When the 2018 Emmy nominations were announced, it seemed like the comedy categories were far more interesting than the drama ones. And when it came time to guess the winners, I again assumed things would be wilder on the comedy side, while the drama awards would either re-coronate Game of Thrones or continue last year’s Handmaid’s Tale steamroller.
Game of Thrones did win Outstanding Drama Series last night, along with Peter Dinklage’s third Emmy for playing Tyrion Lannister, but for the most part my prognostication was exactly backwards. On the comedy front, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won nearly everything in sight, while the drama awards remained unpredictable throughout, even down to GoT reclaiming the Emmys Iron Throne.
In hindsight, a dominant performance for Mrs. Maisel should have been forseeable. It’s a really good show (as was Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Emmy-ignored Gilmore Girls, but that’s a bitter rant for another day), but more importantly, it’s a very good show about show business. When in doubt with Hollywood awards, bet on the project about the industry itself, particularly when it’s presented with such sumptuous period detail. The only award Maisel lost last night was for comedy supporting actor, where former Emmys darling Tony Shalhoub was defeated by Henry Winkler. Winkler’s not only a long-beloved star (who never won in his Happy Days heyday), but was playing an acting teacher, where Shalhoub plays a college professor who would be horrified to find out his daughter Midge has become a stand-up comedian.
The absence of Veep and its recuperating star Julia Louis-Dreyfus cleared the runway for Mrs. Maisel, even though I’d hoped the dominant comedy of the night would be Atlanta. Instead, Donald Glover’s masterpiece was shut out (though it won a couple of awards, including one for Katt Williams’ guest appearance as Earn’s uncle, at last week’s Creative Arts Emmy ceremony). Glover even recruited someone in a Teddy Perkins costume to take his seat early in the ceremony, and instead had to watch Barry star Bill Hader — who’s fantastic, but not coincidentally plays an aspiring actor on that show — and Sherman-Palladino beat him for the acting and writing categories. That the best show, performance or script of the year goes unrewarded is a very old Emmys story — see: Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, The Wire, Jackie Gleason, etc., etc. — and Glover did win for acting and directing last year, but still.
The wealth was more notably spread out on the drama end of things. HBO’s huge voting bloc, which has been such a force the last few years since the rules were changed to open up categories to more members, was able to get Game of Thrones another drama series win for one of the show’s most underwhelming seasons. (Lots of spectacle, sure, but not so much with the compelling drama.) Dinklage got another Emmy for a year in which he didn’t get a lot to do, and even Westworld managed to sneak in there with a supporting actress win for Thandie Newton, who’s arguably a lead on that show.
But that Thrones win felt almost like an afterthought, akin to the final time Modern Family won the comedy series award (in 2014) on a night where, up until that point, it seemed the Academy had finally moved on to other things(*).
(*) On that night, as with this one for Thrones, Modern Family also won a supporting actor trophy, for Ty Burrell.
For its triumphant final season, The Americans — long ignored by Emmy voters — got the memorial Friday Night Lights treatment, with wins for writing (Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ series finale script) and Matthew Rhys for lead actor. Rhys seemed to have an easier path to victory compared to co-star/partner Keri Russell. It wasn’t Elisabeth Moss who beat Russell this year, but The Crown star Claire Foy — who was also up for her last potential Emmy for this role. (The series will continue, but with Olivia Colman as an older Elizabeth.)
Those unexpected wins (and one unexpected marriage proposal), coupled with a seesaw battle in the limited series categories between Godless and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (which ultimately won the biggest trophies), were the only moments that made for a lively telecast. That was in spite of how awful most of the planned parts of the show were, thanks to the awkwardness of hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che, presenter banter that rarely worked and interminable comedy bits like Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as unprepared Emmys “experts.”
In one of the few successful bits of scripted comedy, Che handed out “Reparations Emmys” to beloved black actors like Marla Gibbs who never won them back in the day. At one point in the filmed segment, Che and Jermaine Fowler vent about the fact that nobody on The Wire ever won an Emmy, and credited the frequent wins of Bryan Cranston (revealed to be sitting, dismayed, at a nearby table) to his whiteness. The Emmys exist as an excuse for the industry to celebrate and promote itself, but they’re also meant to be a historical record of the best in television. Sometimes that works out, as with a Hall of Fame performer like Cranston. Sometimes it doesn’t, as in the case of The Wire, or the fact that Winkler had to wait 40 years to win when he probably should have gotten one for playing the Fonz.
That Atlanta got skunked on the night, and that Game of Thrones won for a subpar season by its standards (and by the standards of what The Americans did on its way out the door) is disappointing, especially for what it will communicate to people looking back years from now to see what were considered the best shows of this year. But that’s the way this affair has always gone, and you have to celebrate the Matthew Rhys-type pleasant surprises when you can.
What did everybody else think?