First off, yes: the Sean Spicer thing sucked. When the former White House press secretary came shambling out on stage behind a Saturday Night Live-referencing moving podium to do a bit about the crowd size at Sunday night’s Emmys, it wasn’t the edgy, funny moment the producers—and host Stephen Colbert—were likely hoping for. It was instead a gross act of normalizing, of genially forgiving a guy who willingly acted as a mouthpiece for Donald Trump’s perfidious and dangerous administration. Making affable yuks with a man who saw his own political ambition as a reasonable enough excuse to routinely lie to the American public about matters both petty and profound was a clubby, obnoxious misstep on the part of the Emmys.
That it came right after a song-and-dance opening number that involved a plainspoken Chance the Rapper making pointed comments about police brutality, women’s rights, and the proposed ban on transgender soldiers put it in even starker relief. The whiplash was gnarly. Was this a cheeky night of skewering Trump (while celebrating television’s best and brightest), or was it an ugly opportunity to say, “Aw, shucks, you’re all right,” to the most prominent spokesperson for the Trump presidency in its harrowing first months?
So, that was a major miscalculation, one that tainted the rest of the show with its blithe downplaying of Spicer’s role in advancing an insidious agenda. But! That said, there was a lot about the Emmys this year that was admirable, worth celebrating. An historic win for Master of None actress-writer Lena Waithe—the first black woman to earn an Emmy for comedy series writing—was a high point, as was The Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano becoming the first woman in 22 years to pick up a drama directing trophy. This Is Us favorite Sterling K. Brown became the first black man to win a drama acting prize since Andre Braugher in 1998. And Donald Glover’s pair of wins—for his acting and directing on FX’s lauded Atlanta—proved that Emmy voters can be hip to alternative comedy that is artful, but not coy, about its social messaging.
In some ways, this year’s Emmys could serve as an example to the Oscars of how to reward a diverse array of creative talent in a way that seems earnest, thorough, and without too much self-congratulating. Sure, there was a somewhat ham-handed “salute to diversity” sizzle reel that clunkily played at one point, and Colbert made a joke about the audience somehow both simultaneously applauding and patting itself on the back. But for the most part, the Emmys’ recognition of work done beyond the straight, white, male sphere was a refreshing rebuke of an American ethos that, lately, seems to be regressing from the nominal gains made in recent years.
On the whole, this year’s Emmys broadcast aimed for a brightness, a cheery hopefulness, that was often a pleasant counterbalance to the darkness of the world surrounding it. The opening number, a kicky and reference-y song about how everything is better on TV, saw Colbert at peak slick, wry showman, a mode he works adeptly. He knows when to wink, when to fawn, and, most important for a host, when to get out of the way. The broadcast was a trim three hours, not laden with indulgent bits or tiresome homages. I suppose those are best (or worst) left to the Oscars.
Part of the show’s efforts to liven things up came in the form of announcer Jermaine Fowler, a star of CBS’s Superior Donuts. (Synergy!) He gave spirited introductions to presenters and winners, a novel idea that started off bumpy—he had a lot to say in a little bit of time—but got ironed out as the night wore on. I like the idea of infusing those bland, “She was previously nominated for . . .” voice-of-God interludes; hopefully some negative reaction to Fowler on Twitter won’t squash the idea for future broadcasts.
Winners-wise, Hulu had much to celebrate on Sunday night. Its series The Handmaid’s Tale won awards for its writing and directing, three acting prizes (two on Sunday, including a surprise supporting win for the great Ann Dowd, and one earlier in the week for Alexis Bledel), and best drama, upsetting NBC’s This Is Us. Though This Is Us did get a win for Brown’s performance, many in the industry had hoped that the show would be a nice, perhaps needed broadcast network win in the era of cable and streaming’s dominance. But it was not meant to be. Something about The Handmaid’s Tale’s depiction of a repressive, radical, conservative regime grinding America into fear, despair, and resistance spoke to voters this year. Wonder why that might have been. Maybe someone should ask Sean Spicer. Or, actually, no, they shouldn’t. No one should ask him anything ever again.
Regardless of This Is Us’s bitter defeat, television’s ascendancy as the premier medium for filmed entertainment was made abundantly clear on Sunday night, with cable and streaming and, yes, network reveling in all the glowing adulation for its vast array of beloved products. There was even a bevy of film stars there to pick up prizes, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Nicole Kidman basking in the love for their Big Little Lies. They didn’t seem so much slumming as, well, colonizing, thanking the television community for all that they’ve built, before saying, “We’ll take it from here.”
As they have done increasingly over the past few years, Sunday night’s Emmys augured a time when television usurps film as the go-to place for daring, innovative, and inclusive scripted projects to find funding and attention. The Academy Awards may have their Moonlight moments, and a push to diversify their voting body. But the Emmys have that venerable ceremony easily beat by sheer volume. And the future looks ever more promising.
RuPaul did a fun segment with Colbert in which he played an anthropomorphized Emmy award, sitting down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Colbert and revealing herself to be a sassy, dishy good time. Though not all the jokes in the little filmed bit landed quite right, it was a pretty good audition tape for RuPual to host the show next year. That’d be another feather in the Emmys’ progressive cap.
Now if only RuPaul’s Drag Race—a cult phenomenon, with growing “mainstream” appeal, perhaps like no other show on television at the moment—could have won for best competition series instead of tired old The Voice. But, nope. The Emmys may be making big strides toward recognizing the truly deserving, but they’re not quite all the way there yet. Still, they seem to be getting there a lot faster than the Oscars.