If you ever wondered what an awards show in purgatory might look like, the 73rd Primetime Emmys Awards just granted your wish. You could blame it on the times: In 2020, we were collectively starved for connection — any connection — and television provided a decent simulacrum, bringing people and their stories into our homes when we were at our most isolated. This year has seen society emerge from the fog of the worst days of the pandemic, and no one is really sure of what to take away from all of it — least of all the entertainment industry.
Which brings us to the 2021 Emmys, which seemed to take place in a sort of limbo between disaster and its aftermath, between business interrupted and business as usual, between stagnation and progress. While the 2020 ceremony was a sort of apocalyptic shadow play, with then-host Jimmy Kimmel performing to an empty theater and hazmat-suited presenters dropping off statuettes on winners’ doorsteps, this year’s was an in-person, vaccinated, unmasked ceremony that felt almost normal, presided over by first-time host Cedric the Entertainer.
An anxiety ran through the proceedings (best expressed by the night’s first presenter, Seth Rogen, when he fretted, “There’s way too many of us in this little room!”) that, as the night wore on, was supplanted by a creeping boredom. The big wins went off as anticipated, with stacks of trophies going to Netflix’s grand dame The Crown for drama and The Queen’s Gambit for limited series, and the Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso for its freshman season. Meanwhile, HBO’s Mare of Easttown and Hacks netted three wins apiece.
These predictable sweeps offered a snapshot of our current cultural moment: Despite some of the more artistically daring, socially challenging, and diverse offerings that were nominated (see: I May Destroy You, Lovecraft Country, PEN15, WandaVision, and the final season of Pose), the Television Academy rewarded what felt safe. The telecast, too, seemed to be more about TV’s past than its future, with a draggy ceremony that was hindered by hokey comedy bits and a few overly long speeches. If this is what a “return to normal” feels like, maybe it’s time that the Emmys throw the concept of normal out altogether.