Plus, Tatiana Maslany and Rami Malek took home their well-earned awards

By Jeff Jensen
Updated September 19, 2016 at 06:30 PM EDT

Emmy did so much right on Sunday night that I feel bad for complaining about the things worth complaining about.

Tatiana Maslany received her just due award for playing a multiplicity of well-drawn women in BBC America’s clone drama Orphan Black. Rami Malek triumphed for his brilliant portrait of chaos culture alienation and post-modern identity crisis in USA’s Mr. Robot. And Louie Anderson took home a trophy for his daring turn as Zach Galifianakis’ mom in FX’s offbeat gem Baskets. Their wins keyed a night that celebrated TV’s diversity surge and the eclectic artfulness that can be found on the fringes of TV.

But big blockbuster pop won, too, and deservedly so, although perhaps at the exclusion of too many other things. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson scored a number of verdicts, including one for Sarah Paulson’s turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark. In a powerful speech, Paulson saluted Clark, whom she brought as her date, and apologized to her for judging her poorly based on her representation in the media. We could join her in that apology, for her performance helped us see Clark in a new light.

And here’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing: Jimmy Kimmel was a spectacular emcee. The ceremony did an admirable job of acknowledging and flattering a lot of what’s worthy and important in television right now. It was also a flat-out entertaining show that affirmed the immediacy and power of the medium.

But yes, I have quibbles. Let’s get them out of the way. HBO’s political satire Veep — which won the outstanding comedy award last year — was a riot in its fifth season. The behind-the-scenes story makes its success even more impressive: a showrunner transition that didn’t undermone the series, but in fact, infused new life into it. But ABC’s black-ish was an equally impressive and resonant sitcom that dealt intelligently and hilariously with issues of race and modern family life. I’m disappointed it lost, especially since failed to win any of its three nominations, typifying a tough night for broadcast networks. The Big Four Networks only picked up three awards: Regina King (supporting actress, limited series) for ABC’s American Crime (good on Emmy for showing this fine show in mind), Kate McKinnon (supporting actress, comedy) for NBC’s Saturday Night Live (TV’s splashiest Hillary Clinton spoofing is certainly worthy of recognition, but I still think sketch/variety performers should have their own acting categories), and The Voice (best reality competition series). I would have also chosen Amazon’s Transparent ahead of Veep, but at least this daring work didn’t go home empty handed, with Jeffrey Tambor winning lead actor and creator Jill Soloway winning for best director.

On the drama side, FX’s The Americans went home with nothing except an award it shouldn’t have won: Margo Martindale’s victory in the guest actress category. It lost to an uneven season of TV’s greatest big saga epic, HBO’s Game of Thrones, whose best moments set new standards for small screen spectacle and set the stage for even grander things to come. Veep and Game of Thrones (which won 12 awards in total, tying a record it set last year) are excellent series that represent the artfulness and innovation in their fields. But I wish Emmy chose differently.

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And as much as I was thrilled to see The People v. O.J. Simpson dominate, as expected, I felt increasingly bummed for the casualties as the landslide grew and grew, in particular, FX’s Fargo, which got nothing for its brilliant second season. Ironically, while I thought Ryan Murphy should have won for his directing work in The People v. O.J. Simpson, I was happy that Susanne Bier pulled an upset for helming AMC’s evil-under-the-sun, anti-antihero thriller The Night Manager, a fantastic adaptation of John le Carre’s novel. Her victory allowed Emmy to spread some love around in the limited series category.

Those who got to the stage often made the most of it. Has an awards show ever given us this many memorable, poignant, hilarious speeches? Many of them reminded us that while TV has made strides in representation and diversity, there’s further to go. There was Yang scoring a big laugh and making a huge point about Asian Americans in the media. “There are 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and 17 million Italian Americans,” said Yang. “They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong.” (His joke also points out that Italian Americans are often portrayed as criminals. But his point was clear and understood.) His address to parents of Asian American kids was even funnier: “If just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’d be good.” Yang’s moment was a nice corrective to Chris Rock’s misguided jokes about Asian Americans earlier this year while hosting the Academy Awards. (Diversity was a big theme at the Oscars, too, though it focused mostly on black representation. There can’t be enough provocation and conversation about this topic, but I’d say the Emmys modeled it better than the Oscars, thanks in large part because it had more diversity to talk about.)

