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Five Key Lessons Learned From the 2016 Emmys

Emmys 2016: Diversity, Jimmy Kimmel and
MIchael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

What should the industry remember about the 68th annual Primetime Emmy derby? Variety TV critics Maureen Ryan and Sonia Saraiya break down the highs and lows.

Diversity works.
Saraiya: One of the more pernicious myths about hiring a diverse array of performers and creators is that its only value is politically correct image management. The 2016 Emmys rather emphatically made the point that this is not the case. Diversity hiring — to use that awkward and clunky term — can make for incredible television. What we saw on Emmy night was what happens when studios and networks give underrepresented creators, stories, or performers a chance to shine.
Notably, FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” a show that consciously used race and gender as lenses in its retelling of the 1995 trial, nabbed a slew of awards. Amazon’s “Transparent” won awards for director Jill Soloway and star Jeffrey Tambor. “Master of None” writers Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari beat out five competing nominations from Emmy juggernaut HBO for their comedy statuette. Kate McKinnon, the first openly gay woman on “Saturday Night Live,” was the show’s first Emmy-winning cast member since Dana Carvey in 1993. Of the three directing awards up for grabs, two went to women — Soloway and Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager”). Egyptian-American Rami Malek won the Emmy for best actor, in a drama that was written and directed by Sam Esmail, also Egyptian-American.
There is a pattern here, and the pattern is that truly specific points of view — and people who care about them — can make for great television. That is not just good news; it’s the best news.
Ryan: Absolutely. Back in the day, the marching orders for TV executives and creators were to bring as many folks into the tent as possible; don’t make things too specific so you don’t exclude any potential viewers. How times have changed.
The roster of Emmy winners reflects an amazing array of perspectives and realities (and one, “Mr. Robot,” regularly questions the nature of reality itself). What really stood out was the fact that each of these characters, stories, and journeys felt specific on a granular level, and that kind of individuality and clarity provided rocket fuel for skilled storytellers. And no matter if some aspects of these characters’ lives were different from those of viewers — it was impossible not to relate to the characters’ emotional states, dilemmas, and breakthroughs.

Say goodbye to the antihero era.
Ryan: Not too long ago, the Emmys were dominated by the tales of antiheroes in shows like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” This year, shows that more or less follow in those footsteps — “Ray Donovan,” “Better Call Saul,” and “House of Cards” — were nominated, but all came up empty in the primetime Emmys broadcast. Once the streaming revolution truly got underway a few years ago, those kinds of shows began to seem outmoded, and the one-and-done seasons of “Feed the Beast,” “Vinyl,” and “Roadies” offered yet more proof that the era of the brooding cable-bad-boy may have well and truly come to an end.
Saraiya: Indeed, it does seem like the shows that are anticipating or putting a twist on that now-classic television formula are the ones that are engaging Emmy voters. “Mr. Robot” is an antihero drama turned inside-out, with a layer of paranoia on top. “Veep” is really an antiheroine comedy. And “Game of Thrones” is an ensemble antihero drama, with dragons. The idea of a story structured around one guy’s deep, dark feelings doesn’t feel fresh anymore to the voters — thank goodness.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Keep Jimmy Kimmel as the host. 
Ryan: It’s hard for the host to bridge the divide of every awards show: What people in the room find funny may fall flat for viewers at home, and vice versa. Having seen a lot of hosts be either too chummy or too vicious, I thought Kimmel bridged that divide quite nicely, and helped keep the energy up throughout the night.
Saraiya: Kimmel did a great job with two issues that perpetually seem to torpedo awards-show hosts: He was self-deprecating without being fawning of his audience, and he was sharp without being what sometimes reads as recklessly mean from other comedians. Hosting isn’t any old stand-up gig; you’re trying to make both an audience at home and a crowd of industry influencers — some of whom are your coworkers and bosses! — laugh and feel in on the joke. The “Dr. Bill Cosby” moment was probably one of the funniest things that’s ever happened at an awards show, just because of how slyly it commented on that horrible and sad controversy without making anyone the butt of the joke (except Hollywood’s own self-regard). Plus, I liked the sandwiches thing.

With so many good shows around, even a well-deserved awards monopoly is a disappointment.
Ryan: Raise your hand if you’ve spent too many long hours sitting through tedious Emmy broadcasts that merely crowned the winners that observers had predicted would win weeks beforehand. Not that it’s inherently a bad thing for front-runners to get Emmy love, but part of what gave this year’s broadcast such a welcome boost of energy was the number of winners who hadn’t won before. You can’t fake excitement — not even among this crew of phenomenal writers and performers — and their genuine gratitude to be up on the stage created a delightful and infectious vibe.
Saraiya: It’s amazing how boring the last half-hour was, after the fun of the first hour or so. And I say that as someone who is happy for “Veep,” and fine, at least, with “Game of Thrones” — I’m glad the shows are getting recognition. But I don’t want viewers, or posterity, to forget about the other great comedies and dramas out there. Thank goodness for some really unexpected performance winners, like Malek and Tatiana Maslany, shaking things up in the winners’ circle.

Don’t play off the winners, only to waste precious minutes showing Matt Damon eat an apple.
Ryan: Am I wrong to feel like the producers of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” got an absurdly short amount of time at the microphone, compared to other productions? I appreciate the producers of the Emmys trying to keep things on schedule, but that was one of the night’s most anticipated wins, and there wasn’t enough time devoted to it.
Saraiya: It was similarly disappointing to see Aziz Ansari played offstage. And then we watched Matt Damon and Kimmel do a comedy bit for a very long time — though it was funny, I’m not sure if it was so funny that it made me not care about what Ansari had to say. Kudos to Jeffrey Tambor for shushing the music when it started to play him off — thanks to that, we got one of the best speeches of the night.