Emmy Awards review: A rocky start, some tears, and a battle cry to just turn the TV off

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Sean Spicer has arrived in Hollywood. He was on Jimmy Kimmel Live and he was on the Emmys. Surely there’s been a conversation about Dancing With the Stars. Perhaps a guest stint on Madam Secretary? Maybe, when all else fails, a uniquely autobiographical episode of Drunk History?

Spicer appeared onstage early in this year’s Emmys, declaring, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world!” The camera kept cutting to Melissa McCarthy, who looked surprised, if not a bit disappointed. You could say Spicer was engaged in an act of self-parody, but it’s more accurate to say that Spicer was imitating McCarthy imitating Spicer. A dutiful poltroon to the end, the former White House press secretary is unwilling to actually say anything negative about the administration that so spurned him. But he so badly wants the world to know that he’s got a sense of humor.

His appearance was controversial, the sort of thing that has normalized the word “normalized.” But I think it was part of Colbert’s grand, failed plan. The host’s opening sequence was bait for all demographics, Anthony Anderson and Allison Janney, niche-weird Archer and critic-weird The Americans, insta-phenomenon Stranger Things and beloved daddy death-dirge This Is Us, song and dance, a joke about Bill Maher, a serious thank you to our first responders! Colbert had a gag about all the networks and platforms – a joke that went out with Seeso – but Spicer was an extension of his genuine impulse to cover everything. Wasn’t he the star of the White House Press Briefing, the most popular new series of the year? (I don’t have precise viewership numbers, but neither does Hulu.)

I don’t envy anyone who tries to paint a complete picture of television circa now. It didn’t really work. Colbert’s opening had too many thin gags stretched thinner. (Millie Bobby Brown can dance, we get it!) It took some time, but he got to the elephant in the nation. “The biggest TV star of the last year is Donald Trump,” he said. “Every show was influenced by Donald Trump in some way.” This feels true, yet isn’t quite. The Handmaid’s Tale was a book 30 years ago, was adapted and already in production when November came. Big Little Lies was a book more recently, but the miniseries wrapped last JuneVeep conjured a venal and morally bankrupt Washington mid-Obama. Saturday Night Live was doing broad pointless wig-department political gags decades ago.

More accurate to say: The reaction to every show was influenced by Donald Trump in some way. The Handmaid’s Tale looked much less futuristic, Veep more accurate. And Saturday Night Live said Steve Bannon was the Grim Reaper, ho ho ho, what laceration! I loved Big Little Lies, but thought the final act was weirdly abrupt, a complex human epic suddenly so dependent on Alexander Skarsgard as the NorCal coast’s avatar of toxic masculinity. But, dammit! In 2017, who didn’t want to see all our favorite actresses gang up on an avatar of toxic masculinity? Push, Zoe Kravitz, push! And so what if the show seventh-wheel’d you behind Adam Scott’s beard and Ah-ma-BELL-ah?

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I don’t want to say that current events somehow made those shows better and don’t want to sound like I’m giving credit to anyone but the creators. The Handmaid’s Tale would have felt just as vibrant in the universe where internet trolls hurled insults at a female president, instead of merely hurling insults at all human females. But Trump has been business for television – good, weird business. Compare, say, Colbert on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter last year (“Late night’s onetime king of political satire”) to Colbert on the same magazine’s cover this year (“10 weeks at the top”). Donald Glover won two prizes at this year’s Emmys, a remarkable moment of ascension for a remarkable creative mind, and even he seemed a bit deflated. “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most-oppressed list,” he said. “He’s the reason why I’m probably up here.”

I think Glover was joking. (Hell, Atlanta should’ve won more.) But he’s a wry, ruminative soul. The tone of this Emmys was more celebratory and proudly political. Winston Churchill, Hillary Clinton, and the Innocence Project all received shoutouts. Stranger Things and Westworld won nothing, maybe because their settings and central ideas felt a bit too abstracted from current events, but more likely because the Emmys have a history of ignoring science-fiction. (The Handmaid’s Tale slipped in under the Lost Season 1 Exception: No robots, no superpowers!)

Once the awards show got going – once Colbert and the hammy Billy Crystalite parodies disappeared – it was a delight! There were soft sweeps in each category, lending the night a sense of triple momentum. The Big Little Lies train rewarded Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman, but it also gave a win to Skarsgard – the only real howler of the night, I thought. (No offense to Tarzan, but I preferred Bill Camp channeling Jerry Orbach on The Night Of, not to mention David Thewlis on Fargo as a vastly more convincing looming avatar of toxic masculinity.)

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There was a wondrous and strange moment reuniting the great women of 9 to 5. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who star on Mom’s beloved Grace & Frankie, seemed to have preplanned a bit without informing Dolly Parton. It was a gag about refusing to be controlled by a sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot, the plot of 9 to 5 and of 2017. This was funny, but give some credit to Parton for overreacting madly, a kind aunt at an explosive Thanksgiving dinner, backpedaling with stunning professionalism. Say what is going on with ol’ Dabney Coleman? Support you say, hey I know something about support, wink wink! She demanded to get a Grace & Frankie vibrator in her swag bag, and so here we are, America, it’s less controversial to talk about vibrators than to talk about the President of the United States.

