“The Handmaid’s Tale” conquered, Stephen Colbert hosted, “Saturday Night Live” felt relevant again and Sean Spicer showed up. Variety’s TV critics debate the highs and lows of Sept. 17’s three-hour celebration of television.
Sonia Saraiya: I can’t remember the last time an awards show made me this happy. I might be in the minority. There were definitely elements of Sunday night that could have used a bit of polish: The show announcer either needed better direction or had never seen the Emmys before, and I don’t care if run of show is a skosh late — they really did not need to play off Sterling K. Brown’s acceptance speech. But overall, I felt like it was a joyful expression of what we can be proudest of about TV right now.
Maureen Ryan: It was a strange evening, and certainly there were moments that contained extra rations of the obliviousness or self-regard that we generally expect from awards shows. But still, taken as a whole — let me put it this way. There are days when it’s hard to find good news or things to be excited about. The Emmy broadcast contained more than a few instances of joy and resistance, and there were signs of progress in the industry too. Is it perfect? Hell, no. But I’ll take it.
Saraiya: Let’s start with the most controversial moment of the night: Sean Spicer, on a podium. I’m still a little puzzled by his appearance, but I didn’t have the strong negative reaction that I saw unspooling on my Twitter feed. I mostly felt very embarrassed for him that he thought it would be a good idea to try to be funny in front of a lot of people who hate him. The shock in seeing him was born of the fact that I am skeptical that Spicer has a sense of humor about himself. Possibly I’m mistaken — he seemed self-conscious but otherwise OK up there. But he wasn’t funny; the stunt lay entirely in bringing him out, as if to say, hey look, even Sean Spicer wants to be here. In some ways, the guy’s reputation could not sink lower than being pulled onstage for a 15-second skit where everyone laughs at him; he was the Emmys’ resident fool.
Every other thing about the show — including Colbert’s singing in the pre-taped opening number, nearly every speech, half of Colbert’s jokes in the monologue and the mere fact of the winners themselves — was a bald-faced repudiation of Trumpism. So why not let Spicer make a fool of himself?
Ryan: I see what you’re saying, but the Spicer moment was the one truly depressing (if not enraging) moment of the night for me. If there’s one thing that is becoming apparent nearly a year after Trump’s election, it’s that he and all his foul works are being normalized. White House spokesmen often become lightning rods in the news media or figures of fun, and in theory, there’s nothing wrong with them getting meme’d on social media or made fun of by late-night hosts. But what Spicer did while in the employ of the president is profoundly worse, for my money. He lied, over and over again, on behalf of a narcissistic, cruel, would-be autocrat. And yet the Emmys broadcast allowed Spicer to launder his very bad acts and deserved ignominy into lighthearted comedy. “See, he’s not so bad. He just was a goof who said some wacky things.”
I’m going to hop off my soapbox to say that it was pretty great to see who won last night. I generally think that the Academy, in many cases, made the best possible choices it could. The morning after, I’m especially thrilled that “Black Mirror’s” “San Junipero” won two Emmys. It was not the expected winner by a long shot, and it was so entirely deserving. Between that and Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari’s win for “Thanksgiving” from “Master of None” we have an object lesson for TV writers: See what happens when you write about queer women and don’t kill them off? You might just win an Emmy!
Saraiya: It was so satisfying. I’m always going to be pushing the Emmys for more — more inclusion, more creativity, more diversity — but given this season of television and the nominees we were working with, I wasn’t even disappointed when “Veep” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus surprised absolutely no one by winning again. The voters seemed galvanized by a sense of mission to be more high-minded than they have been.
That seemed to be true for Colbert, too, who was in fine, pointed form all evening. Spiciness aside, the monologue joke about Bill Maher was one of my biggest laughs of the night. At first I thought it was supremely uncomfortable, that Colbert was just … naming African-American actors … and then it landed on Maher, and it was like fireworks went off in my heart.
Last year, Jimmy Kimmel’s show — which I also enjoyed — was kind of an ode to having fun with TV. I’m thinking about the “Stranger Things” kids delivering sandwiches, which was such a silly production but a fun one, too. Many of the glitzy audience members adored the heck out of those kids and that show, so embracing its relatively simple pleasures made for a nice moment. Colbert’s was not quite as escapist. I think Hollywood is in the midst of some much needed self-scrutiny, and if the 2017 Oscars felt like a moment of mourning and solidarity, then the 2017 Emmys were a sharp-edged celebration of freedom of expression.
Ryan: I do think Colbert did a good job, to be sure. But to me, the Spicer moment reeked of the “Both sides have flaws” kind of dodge that too much of the media has been relying on. During the last year, I’ve thought many times that we may well both-sides ourselves into the abyss one of these days. Sometimes you have to take a stand, and though I appreciate the one that Lily Tomlin took, I’m never going to be OK with the Spicer thing.
But I do think the TV industry wanted to make a statement last night — and even before last night, the roster of nominees was generally fairly solid and even admirable. There was an energy to this year’s Emmys, whether that was a spirit of political resistance or just the sight of stars like Oprah and Nicole Kidman and Cicely Tyson gracing the broadcast with their regal presences. I almost teared up when Carol Burnett and Norman Lear were bantering: They were icons of my TV childhood, and they’re still going strong. Let’s hope all the storytellers who were honored this year will be doing the same in half a century.