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There was Soloway declaring “Topple the patriarchy!” There was Tambor hushing the orchestra trying to play him off so he could issue a plea to Hollywood producers and casting agents to give transgender actors more opportunities to audition. “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television,” he said. “We have work to do.”

There was McKinnon trying to keep it together as she acknowledged her late father. There was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, accepting her fifth straight win for lead actress in a comedy by apologizing for Veep’s chaotic satire causing our current political crisis – and then trying to keep it together herself as she revealed the passing of her father last Friday. “I’m so glad he liked Veep, because his opinion was the one that really mattered,” she said, the paper with her prepared remarks shaking in her quivering hand.

There was The People v. O.J. Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown saluting his wife (with Jay Z lyrics): “I got the hottest chick in the game rocking my chain!” There was his co-star Courtney B. Vance stealing his line to do the same for his wife. And then Sherlock exec producer Stephen Moffitt co-opted the line to praise his wife. And then I was like, okay, you can stop that now.

Rocking everyone was Kimmel. In his second stint as Emmy host, he commanded the ceremony with an easy, breezy confidence, sharp, chop-busting jokes and a cool but not too smug deadpan delivery. He took some risks and not everything worked – people masturbate to Game of Thrones? – but his ballsiness flattered him and often paid off. He went after Donald Trump with a nasty dig, conjuring an image of him in bed with his wife “Malaria.” But then he smartly noted that TV helped to make Trump who he is, and he relentlessly pecked at super-producer Mark Burnett, creator of The Apprentice. He hooked me when he proposed that if notorious no-show Maggie Smith won again for Downton Abbey, they hold the award until she came to the U.S. to claim it instead of sending it to her. And when she did win again (ugh!), he marched on stage, grabbed the statue with a disapproving headshake, and marched off with it. Way to defend Emmy’s integrity, Jimmy!

His gags worked great – the opening segment; the sack lunch distribution bit; his humiliation at the hands of apple-eating faux-nemesis Matt Damon after Jimmy Kimmel Live! lost the talk show Emmy to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. And he met the big moments of the evening with inspired quips and commentary, often giving voice to our thoughts or responses. When introducing the talk show category, he noted that it was exclusively the province of white men (including himself). When Vance won for playing the late Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson, Kimmel cracked: “I have to wonder if Johnnie Cochran is somewhere smiling up at us tonight.” When Soloway signed off with “Topple the patriarchy!” Kimmel came back with a joke that impicitly posed the question of what exactly Soloway’s idealism would look like: “I’m trying to figure out if ‘topple the patriarchy’ is a good thing for me or not.” Oh, probably not. But tonight, Jimmy, you should feel on top of the world.

Other observations:

  • I loved seeing NYPD Blue stars Dennis Franz (who’s retired and has been out of the public eye for years) and Jimmy Smits reunite to give out the best drama prize. But I kinda got the sense the audience didn’t find the moment as significant as I did. How about you? Does the culture not appreciate the importance of NYPD Blue as much as it should? Memo to American: there was television before The Sopranos, you know, and it was very, very good!
  • I appreciated the separate tributes to two TV trailblazers, Garry Shandling (by Tambor) and Garry Marshall (by Henry Winkler). The “In Memoriam” was criticized on Twitter for giving too much tout to non-TV icons. That push-back is too purist for me. I’d argue Prince earned his place for his contribution to music video and a number of legendary TV musical performances, including the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show.
  • Winner that made me the happiest: Rami Malek, Mr. Robot. “Please tell me you’re seeing this,” he said, quoting one of his character’s most memorable lines.