Much of the pre-scripted material on Sunday night’s Emmys telecast was devoted to the idea that the small screen has no limits to exactly what it can show, or be. As former Emmy winner Bryan Cranston put it, at the end of a monologue that began with talk of Neil Armstrong’s televised first footsteps on the moon, “Television has never been bigger. Television has never mattered more. And television has never been this damn good.”
The ensuing telecast proceeded to demonstrate the breadth of the medium. It wasn’t just that the Emmys honored series as wildly different in scope as Amazon’s Fleabag (an intimate story of loneliness, spirituality, and a very hot priest) and Game of Thrones (an epic tale of dragons, ice zombies, and incest). It was that the host-free telecast itself was so clumsy and inert, even as it featured so many delightful and unexpected winners. A ceremony that had room for both Kendall Jenner and legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear covered a wide range of genres, tones, and levels of quality, with the surprise victors often rescuing the night from the many bad production choices and the more prominently weak repeat winners.
What seemed like it was going to be a night to rubber-stamp the farewells of HBO’s Veep and Game of Thrones instead proved wildly unpredictable much of the time. Veep was shut out altogether, while Fleabag and its creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge won four awards: comedy series, writing, directing, and actress in a comedy, for Waller-Bridge’s performance (which prevented Julia Louis-Dreyfus from going an unprecedented seven-for-seven in the role of Selina Meyer). Game of Thrones (after doing well in the technical categories at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys) only won for Peter Dinklage and for Outstanding Drama Series. Other than Dinklage — who turned out to be the only GoT cast member ever to win an acting Emmy for the series — the drama acting categories were one jaw-dropping delight after another: the great young character actress Julia Garner (who stood out in several series this past year) winning for Ozark, Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer outdoing her more famous (albeit also deserving) co-star Sandra Oh, and Pose‘s electrifying Billy Porter strutting up to the stage in his enormous hat to paraphrase his emcee alter ego Pray Tell by intoning, “The category is… love!”
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Porter’s speech, quoting James Baldwin, was powerful, on a night with plenty of moving rhetoric. When They See Us star Jharrel Jerome beat out a host of far more famous competitors, including Sam Rockwell and Mahershala Ali, and took advantage of his time on stage to shout out “the Exonerated Five” who were the subject of the Netflix miniseries. Patricia Arquette, long the apparent favorite for lead actress in a miniseries for Escape at Dannemora, instead won for her supporting turn in Hulu’s The Act, and paid tribute at the podium to her late sister Alexis, arguing for greater acceptance of the trans community. It was Fosse/Verdon‘s mesmerizing Michelle Williams who won that brutal lead actress category (leaving the great Amy Adams trophy-less once again), and she spoke eloquently about the importance of pay equality.
So many of the individual wins were striking (even for repeat winners like Barry‘s Bill Hader) that it papered over the way that Game of Thrones led a night of mostly uninspiring series award winners. Fleabag is the show of the year, and Outstanding Limited Series winner Chernobyl isn’t far behind. But the gimmicky and mostly inert Black Mirror episode “Bandersnatch” had no business (other than Emmy technicalities) being nominated for best TV-movie, let alone beating the gorgeous Deadwood: The Movie. (Deadwood: as ignored by the Academy in its reunion afterlife as it was throughout its original run.) Saturday Night Live won the variety sketch category for a year in which it struggled for things to say about the current state of the world. And RuPaul’s Drag Race and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, while fine shows, are also at that self-perpetuating state of the Emmys cycle where they keep winning each year as much because they’ve won before as because they’re superior to the competition.
The good results so thoroughly outweighed the bad ones that, by the time Porter took the stage, I’d made peace with the inevitable GoT curtain-call win. That Fleabag unexpectedly topped both Veep and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel only doubled that feeling. If you’re watching an awards show for exciting winners and speeches, the Emmys offered more than enough of that.
If, on the other hand, you were watching it in hopes of enjoying a well-produced television special, then you were as out of luck as all of Dinklage’s co-stars.
The show followed the host-less trend of this year’s Academy Awards. The concept worked there, in part because the Oscar producers didn’t feel the need to keep commenting on the lack of a host. Here, every production number, and most of the labored presenter banter seemed designed solely to remind the audience that Fox didn’t have a Jimmy of its own to give the job to. (Though Jimmy Kimmel did pop up briefly with Stephen Colbert. Three guesses what their banter was about, and the first two don’t count.) Every now and then, an introduction elicited a laugh — promising to screen all the limited series nominees in their entirety, a game-as-always Jon Hamm warned, “Get comfortable and get ready to laugh, because here comes Chernobyl!” — but the night as a whole was the stuff for which the Jonah Hill “cut it out” meme was invented. Not only was little of it funny, but the few stabs at substance seemed to miss the point of the nominated shows, like Ben Stiller somehow being told to describe Fleabag as a comedy about a sex addict.
Poor Thomas Lennon sounded increasingly miserable over the course of the night as he read clumsy jokes about the winners to fill time as they walked to the stage. At one point, preparing to go to commercial with a bit about whether or not the Emmys were woke this year, he began stumbling over his lines until he finally blurted out, “This is why people don’t do this: because it sucks!” (The moment would have provided an easy opportunity to mercy-kill the bit, but Lennon — usually among the most reliably funny people on television — continued it for the rest of the telecast.)
The show even screwed up basic things like getting the audience to clap on cue, as various introductions were derailed by applause coming in the wrong moment, or not coming in the right one. This happened most awkwardly during the In Memoriam segment, where the producers opted not to cut the audience’s mics as Halsey sang “Time After Time.”
Beyond saying goodbye to the many industry veterans who died in the past year, the telecast also attempted to bid farewell to the many series that had finished their runs. But the treatment was distractingly inequitable. GoT and Veep both got their own distinct spotlight moments, with the casts of each coming on stage for standing ovations after highlight reels. Later, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard — whose Empire is entering its final season this fall — came out to introduce a montage of several other series that had recently concluded. But it was both incomplete — Orange Is the New Black, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and You’re the Worst were among those ignored entirely — and imbalanced, midway through shifting from a montage about finales in general to a spotlight on former Emmy darling (and huge huge hit) The Big Bang Theory.
That was just the way it went all night. Nothing that was planned in advance quite clicked. The voters’ choices — and the winners’ speeches — would temporarily distract us from the spectacle of Ken Jeong trying to help his daughter make a TikTok video, only for another labored comedy bit (or lame result) to break the spell again.
But that couldn’t have felt more appropriate for a night that concluded with Game of Thrones winning one last Emmy. That was a show that was often much better in parts than as a whole, where Khaleesi burning an army with her dragons could forgive a season of her wandering aimlessly in the desert, or where the most thrilling moment might turn out not to be an apocalyptic battle with the Night King, but a grateful Brienne of Tarth being knighted by her old friend Jaime Lannister. Like the final season of GoT, this Emmy show was a mess that ended on a weak note. But the highs were so very high, reminding us of why we came for the spectacle in the first place.