You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: A Lackluster Emmys Production, With Wonderfully Surprising Winners

The greatest surprise at this year’s Emmys may have been two of the most powerful forces in television battling to a draw.

With a last-minute twist—”Game of Thrones” returning from a year of ineligibility to claim the Best Drama Series crown over competition including defending champion “The Handmaid’s Tale”—HBO knuckled its way into retaining its longstanding title as the winningest TV platform. But it shared the title with Netflix, which once again missed out on top drama or comedy honors but which picked up 23 wins — exactly as many as the longtime Emmy top dog.

It represented an odd anticlimax for a TV industry in flux, one so at odds with itself that it tended to throw off surprise wins like often-welcome sparks of inspiration. After an expected early run of comedy wins for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”—ultimately the first streaming series to have won the Best Comedy prize—the awards tended to grow more unruly. To wit: “Westworld’s” Thandie Newton as Best Supporting Actress in a Drama; “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as Best Reality-Competition Series; “The Americans'” Matthew Rhys as Best Actor in a Drama; “Saturday Night Live” as Best Variety Sketch Series.

OK, that last prize was easy to predict weeks out from the ceremony. But it felt mildly startling in the midst of it, as an Emmys built around the talent of “Saturday Night Live” came to be defined by everything else other than its hosts and organizing conceit. Much of television was elevated as “SNL” came to seem diminished—with hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost, whose low-key schtick is familiar from “Weekend Update,” failing to raise the energy of the room or even to claim the room as their own. They ceded valuable real estate in the show to Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, doing cute but not-quite-necessary work as video commentators whose “bit” was that they didn’t know anything about the Emmys. More confusing still was the show’s opening, featuring among others Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson in a production number about how far television had to come and how far it has yet to go as regards inclusion. The hosts were absent, and entered minutes later into an ongoing show pursing their hands nervously and telling somewhat smirky jokes that felt far less pointed than the ones their own colleagues had just carried off.

No matter; the Emmys remain a bauble passed between broadcast networks (even as NBC, bound to broadcast higher-rated football on Sundays, punts them to a Monday), and they’ll inevitably be used as a vehicle to promote the face a network chooses. While it felt like a missed opportunity that Che and Jost were not better-prepared for such a big look, they’re bound, as the faces of an extremely valuable and heavily leveraged NBC property, to get more chances.

Thank a slate of winners fueled in large part by sheer shock for enlivening a dull ceremony. (The choice to cut back on presenter banter by playing actors’ clips before the presenters took the stage seemed like a welcome time-saver at first, but came to make the show feel airless between gleeful speeches.) Honorees created moments that felt bigger than the show encasing them, with special mention going to Henry Winkler, a Hollywood veteran honored for the first time for “Barry” (“I only have 37 seconds, I wrote this 43 years ago,” the actor said); Newton, an incandescent wit whose presence on an awards stage is long overdue; and the writers of “The Americans,” whose children’s unabashed and unalloyed joy as they leapt to their feet to applaud felt like a dispatch from a world less cynical than Che’s and Jost’s. Even the momentary awkwardness of the stage management of a presentation by Betty White, in which she thanked the Hollywood community for their decades of support, gave way to deeply felt emotion and meaning.

That White was a lost emissary from another era of TV—one in which, among other things, everyone watched three channels and earnestness reigned—felt all too clear. Moments of enthusiasm tended to get dampened by the hosts: “I just want to remind everyone that Jeff Daniels thanked his horse,” Michael Che said, referring to Daniels’s win for acting in the Netflix limited series “Godless.” Well, why not? Daniels beat back fairly tough competition; he’d earned the right for a moment of pure oddity and serendipity in a celebratory speech. But there was little else to call out for an audience that, in a fractured age, cannot be counted on to have heard of “Godless” at all. Less-commented-on by the hosts, but equally as effective in creating an alternate mood for the night, were speeches by Ryan Murphy (for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”) and by RuPaul making clear and concise arguments about gay rights—up to and including, in RuPaul’s case, the right to self-esteem. The show, which too often stood simply for self-regard, felt effectively punctured at moments like these, and its question of inclusion, though certainly not fully answered, felt meaningfully addressed.

