Early in the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards telecast, host Kenan Thompson joked, “Tonight, we celebrate the hundreds and hundreds of shows that were produced last year, and then we give awards to five of them.” Like a number of the Saturday Night Live vet’s zingers throughout the night, the line had the ring of truth to it. The easiest way to win an Emmy is to have already won an Emmy, and the last few Emmy ceremonies were rendered tedious by a handful of shows hoovering up every trophy in sight.
For a while there, though, it seemed like maybe this year would be different. The telecast itself was a pretty dire production as usual, with even Thompson’s trademark gameness failing to elevate most of the dumb material he was given, and with lots of other bad choices in terms of comedy sketches or presentations. (For the love of all that is holy, can we go back to just showing what is on the screen during the In Memoriam, rather than crowd shots or close-ups of the singer’s head so that we can’t see the names or pictures of the people being honored?) But the awards and speeches themselves — the ostensible reason for the whole thing, even if the folks producing the show every year seem embarrassed by it — were surprising and fantastic.
Dopesick star Michael Keaton and The White Lotus scene stealer Murray Bartlett got the evening off to a nice start. Neither win was particularly shocking, but both were recognized for excellent performances, and both men gave heartfelt, if long, speeches. Matthew MacFadyen, a.k.a. the most potent comic weapon on Succession, seemed very pleased to get his first Emmy. So far, all was well.
The momentum then got derailed by Ozark‘s Julia Garner winning her third drama supporting actress Emmy in the last four years (and she wasn’t eligible in the other one), a predictable result that kept Better Call Saul titan Rhea Seehorn and several other more exciting choices sitting on the sidelines(*). Disappointing as Garner’s rubber-stamping was, it was followed by something spectacular.
(*) The good-ish news for Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, and company, is that the final batch of Better Call Saul episodes will be eligible next year. The question is whether Emmy voters will still remember how great they were by next summer.
The next award was for supporting actress in a comedy, which went to Abbott Elementary co-star Sheryl Lee Ralph. In a sense, Ralph was not the most cutting-edge choice. She is 65 years old, has been acting on television since the Seventies, has been a cast regular on nearly a dozen different series (as a waitress on the syndicated Eighties comedy It’s a Living, or as Brandy’s stepmom on Nineties favorite Moesha, to name just two). She has plugged away, year after year, on stage and screen, the very definition of a reliable journeyman.
But that is one part of what made her win so unexpected. Another is that she got it for a comedy made for one of the original broadcast networks, in an era where you have to explain to many viewers below a certain age what a broadcast network even is. But mostly what made it great is that Sheryl Lee Ralph is great on that show and in life, and her response to winning — beating reigning champ Hannah Waddingham and several other Ted Lasso actresses — was an award-worthy spectacle in and of itself. It came in three stages. First, there was the utter shock on her face of the win itself. She was frozen at first, and eventually costar Tyler James Williams helped steer her to the stage, where she again stood silent for what seemed like an eternity, especially on a night when so many other winners seemed terrified of the clock. And then, my goodness, Sheryl Lee Ralph began to sing. This was not a bit, nor awkward warbling from a nervous, untrained vocalist. This was a member of the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls belting out “Endangered Species” by Dianne Reeves, with a power and grace that brought the entire room to its feet. And then she somehow topped this moment with a passionate, eloquent, inspiring speech about the importance of accepting failure and coming back for the next challenge, and the next, and the next. Any one of those elements on its own would have made it a classic Emmy moment. Combined, it’s an absolute all-timer — the kind of thing these shows hope for, but so rarely get.
There were some more repeat winners after — charming Ted Lasso supporting player Brett Goldstein, Saturday Night Live again beating A Black Lady Sketch Show in the utterly broken sketch-comedy series category, and Last Week Tonight getting its seventh consecutive variety/talk show award — and it seemed like the night might lose all the momentum from Ralph’s triumph. But then White Lotus MVP Jennifer Coolidge won and gave a fabulous speech of her own, mixing self-deprecation, low-key mockery of the weirdness of the event itself, and a dancing refusal to be played off by the orchestra(*). Dropout lead Amanda Seyfried — by far the best example of this spring’s Movie Stars Play Infamous Real People In Prestige Miniseries boom — was a worthy winner and gave a sincere and pithy speech, and Lizzo brought herself and many people in the crowd to tears talking about how she grew up desperately wanting to see “someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me” on television.
