Rob Sheffield on Emmys 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Sean Spicer Suck-Up

How Stephen Colbert, Trump jokes and some truly historic wins saved TV's epic night of self-congratulation

Rob Sheffield on Emmys 2017: How Stephen Colbert and some truly historic wins saved TV's epic night of self-congratulation and Sean Spicer suck-ups. Credit: Lester Cohen/WireImage

"This is TV's highest honor – us celebrating us," Stephen Colbert announced at the start of the 2017 Emmy Awards. "Tonight, we binge ourselves." It was a joke about smug self-congratulation probably intended to sound more ironic than it did. The Emmy ceremony, as always, was a night of the television world celebrating itself as the best Western civilization has to offer, not to mention an all-around swell bunch of people. The ego in the room was a marvel to behold – even when Seth MacFarlane wasn't onscreen. Colbert did his best with his Trump gags, even if they were fairly standard jokes that could have come from last year's pre-election show. "I thought you people loved morally compromised antiheroes," Colbert said. "You like Walter White. He's just Walter Much Whiter."

As a cultural presence, the Emmy ceremony is a strange beast among award shows, taking itself far more seriously than much more relevant awards. TV people really seem to care who wins, while the TV audience doesn't. No musician in history worth a pinch of salt has ever cared who did or didn't win a Grammy, and the fans care even less; we watch Grammy night to see musicians perform, just as we watch the Golden Globes to see drunk celebrities finger-clap while Jacqueline Bissett wanders to the stage. But the Emmy Awards are always dead serious and never much of a show – instead, it's an annual plea to the American people about why TV matters. This year, that meant Reese Witherspoon explaining how the purpose of Big Little Lies was to make the world a better place.

Colbert, as expected, saved most of his venom for the guy TV put in the White House. "We all know the Emmys mean a lot to Donald Trump," Colbert said. "Because he was nominated multiple times for Celebrity Apprentice, but he never won. Why didn't you give him an Emmy? I tell you this – if he had won an Emmy, I bet he wouldn't have run for president. So in a way, this is all your fault." Yet he undercut it all with a cynically dumb cameo for Sean Spicer, as if this was just show-biz. The Spicer suck-up was even more pathetic than Jeb Bush playing Jimmy Kimmell's Uber driver on last year's show, and it cast a pall over the whole show, setting the traditional Emmy tone of clueless pomp. Colbert had better luck stepping with the Handmaid's Tale dancing girls – straight out of the "Inquisition" scene in History of the World: Part 1 and perhaps a nod to the guy who stole last year's show, Mel Brooks.

The night's big winners were well-deserved all around: The Handmaids Tale, Atlanta, Veep, Big Little Lies and Master of None. After all the years Elisabeth Moss spent killing it on Mad Men as Peggy Olson, it was cathartic to see her pick up an award and get bleeped for thanking her "fucking bad-ass" mom. (Peggy Olson's mom always seemed like a bit of a bad-ass herself, at least until Abe showed up – too bad we never got the rest of her story.) Nicole Kidman won this year's Kevin Costner Award as the Oscar-approved movie star most passive-aggressively pissed about being there to pick up an Emmy for slumming it on TV, announcing she made Big Little Lies because Hollywood failed her. Donald Glover, an extremely deserved winner for Atlanta, got to pick up his trophy from Dave Chappelle. In his speech, he announced, "I want to thank Trump for making black people Number One on the Most Oppressed list."

Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari won for writing the Thanksgiving episode of Masters of None, the best episode of anything so far in 2017. Waithe gave the most powerful acceptance speech, saying, "The things that make us different … those are our superpowers." Ann Dowd won for The Handmaid's Tale after all her years of stellar work – another coup for the Freaks and Geeks empire, nearly 20 years after Dowd played Busy Phillips's mom Cookie. Handmaid author Margaret Atwood herself made the scene, wearing an extremely groovy kimono. Julia Louis-Drefyus won for Veep, setting the record for most Emmy Awards nabbed for playing the same character. Alec Baldwin and Kate MacKinnon won for their political satire on SNL, even if it showed the limited power of political satire. Jackie Hoffman's "Damn it!" when she got beaten by Laura Dern was definitely Twin Peaks-worthy. Oprah sat up front and outshone everybody, continuing her streak of winning award shows just by showing up.

All night, Colbert's hosting skills got undercut by the astoundingly irritating voice-over guy, who could not shut up. Congratulations, Jermaine Fowler! You managed to be the most annoying douchebag at a party where Seth MacFarlane was invited. The orchestra kept up their amateur-night habit of cutting winners' speeches off – they cut off Sterling K. Brown during his extraordinarily gracious and eloquent speech: "Like, Water White held this joint? Dick Whitman held this joint?" He gave a shout out to Andre Baugher for being the last black man to win the award, in 1998. If time was an issue, the smart move would have been trimming some of the silly pre-taped sketches, like the long-winded Westworld parody, though RuPaul was brilliant as per usual. There was a sweet 9 to 5 reunion for Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, who made the same Shock and Awe joke about her breasts she debuted in Rolling Stone almost 15 years ago – but it worked then, too.

The most emotionally powerful win might have been for the "San Junipero" episode of Black Mirror – a life-affirming achievement that summed up everything wonderful about this moment in TV history, not to mention an episode that already seemed like a refuge a year ago, before we all knew how much worse (and how much more Black Mirror-y) it was all about to get. The In Memorium loop paid its respects to the great, from Florence Henderson to Jerry Lewis, and to the dregs of humanity, Roger Ailes. But the interlude ended exactly where it should have, and where everyone knew it would – with Mary Tyler Moore, the greatest of the all-time greats, turning out the lights. Good night, Mary. It's a long way to Tipperary.