But if what one always remembers from awards ceremonies is not the hosts but the winners, this year’s Emmys provided a feast of the unexpected, culminating in a nail-biter finale that will only be resolved a year from now. Netflix, able to claim winners from “Queer Eye” to “Black Mirror” to “Seven Seconds” to “Dave Chappelle: Equanimity” to “The Crown” (for which Claire Foy’s win, in her final year of eligibility, was both a worthy surprise and a sign of the streamer’s power to push towards a win in a crowded field, even if it hasn’t yet claimed a top prize), is excelling at a volume game. HBO, reliant for wins largely upon “Barry,” “Westworld,” and “Game of Thrones,” has long trusted a boutique strategy that’s only now being meaningfully tested for bragging rights. For now, an uneasy equilibrium reigns. The show’s diversity of platforms and fundamental ideas of what an Emmy-worthy show can look like feels almost unrecognizable when compared to ceremonies from the start of this decade. Here’s to next year.

More TV

  • NBCU Cooks Up Brazil Deal for

    NATPE: NBCU Cooks Up Brazil Deal for ‘Top Chef’

    Brazilian network Record is adding “Top Chef” to its menu. The popular cooking competition format is on NBCUniversal’s Bravo in the U.S. where it is in its sixteenth season. The format deal with Record will take the number of international remakes of the show to 24. Recent deals include with ProSiebenSat.1 in Germany. NBCUniversal’s International [...]

  • Almoço final de ano 2013 -

    Natpe: ‘Brazil Avenue’s’ Joao Emanuel Carneiro on ‘Second Chance’

    MIAMI — To be presented Tuesday at Natpe by Globo, “Second Chance” marks “Central Station” co-screenwriter Joao Emanuel Carneiro’s second telenovela after “Brazil Avenue,” which he also created. Those are pretty hard acts to follow. Directed by Walter Salles, “Central Station” was nominated for two Academy Awards, foreign-language and best actress for Fernanda Montenegro: “Brazil [...]

  • American Son review

    'American Son' Set for Netflix Adaptation With Kerry Washington, Original Broadway Cast

    The Broadway play “American Son” is set to be adapted for Netflix. Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee will reprise their roles in the Netflix production. Kenny Leon returns to direct and produce, with Jeffrey Richards and Rebecca Gold serving as producers. Washington and Pilar Savone of Washington’s Simpson Street banner will [...]

  • Anthony Scaramucci to participate in the

    Anthony Scaramucci Light on Trump Talk in 'Celebrity Big Brother' Premiere

    CBS reality show “Big Brother” loves to tell its audience to “expect the unexpected,” but things went pretty much according to the assumed with Anthony Scaramucci on the second season premiere of the celebrity edition of the show. Right from his introductory package, Scaramucci had to acknowledge he was fired from the White House, “for [...]


    Tyler Perry: 6 Lessons He Shared at NATPE's 'Living the Dream' Summit

    MIAMI — Tyler Perry took time out of his “Madea’s Farewell” live stage tour and spent his Martin Luther King Jr. holiday giving an inspiring speech to aspiring producers and students gathered here for the annual NATPE convention. Perry was the keynoter Monday at the conference’s first ever “Living the Dream: A Career in Content” session [...]

  • Why Megan Mullally Won't Talk Politics

    Q&A: Why Megan Mullally Won't Talk Politics While Hosting the SAG Awards

    Megan Mullally is funny. The “Will & Grace” star can also sing and dance. While she’s not picking up the Oscar hosting gig after the Kevin Hart fiasco, Mullally will take center stage on Sunday, Jan. 27 when she makes her debut as the host of the 25th annual SAG Awards. Variety caught up with [...]

  • New England Patriots running back Sony

    CBS and Fox Cheer Big Turnout for NFL Conference Championships

    Sunday’s AFC and NFC championship games were nail-biters that went into overtime and sent viewership into overdrive. CBS harvested a whopping 53.9 million viewers as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady led his team to their third consecutive Super Bowl berth in a hard-fought primetime game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Viewership for the AFC [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content