(*) Initially, it seemed as if the music only kicked in when someone past their allotted time was reading off a list of names. (Many winners took advantage of the option to give the producers some text to be displayed on the screen while they spoke.) But as the night got late, pretty much every time infraction was met with the Music of Death, because of course the brutal comedy bits and dance numbers can never be cut.
The good vibes remained as White Lotus continued its dominance with back-to-back wins for writer-director Mike White, who got choked up talking about his ailing father Mel (with whom he competed on two different seasons of The Amazing Race). To a degree, White Lotus destroying everything in sight turned the whole limited series portion of the evening into its own inevitability. But it was also a great show, and many of its competitors were much less so. (And nobody in the Academy seemed to care that the gorgeous Station Eleven deserved several trophies itself.)
Jerrod Carmichael got emotional in a more understated way after winning a writing award for his HBO comedy special Rothaniel, where he came out. “I made something that was of great personal consequence to me,” he said quietly but firmly, “and this definitely contributes to that.”
A predictable win for Ted Lasso star Jason Sudeikis followed, and if the voters were going to give it to a former winner, at least they could have looked toward Bill Hader, whose Barry was easily the best show in the whole comedy field, yet left the night empty-handed. Or they could have gone both new and old simultaneously, by honoring either Steve Martin (whose last Emmy win was 53 years ago, as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour) or Martin Short for the first season of Only Murders in the Building. Sudeikis was an uninspired choice, at best, even if he did some good comic and dramatic work in Ted Season Two.
The good vibes returned quickly, though, as Abbott Elementary creator and star Quinta Brunson won the comedy writing award, despite a tough field that included two Barry episodes, two What We Do in the Shadows episodes, Steve Martin for Only Murders, and an installment of last year’s winner, Hacks. Again, a broadcast network winning any Emmy in the year of our lord 2022 feels weirdly edgy, and for a writing award to go to someone who is still relatively new to television over a bunch of celebrated pros on more glamorous cable or streaming series was quite something. (Abbott is also terrific, and deserving of all its success so far for ABC.)
Then came an even bigger shock: Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk beating former winner Jason Bateman from Ozark, presumed favorite Ben Stiller from Severance, Yellowjackets pilot director Karyn Kusama, and three different Succession directors for the drama directing prize. The Emmys have generally not been a place for foreign-language projects, yet here was a sensation out of South Korea that would not only bring Dong-hyuk to the stage, but later see leading man Lee Jung-jae beat out Jeremy Strong, Bob Odenkirk, and the rest of the drama lead actor field. “I truly hope Squid Game will not be the last non-English series here at the Emmys,” Dong-hyuk said, while Jung-jae concluded his acceptance speech by switching from measured English to rapid-fire Korean to be sure he could say everything he wanted to.
Other than Jung-jae’s win, though, the last hour or so of the ceremony was largely chalk. Euphoria star Zendaya won her second award for the series after sitting out last year’s ceremony while the high school drama was on a long hiatus. Jean Smart from Hacks was a repeat winner. MJ Delaney from Ted Lasso won the comedy directing award for the funeral episode, and while she had not won the year before, that category was filled with bolder and more interesting choices, particularly the largely wordless episode of Only Murders in the Building focusing on the deaf character Theo Dimas, and the Barry episode with that astonishing motorcycle freeway chase. By the time White Lotus got the limited series award, its cast and creator had already been to the stage so many times that it felt like a repeat winner. (And, weirdly, will be eligible again for its second season, which will bring back Coolidge’s character and thus probably shouldn’t qualify as an anthology.) And both Ted Lasso and Succession defended their titles for the respective comedy and drama series honors. These were not bad performances or seasons of television being celebrated — Zendaya and Smart are wonderful, Succession Season Three was fantastic, and Ted Lasso Season Two was flawed but intriguingly ambitious — but together, they brought back the Same Old Emmys feeling that the night had avoided for a surprisingly long stretch of time. And it didn’t help that Ted Lasso and Succession won so much overall by the end, even if Abbott Elementary and Squid Game very briefly made it seem like anyone’s night.
It turns out Kenan’s prediction wasn’t quite right: 14 different shows got at least one Emmy during the telecast (to go with many more that were honored at least week’s Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies). And for a hot minute, it felt like this could be a rare Emmys get-together that might share the wealth and not fall victim to automatically punching the ticket of whoever won the category last year. But you can only hope for so much from an awards body that, by both design and temperament, can’t resist picking the same favorites year after year. And if the evening didn’t conclude on an inspirational note, we will always have Sheryl Lee Ralph blowing the roof off the joint, won’t we?