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Emmys Review: Sleek, Sincere, but We’ve Still Got a Long Way to Go

TV loves nothing more than sending viewers to a different dimension. So on Sunday night, CBS’ brisk, lively Emmy ceremony opened a portal to another world. It wasn’t the real world of TV, which still has miles to go when it comes to matters of representation, diversity and inclusion, but instead a place where the industry reassured itself that it was doing the work necessary to resist the worst of the present moment. And if part of that mindset was wishful thinking, well, it was nevertheless damnably difficult to resist.

As expected, there were many references to Donald Trump (and his lack of Emmys). And though Colbert’s opening monologue had some effective jabs, and now and then there was a subversive moment, the overall tone of the ceremony was rallying and earnest. There were a few references to the fact that it might be a little to early to engage in rampant self-congratulation: Bruce Miller, showrunner of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” put it best: Everyone needs to go home and “get to work — we have a lot of things to fight for.” Indeed. 

But, all things considered, it was damn near impossible to resist the lure of the fantasy world created by the Emmys, one in which performers and artists from all backgrounds were celebrated for their excellence. Look at the winners list: There’s simply not much there to grouse about. And host Stephen Colbert skillfully brought viewers to a place that was witty and sleek; occasionally slow but more often sincere.

On Sunday, two different series about the ways in which societies can oppress and constrict women (“Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”) won multiple awards. A woman, Reed Morano, was declared the best director of a dramatic series. An African-American woman, Lena Waithe, was one of the winners in the the best comedy-writing category, and in her speech, she thanked her girlfriend. After he won for his work on “The Night Of,” Riz Ahmed spoke about the drama’s focus on the deeply rooted problems of the criminal justice system and Islamophobia. “San Junipero,” the episode of “Black Mirror” that featured two women in love, picked up an Emmy — twice.

Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, the stars of a landmark movie about women uniting to fight the man who ruled over their sexist workplace, came out on stage together, and Tomlin tartly commented that in 2017, they still would not be controlled “by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”

At times, however, it was hard not to feel a disconnect. Not much of the political humor went for the jugular: Trump was the target of gibes that made him seem like an irascible uncle. Even worse, Sean Spicer, who came out on stage with his own portable lectern, was made out to be a goofball. But Trump is not just an aging celebrity with a temper, and Spicer was part of an administration that has disdain for the truth and the rule of law. 

The parade of talent across the stage — presenting and winning — looked like America, and that was heartening. But study after study shows that TV is still slow to change and diversify. TV as a whole still depicts women in stereotypical ways and is slow to give them jobs as creators, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The executive producers and directors who tells stories on the small screen, by every statistical measure, are still for the most part straight white men. 

But it was not on Colbert to solve that particular problem, and all things considered, he was a fine host. The broadcast as a whole was generally energetic, and Colbert expertly bridged the gap between edgy, in-the-know comedian and warm, keep-it-moving host. It’s incredibly tough to have jokes land in the room, for the industry crowd, and also work with home viewers, but Colbert, as is his wont, made his job look easy.

And despite my moments of mild irritation that so many fine actresses in the comedy arena will be shut out until “Veep” is over for good, damn it if the Emmys didn’t win me over with so many deserved wins.

It was meaningful that Anthony Hopkins — a fine thespian — did not win for “Westworld.” The TV academy’s tendency to reward film stars — especially if they’re British — was bypassed, for once. It was thrilling to see Sterling K. Brown win — and it was a bit maddening when the band played him off early. It was incredibly lovely to see Moss, who was so great in “Mad Men,” carry off a best-actress statue for her starring role in “Handmaid’s Tale.” A lot of strange things have happened in 2017, but to see Moss share a stage with Margaret Atwood at a glitzy awards show was utterly surreal — in a good way. 

Thank all of the TV gods for Ann Dowd. It’s wonderful that Dowd got a very public thanks for all her great work — on “Handmaid’s Tale” and through a career spanning decades. Her Emmy win also provided the ceremony with a dose of heartfelt emotion at its midpoint, when it needed it most. With raw emotion, Dowd got out her thanks, and added, “That this should happen now — I don’t have the words.”

It was indeed heartening to see a string of wins for “Big Little Lies,” a story that put women front and center (they were mostly wealthy women in a series written by a man, but this was HBO, after all). It was delightful to see “Atlanta” continue its winning streak. It was sweet and wonderful when Ahmed paid tribute to one of its executive producers, James Gandolfini. When Cicely Tyson came out, you could feel a ripple of electricity go through the crowd. Same with Norman Lear and Carol Burnett. They were royalty, as was Oprah Winfrey, to whom so many paid homage throughout the show. 

Damn it, these Emmys were determined to get past my defenses: Rachel Bloom, the star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” sang and danced in a little number in which the accountants were brought out to do their annual wave to the crowd. Colbert and Jeffrey Wright did a pitch-perfect “Westworld” sendup in which the Emmy host got to play a naked robot (and Titus Burgess had a cameo, for which he donned a tiny black cowboy hat). For the love of God, RuPaul did a bit in which the Emmy statue was interviewed. And it was funny! 

Donald Glover’s two acceptance speeches, for comedy acting and directing, were so heartfelt and funny and real, it was impossible not to be caught up in his honest gratitude and excitement. Glover, in accepting the directing statue, thanked “the great algorithm” that put us all here, which somehow felt right, given that a streaming player, Hulu, was put on the map Sunday night.

Alec Baldwin, who won for his “Saturday Night Live” work, got up on stage and told his fellow artists and industry types that “what we do is important.” And in a normal year, that would have probably felt pompous and more than a bit self-congratulatory.

But when Nicole Kidman talks about domestic violence, Moss wins for playing a woman resisting oppression, Waithe mentioned “reclaiming her time,” well, how could one resist any of it?

“Love will win,” Charlie Brooker said, the second time he won an Emmy for “San Junipero.” “More great roles for women, please,” Kidman said a short time later.

A declaration and an aspiration: That felt about right. You done good, Emmys.

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