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It took around five minutes for Sunday night’s Emmy Awards telecast to get awkward.
We’d made it through the fairly arbitrary tribute to television scored to the late Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” Maybe you were amused by Rita Wilson rapping and by the TV Academy making room for Lil Dicky onstage despite ignoring Dave completely, but even if you weren’t amused, it was over quickly and it appeared that host Cedric the Entertainer wasn’t even going to do a monologue and we went straight to Seth Rogen presenting the night’s first award.
“There are way too many of us in this little room,” Rogen reflected, glancing at the crowd.
He continued, “They said this was outdoors. It’s not,” before adding, “We’re in a hermetically sealed tent right now. I would not have come to this!”
Was Rogen being entirely serious? Partially serious? Joking for the benefit of the audience at home? Dunno. Any sense that Rogen was completely kidding was probably dispelled when Cedric the Entertainer returned a few minutes later for the slightly late in-show monologue that marked the beginning of a long string of unsuccessful sketches and bits. Cedric made it clear that everybody in the venue had to be vaccinated to attend, which I’m sure is true, but it set up an awkward juxtaposition between whatever the best intentions of the organizers might have been and both the reality of the event and the way that the event will be processed by audiences at home.
That internal dissonance was probably the night’s true and most unintentional theme.
The Emmys celebrated a TV landscape proliferated with more good programming than ever before, but then voters proceeded to give basically every award at their disposal to Ted Lasso, The Queen’s Gambit and The Crown. Hacks and Mare of Easttown at least broke the monotony a tiny bit, but following a year in which Schitt’s Creek, Succession and Watchmen were, if possible, even more dominant, it would be hard for anybody to dispute that for all of the available great television, Emmy voters appear to notice only the smallest portion of it and not, let’s be perfectly candid, the most ambitious corner of it. Sunday’s biggest winners were a pair of stately, well-produced period dramas, an underdog sports comedy that proudly cribbed its core storyline from Major League and the now-annual onslaught of wins for Last Week Tonight, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Saturday Night Live.
TV in 2021 is exciting and daring. TV in 2021 is pushing the aesthetic edge of the envelope. TV is welcoming new voices and new storytelling paradigms. Mostly, you wouldn’t know that from watching the Emmys.
That’s why the moment that made me happiest on Sunday night was Michaela Coel’s win for writing HBO’s I May Destroy You. Coel could have won for directing and acting and producing as well and probably 10 years ago, “It’s not much, but it’s something!” would have been a borderline viable placation. Coel’s series may have the HBO imprimatur, but in all other ways, it’s an uncomfortable, tone-shattering departure, a piece so magnificently personal that Coel could have been forgiven for taking the stage and commandeering the spotlight until somebody tried to drag her off. Instead, she gave a succinct 53-second speech that began with the wisdom, “Write the tale that scares you” and ended with a dedication to “every single survivor of sexual assault.”
Coel’s acceptance would have been an efficient and bracing speech even if it hadn’t immediately followed Scott Frank talking over three different rounds of play-off music — Andrea Bocelli, for absolutely no reason, on repeat — turning a lackluster speech saluting his Queen’s Gambit collaborators into more than three minutes of burgeoning backlash. Throw in an evening-capping speech from a different Queen’s Gambit producer that managed to refer to the show’s message about smashing the patriarchy along with a snide and out-of-context joke about bringing sexy back to chess and it was possible to watch the tide turn on a well-regarded series in real time.
It happened that Coel was one of the few examples of the wave of up-and-coming diverse voices that the show kept discussing, but not honoring. Across the board, this year’s Emmy nominees pointed to that sea-change and opened the door for potential history-making moments and then things like Pose and Underground Railroad and I May Destroy You were either shut out or had to make do with token wins. The night’s most representative sequence, probably, was having Frank receive his award from Reservation Dogs creator Starlin Harjo and that FX on Hulu comedy’s thrilling young cast, quite literally a new generation making their presence felt and the old guard refusing to leave. And I mostly loved The Queen’s Gambit! So thanks, Emmys, for making me feel bad about a thing I like.
As for the show itself? Well, I first need to give producers credit for putting the limited series category at the night’s climax. It was an obvious choice, holding off on the marquee category to the end, but even that level of format change can be slow in coming and the producers generally structured the show correctly, splitting up the genres so that we weren’t stuck with one juggernaut followed by another followed by another like last year. This was three juggernauts on shuffle!
The return to a hosted telecast was probably overdue, after a run of recent award shows jumping on the MC-less bandwagon. Cedric the Entertainer tried reasonably hard and I guess I’d say that the show wasn’t a referendum on whether hosts are necessary or unnecessary, but a reminder that even if you have a host you still need to have writers with clever ideas for the host. The show lacked that. The flimsy sketches ranged from slightly amusing but too long, like the support group for Emmy non-winners, to slightly amusing but too random to really be funny, like Cedric being confronted by his three past sitcom wives, to just plain horrible, like whatever that thing was where they built a multi-minute sketch around the fly that got lodged on Mike Pence’s head during the vice presidential debate ELEVEN MONTHS AGO. Topical humor, you’re doing it wrong.
The show was generally strangely directed. Did anybody get a real sense of the layout of the venue? I sure didn’t. It felt crowded and uninspiringly laid out for the COVID moment, like they might as well have just used a normal theater, but it wasn’t easy to tell. For all of the intimacy, the camera never quite seemed to know where to go and the director failed to recognize certain emerging and running jokes. At a certain point, one camera needed to be trained on Conan O’Brien 100 percent of the time, because nobody was having more fun on Emmy night, yet several of his reactions were missed entirely. And I’m never going to be a fan of an In Memoriam segment in which two living musical acts are front-and-center and the slideshow honoring departing icons is in the background or even the back corner. Ending the necrology with the powerful statement from Michael Kenneth Williams was powerful, but the industry lost some real titans this year and they deserved the focus over Leon Bridges and Jon Batiste, as indisputably gifted as they are.
There were some great and groundbreaking moments on Sunday. Women — Jessica Hobbs and Lucia Aniello — winning for drama and comedy directing in the same year was unprecedented. Jean Smart and Kate Winslet and Brett Goldstein and Hannah Waddingham and Olivia Colman all gave speeches that, whether long or short, were a reminder of why they’re so beloved, as did Debbie Allen, whose influence across the TV landscape should never be undersold. At least Kerry Washington got to pay tribute to Michael K. Williams even if he lost his category to Tobias Menzies, the lone winner not in attendance either in Los Angeles or at the party for The Crown in London. But the stretches between the great parts occasionally felt endless.
Overall, though, this year’s Emmys weren’t really an especially coherent television spectacle, nor did they really honor a very representative slice of television from the past year. And maybe the lack of internal coherence was even part of the point, but the pervasive boredom amidst the mixed messages shouldn’t have been.
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