Emmys 2019: 20 Best, Worst and WTF Moments – Rolling Stone
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Emmys 2019: 20 Best, Worst and Most WTF Moments

From some historic wins to an In Memoriam segment for…departing TV shows? — the highlights, low points and headscratchers of last night’s Emmys broadcast

Phoebe Waller-Bridge - Lead Actress In A Comedy Series, Wriiting. For a Comedy Series, Comedy Series - ?Fleabag?71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Press Room, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Phoebe Waller-Bridge clutching her Emmys for 'Fleabag.'

Rob Latour/Shutterstock

Welcome to the Platinum Age of Television, everyone! Just kidding — literally no one will ever call it that except Television Academy chairman Frank Scherma, who used the epithet at the 71st Emmy Awards with the grinning desperation of a real estate agent trying to sell a house in an unfashionable neighborhood. That locale would be, of course, old-fashioned, subscription-package TV, which for years has been losing both ratings and critical acclaim to streaming services. You can’t blame the powers that be for being a bit panicked — 2019 saw the swan songs of juggernauts Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory and Veep, three shows which last night’s Emmys memorialized as if America had lost a loved one in a tragic fire.

Hand-wringing aside, the 2019 Emmy presentation was marked by a few surprise upsets, a rudderless ceremony and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spirit that only sometimes kept things interesting. Game of Thrones took top honors in the drama category, which felt more like a hat tip to the show as a whole than to its disappointing final season; meanwhile, Fleabag nabbed four big awards in the comedy category for its stellar second season, shutting out longtime Emmy darling Veep; and Billy Porter made history as the first black, gay actor to win an Emmy for his performance in Pose.

Here are our picks for the best, worst and head-scratchiest moments of the night.

Animated character Homer Simpson is projected on screen at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles2019 Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Worst: That All-Over-the-Place Opening

The 71st Emmys followed the 2019 Oscars’ lead and went host-less for the first time since 2003. And while that choice had its ups and downs during the rest of the ceremony, the opening was in sore need of a steadying hand. Springfield royalty Homer Simpson was the first to step out — before succumbing to a falling piano. Next, the camera followed Black-ish‘s Anthony Anderson backstage as he did a lot of frantic business, searching for a suitable host before settling on…Bryan Cranston for some reason? We know everyone loved Breaking Bad, but, come on. He delivered a dusty monologue about watching the moon landing on TV 50 years ago, and isn’t live TV so freaking awesome? “Television has never been bigger. Television has never mattered more. And television has never been this damn good,” he concluded. It’s kind of a bad look if you have to say it out loud, Academy. JS

Phoebe Waller-Bridge - Lead Actress In A Comedy Series, Wriiting. For a Comedy Series, Comedy Series - ?Fleabag?71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Press Room, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Phoebe Waller-Bridge clutching her Emmys for 'Fleabag.'

Rob Latour/Shutterstock

Best: All Hail ‘Fleabag’!

“Now this is just getting ridiculous!” enthused Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of Fleabag, as she stood onstage to claim the Most Outstanding Comedy award — the show’s fourth and biggest Emmy of the night. Even though it beat out longtime fave Veep (and Waller-Bridge took home Best Actress in a Comedy over six-time-winner lead, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), we don’t think there’s anything at all ridiculous about this gem of a show cleaning up in Writing, Directing, Lead Actress and Best Comedy. The second and final season of the BBC/Amazon series was a fearless, unforgettable piece of television, and was by turns uproariously funny and existentially terrifying. Plus, it brought the world the icon that is Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest. What’s not to love? JS

David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Bernadette Caulfield, Frank Doelger, David Nutter, Miguel Sapochnik, Vince Gerardis, Guyman Casady, George R. R. Martin, Bryan Cogman, Chris Newman, Greg Spence, Lisa McAtackney, Duncan Muggoch. D. B. Weiss and the team from "Game Of Thrones" accepts the award for outstanding drama series at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles71st Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Worst: ‘Game of Thrones’ Wins Best Drama — For Its Worst Season

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s compulsively watchable fantasy epic joined rarified company last night when it took its fourth Best Drama statuette, tying it for most wins in the coveted category with Mad Men, The West Wing, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues. Has Game of Thrones been a water-cooler show for the ages, the spawner of more office death pools and editorial think pieces than there are White Walkers in Hardhome? Absolutely. But the eighth season brought the series to a rushed and sloppy conclusion that did a disservice to viewers and characters alike; it left us wondering, in more ways than one, what it was all for. Of course GoT has left an indelible mark on the TV landscape — but the Emmys are supposed to operate by latest season, not by legacy. We have a feeling the Academy would’ve given the show its win no matter how that finale shook out. When you play the Game of Emmys, you win and you die. JS

