moving pronouncement, "Step out of line, ladies. Step out of line."

I'm going to remember Julia Garner, the only part of Ozark that I consistently like, picking up an Emmy to cap a year that saw her also shine in Dirty John and Maniac (and The Americans, if you want to stretch your calendar a bit). She's a special talent, and I'm glad the voters were able to see how good she is. Because the show is comically poorly lit.

I'm going to remember the surprise writing win for Jesse Armstrong of Succession, even if the nod was for drama and I keep telling people that the show is a comedy. Succession made only a minor ripple in this year's Emmys race because Game of Thrones left no oxygen in the room. At this point, I'd think HBO would have to screw up royally for the second season not to make a leap to 15 nominations next year.

For a show that wasn't very good, that's a lot of stuff that was great.

Forgive the mixed emotions.