There was a mini-sweep for “San Junipero,” the beloved episode of Black Mirror, in the Movie-Miniseries categories. There were a couple of prizes for John Oliver, who worshipped Oprah and demanded that the band play him off. The band was unusually aggressive, I thought, the play-off music often booming in mid-sentence. The band gave Kidman enough time to praise how Big Little Lies shined a light on domestic abuse. But they cut off Sterling K. Brown in the middle of what sounded like a profound bit of TV history.

Sterling K. Brown! This was his second straight year winning an Emmy, after his tense performance as Christopher Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Brown took the opportunity to guide the crowd through TV history. “Walter White held this joint!” he said, marveling at his Best Actor in a Drama prize. “Dick Whitman held this joint!” he said, and then he remembered not everyone watched Mad Men, and added, “I may’ve lost some of you all. Google it!”

Most importantly: “Detective Frank Pembleton held this joint!” That was Andre Braugher’s character on Homicide: Life on the Street, a great show that should be easier to find online. Braugher was the last African American actor to win the Best Actor in a Drama Prize, in 1998. I could’ve heard Brown fanboy out about TV history for hours, but the band started playing, and he refused to leave, and the lights went out. (He did manage to conclude his speech in the press room though — watch it here.)

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Whatever: His joy was infectious, and the night got more joyous as it went along. There was Cicely Tyson, 92, taking her time, persisting. There was Witherspoon and Kidman, sharing the stage to give a superteam speech about great roles for women. I teared up when Ann Dowd walked onstage to accept her Supporting Actress in a Drama Prize, never knew I loved Hulu until I heard her explain how lovely Hulu is. Master of None‘s Lena Waithe was the first African American woman to ever win a Comedy Writing prize, and there was another tear when she said, “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers.”

My stealth MVP of the night was Jermaine Fowler, the Superior Donuts star, who served as the show’s official announcer. No, I don’t know what Superior Donuts is either, and some of his introductions were rushed, but they trended stream-of-consciousness, personal, and outright absurd. When Don Roy King won for Directing a Variety Series, Fowler explained, “His first directing job was on The Michael Douglas Show. My grandmother loved that show.” After Witherspoon’s triumphant speech, the disembodied Fowler yelled, “Tell ’em, Reese!” His delivery suggested a playful interest, or lack thereof: He sounded bored saying “Lea Michele,” but turned “Kumail Nanjiani” into a symphony.

Colbert was funny, loosened up at last, in a short bit with Jimmy Kimmel. They were both mourning their loss by sampling a special Last Week Tonight cocktail (“It’s so high quality, apparently they can only make one a week.”) A fun game to play with each Emmys is to try and spot the ascendant comedian who’ll host twice next decade; James Corden was sizing up the stage, Billy Eichner killed from the seats, Rachel Bloom danced about accountants, and there was a whisper on the wind that sounded like the voice of Jimmy Fallon, an echo from some long-gone time when people didn’t loathe distractions.

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I was happy to see Handmaid’s Tale win so big, was surprised again to remember that Elisabeth Moss never won for Mad Men. The series showrunner, Bruce Miller, closed the night on a line that summed up the general feeling of these Emmys. “Go home,” he said. “Get to work. We have a lot of things to fight for.” Too true. But there’s actual importance, and then there’s self-importance. Bless Alec Baldwin, winning an Emmy for playing a gasbag nincompoop, going method in his acceptance speech with a joke about babymaking (SMILE, WIFE!) and this peculiar line:

I always remember once someone told me that when you die, you don’t remember a bill that Congress passed or a decision the Supreme Court made or an address made by the president — you remember a song, you remember a line from a movie, you remember a play, you remember a book, a painting, a poem.

Sure, well, I would imagine that there are some people who remember some Supreme Court decisions, Alec? And perhaps certain transformative Congressional bills? There are presidential speeches that still make grandparents tear up in memory – though of course, they probably watched that speech on television, in the early days of the Grand Faustian Bargain between American politics and American entertainment. Television in 2017 is the primary battleground for so much in our culture, and the breadth of quality demonstrated by all the Emmy winners speaks to how engaged the medium has become.

But if you’re looking for wisdom, look to Chance the Rapper. He turned a cameo into a supernova during Colbert’s opening number. Turns out he’s the very best sort of TV critic, someone who knows his favorite shows well enough to see clearly what they’re missing:

I love television, it’s a pleasant distraction
But just imagine taking action.
I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in fact, I’m addicted
But where’s the cop show where one gets convicted?
I miss the classics, I still think M.A.S.H. rocks
But if Hawkeye can be a soldier, why not Laverne Cox?
Bob’s Burgers makes me smile, but please don’t ignore
The decline of the independent family-run store.
I get it, them finales, they got you focused,
Just record the show and try to show up at the protest.

The 2017 Emmys had bold statements, triumphant victories, a sincere dedication to the uncontroversial notion that all voices should be heard. But here was a clever, provocative idea. Television is great! Now, turn it off!

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