Lena Headey in HBO's Game of Thrones

Helen Sloan/HBO

WTF: A Final Snub for ‘Game of Thrones’ Actresses

Like we said, Season Eight was admittedly a rough one for Game of Thrones — but there’s no denying that from beginning to end, the series brought together one of the greatest ensemble casts in television history. Yet in all its nominations and accolades from the Television Academy, the only performer who ever won an acting award for the series is Peter Dinklage (four times, including this year). All but two nominations in 2019’s Supporting Actress in a Drama category were for Game of Thrones (for Gwendoline Christie, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams), but the statuette went to first-time nominee Julia Gardner for Ozark. Our guess is that so many contenders being up for one show split the vote. Still, we’ll raise one last glass of Arbor Red to Headey in particular for giving us, in Cersei, one of TV’s most memorable and multifaceted villains. JS

Michelle Williams accepts the award for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie for "Fosse/Verdon" at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles2019 Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Best: Michelle Williams’ Speech for the Ages

Williams was forced to be the public face of Hollywood’s gender pay gap when it came out that she was paid an eighth of co-star Mark Wahlberg’s fee for re-shoots on All the Money in the World. In her speech celebrating her win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, she explained how the value of performance as Gwen Verdon in FX’s series Fosse/Verdon increased proportionately to the value they allowed her to give herself. “My bosses never presumed to know better than I did about what I needed in order to do my job and honor Gwen Verdon,” Williams said before calmly insisting that other women — especially women of color — deserve to be listened to the same way. And then, naturally, thanking them for paying her and co-lead Sam Rockwell equally. AP

Billy Porter71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Best: Billy Porter’s Historic ‘Pose’ Win

No one makes an entrance quite like Billy Porter, whose singular, gender-bending fashion sense has made him the star of pretty much every red carpet he’s strutted down. So it was extra joyous to see the Pose star take the stage — in towering platform boots and a crystal-emblazoned suit — to accept the award for Lead Actor in a Drama, making history as the first gay black man to win an acting Emmy. The only thing more unforgettable than his look was his speech, which he opened by declaring, “The category is love, y’all!” He quoted civil rights activist James Baldwin and spoke of his hard-won journey toward self-acceptance, and spoke of artists’ ability to “change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet.” It was one of the single most inspiring Emmys moments ever. JS

Adam Devine71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Worst: The Stale Tribute to Variety Shows

No one knows how to turn out a needless, slapdash song-and-dance routine quite like an awards show, but the Emmys has really, er … outdone itself this time. Before the presenters made their way through the variety show categories, The Righteous Gemstones‘ Adam Devine appeared with dancers from The Masked Singer to do a musical number about, uh, how TV shows with musical numbers are cool? What followed was a recursive trip into purgatory that included a juggler in a Meryl Streep mask, a kick line, a guy on stilts, and lyrics like, “We flip, dance, juggle and sing! We’re a little bit of everything!” We’re pretty sure Ed Sullivan was doing edgier work than this in 1954. JS

Alex Borstein71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Frank Micelotta/Fox/Picturegroup/Shutterstock

Best: Alex Borstein’s ‘Step Out of Line’ Speech

Yes, actors pretend to be other people for a living — but if there’s any doubt that there’s quite a bit of Alex Borstein in her blunt, sarcastic, fiercely loyal and touchingly vulnerable Marvelous Mrs. Maisel character, her Emmy speech should put it to rest. She kicked off her Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy speech off by announcing she wasn’t wearing underwear (a reference to her bra-less win last year) before taking a turn toward the sincere. Borstein gave a nod to her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust by asking a guard what would happen if she stepped out of the line she was in, waiting to be executed. He said he wouldn’t shoot her, but that someone else would. She did it anyway. “Step out of line, ladies,” the actor urged, hoisting her trophy. “Step out of line.MF

Thomas Lennon, Jenny Lennon. Thomas Lennon, left, and Jenny Lennon arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles2019 Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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WTF: Thomas Lennon’s Irreverent Running Commentary

The closest thing we had to a host this year was the steady, yet extremely unpredictable, presence of Thomas Lennon, “your sherpa through the lulls.” Which meant that, after Ben Whishaw won a Supporting Emmy for A Most English Scandal, we got gems like “Ben Whishaw’s name is onomatopoeia for when a handsome British person passes you on a bicycle.” And “our producers have asked me to give a special shoutout to any of our previous lead-actress winners who are watching tonight from prison. Hopefully those two weeks are going to fly right by.” (That, a very sharp crack on Felicity Huffman, was perhaps the most memorable moment of the night!) But it also meant we got moments like when Lennon very unfortunately asked the audience, “Are the Emmys woke? Or is that just something …that was … this is why people don’t do this, ’cause it sucks!” It was both a dreadful failure at his job — and a great read on how the show went overall. AP

Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Best: Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz’s Lasik Blast

Note to producers of anything, anywhere: If you need something to go right, send in Maya Rudolph. As she strode onstage with Ike Barinholtz to present the award for lead actor in a comedy — both of them wearing giant, face-swallowing black glasses — you knew you were in for a treat. The bit: They had just gotten Lasik surgery that afternoon and might not be able to read the teleprompter so well. Then they proceeded to slaughter sentences and mispronounce nominee names (Don Cheadle was “Dan Chowder”: Michael Douglas was “Mickey Two-Times”; and Ted Danson was, well, “Ted Danson”). If every Emmys category could begin with Rudolph intoning, “Here are the nimrods for dead ascot in a chocolate staircase,” we’d be all the better for it. MF

Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel. Stephen Colbert, left, and Jimmy Kimmel present the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles2019 Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Best: Colbert and Kimmel Remind Us Why We Need Hosts

Sure, it was nice to not sit through the canned jokes and recurring bits of a host. But Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel’s riff mock-defending the sanctity of the gig made you a little wistful for people with robust writing staffs. “Without a host,” Colbert said, “Who would read the words, ‘You know my next guest from the hit series NCIS: New Orleans?'” “Without a host, who would sit behind a desk and pretend to be interested in Jason Bateman’s vacation story?” Kimmel added. Then — because these two are professionals who arranged this ahead of time — the camera cut to Jason Bateman, the personification of the neutral face emoji. (Which was only his second-best reaction of the night, after the moment he won for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his work on Ozark.) These guys should co-host next year. Or just give the gig to Maya Rudolph already.

Nick Cannon and Ken Jeong71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Frank Micelotta/Fox/Picturegroup/Shutterstock

Worst: Ken Jeong Kills TikTok

Ken Jeong has a lot of goodwill in Hollywood: The doctor-turned-comedian co-starred on Community before becoming a judge on The Masked Singer, which was artlessly stuffed into the ceremony approximately 14,000 times. But his TikTok bit, performed alongside turbaned Mask Singer host Nick Cannon and featuring Jeong’s young daughter opening a door to hear applause that he recorded mid-bit from stage, was awful enough that we assume it will hasten the platform’s inevitable death. The segment broke three awards show rules: 1) Nobody cares about your kids as much as you do; 2) Do not undertake any job that requires uploading video during a live telecast; 3) If Nick Cannon says “no” to something, nobody should do it. AP

Jharrel Jerome71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Best: Jharrel Jerome Makes a Case for Greatness

When They See Us star Jharrel Jerome may have been an upset in the limited series acting category, but the 21-year-old breakout rose to the occasion with all the poise, grace, and good humor of a veteran twice his age. (He was also the only actor to play both the teen and adult versions of his character.) What Ava Duvernay sensed in him shone through, and as the crowd leapt to its feet, Jerome gave sincere thanks to the other actors in the category (“I’m here in front of my inspirations”) before bringing the moment back to the men whose harrowing story the series honored. “Most importantly, this is for the men who we know as the Exonerated Five,” he said, shouting them each out by name and then doing a joyous little head bob that only an exuberant kid could. MF

Jodie Comer accepts the award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for "Killing Eve" at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles71st Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Phil McCarten/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Best: Jodie Comer’s Surprise ‘Killing Eve’ Win

How unexpected was Jodie Comer’s Best Actress in a Drama win for Killing Eve? So surprising that a gobsmacked Comer admitted in her speech that she didn’t even bother to invite her parents to the ceremony because she “didn’t think that was going to be [her] time.” Comer was up against a roster that included powerhouses like Viola Davis, Robin Wright, Laura Linney, and her own costar Sandra Oh, who won in the category last year. But Comer more than earned the accolade with her turn as charming psychopath Villanelle, walking a fine line between sympathetic and bone-chilling. It’s always refreshing to see the Academy honoring a performer who’s not afraid to go out on a limb (or, in Villanelle’s case, chop one off). JS

David Slade, Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, Russell McLean. Charlie Brooker, from left, Annabel Jones, Russell McLean and David Slade accept the award for outstanding television movie for "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles71st Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Phil McCarten/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Worst: ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ Proves Parlor Tricks Can Win Awards

Thanks to the sheer variety its anthology premise allows, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has given us some of the best and the worst TV episodes of the last few years. Enter Bandersnatch, a formal experiment that let Netflix viewers make “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style choices about what its protagonist, a reclusive 1980s game designer, would do next. Cool in theory, right? In practice, the episode was clumsily written, emotionally hollow, and derivative of video games like Life Is Strange that employed the format first and better. That didn’t stop the Emmys from giving it the Outstanding Television Movie win, edging out superior and subtler offerings like Deadwood: The Movie and HBO’s Brexit. Reminder: A flashy gimmick isn’t a substitute for actual storytelling, no many how many statuettes it earns. JS

Bob Newhart and Bob Newhart71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

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Best: Bob Newhart — Not Dead Yet

When an elder statesman takes the stage at an award show, it can feel a little dutiful or, worse, sad — all that forced laughter of a kind crowd in the name of someone just being so damn old. But in Bob Newhart’s bit with Stiller — standing in as the third exhibit in a series of wax figures depicting otherwise deceased comedy legends — the 90-year-old held the room on merit, drawing out the deadpan pauses and quiet disgruntlement. Newhart masterfully played off Stiller as he accused the younger comedian of thinking he, like fellow honorees Lucille Ball and George Burns, was dead. And the final beat was one of the funniest moments of the night: When the camera returned to the duo after the clips of the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series were announced, Newhart muttered, “I hated you, by the way, in Tropic Thunder.AP

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WTF: The Accidentally Harrowing Stage Design

It seems like there might’ve been some miscommunication between the people in charge of the set design of this year’s Emmys and the people in charge of picking the production stills that were used for each nominee. Because while it was thrilling to watch Phoebe Waller-Bridge accept Fleabag‘s first award of the night, the effect was undermined by the fact that Waller-Bridge was making a speech in front of a massive image of herself in character, sporting a bloody nose. It happened again during Jharrel Jerome’s acceptance speech for When They See Us — smiling wide and arms raised in victory in front of a 10-foot-high image of his own terrified face. Maybe there was supposed to be some hidden message here about the hidden costs of success? But, er, we don’t think so. JS

Jesse Armstrong accepts the award for outstanding writing for a drama series for "Succession" at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles2019 Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Best: ‘Succession’ Enters the Emmy-Winner Circle

Yes, the writing awards are arguably the Emmys’ least glamorous category, but Succession creator Jesse Armstrong’s win in the drama category (for the Season One finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing”) cements the show’s entry into the upper echelon of Peak TV. The nod caps a remarkable transition for a series that, in the course of just two seasons, has gone from widely-dismissed newcomer to addictive guilty pleasure to favorite of the cultural intelligentsia. Beating out critical heavyweights including Better Call Saul, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Killing Eve (oh yeah, and some show about dragons and incest?) makes this HBO show something like the Cousin Greg of dark and twisted TV dramas. Never count it out. MF

Halsey performs onstage during an in memoriam tribute at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles71st Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Phil McCarten/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Best: Halsey’s ‘In Memoriam’ Segment

The “In Memoriam” portion of any awards show can easily become treacly, but Halsey’s spare and haunting rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” lent the proceedings an air of elegance. Accompanied only by piano, her voice occasionally cracking with emotion, the pop star delivered an unshowy performance that let the spotlight shine on those being honored. It was almost enough to distract from that awkward convention whereby the audience offers smatterings of applause for those stars whose lives were apparently more valued than others (John Singleton, yes; Peggy Lipton, not so much). Surely there has to be a better way to recognize Hollywood’s dearly and recently departed; until then, let’s keep getting Halsey to carry us through it. MF

Gary Cole, Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Timothy Simons. Gary Cole, from left, Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Timothy Simons, from the cast of "Veep," present the award for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles2019 Primetime Emmy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

WTF: R.I.P., TV Shows That Ended Five Minutes Ago

About an hour into the ceremony, Seth Meyers walked onstage to introduce an extended Game of Thrones tribute, so we could all reminisce about the good old days, when TV was TV — you know, about four months ago? The cast were trotted out like pay-cable show ponies to a standing ovation, and it was like watching a group of actors attending their own wake. Half an hour later, it happened again, with Veep. Still later in the ceremony, there was a montage of also-dead series from Gotham and Big Bang Theory to Jane the Virgin and Broad City. And then there was a bland speech from an Academy executive about … well, we weren’t listening, but presumably he extolled television as the sine qua non of entertainment. We get it, TV. You’re scared of the kids and their YouTubes and TikToks and SnapTweets and whatnot. But chill out. We still love you. MF

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