An Emmy Night Full of Surprises Matches TV’s Energy in the Streaming Era (Column)

The 2019 Emmy telecast effectively began with a speech by a star from the recent past: Bryan Cranston, who recalled watching the moon landing on television, noting that the most famous televised event in history made him feel he could “go anywhere — even Albuquerque.”

The reference to the setting of “Breaking Bad,” the past Emmy champ that wrapped in 2013, felt practically as distant as the one to Neil Armstrong. That show, which built in momentum through its five-season run to become a major zeitgeist and popular hit, would have felt odd and out-of-place at this year’s show. And the 2019 Emmys — at least as regards its winners — was better for it.

The surprises at this year’s Emmys painted a picture of a medium in chaos, a maelstrom that the telecast struggled to depict but that core fans of TV could only have cheered. Early wins for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — itself a show whose powerful marketing campaign can tend to elide just how offbeat a presence it is in the TV landscape — gave way to an unexpected streak of dominance for another, lower-key show on the streamer, “Fleabag.” That series’ wins for writing and acting (both to series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and, finally, for best comedy all came at the expense of HBO’s “Veep,” a series that in the past had won three consecutive best comedy prizes. It takes nothing away from the accomplishments of “Veep” to note that an awards show flexible enough to award a reflective six-episode streaming series about one woman’s struggle with family and faith over one of the defining political series of an unsettled political time is being clever, reactive, and — that crucial thing for an awards show worth watching — unpredictable.

The telecast often couldn’t find its way to that sort of curiosity, placing a rote tribute to the achievements of the now-concluded “Veep” after it had become clear that the series was not getting the kind of sendoff for which it might have hoped. But the winners, in familiar surroundings, kept on surprising. Within the dramatic actress category, voters seemed to have waged the debate TV fans outside the Academy have had countless times this past year, and handed the trophy to Jodie Comer, the beneficiary of more interesting material on “Killing Eve,” over her castmate and the prize’s perceived frontrunner, Sandra Oh.

Elsewhere, Patricia Arquette’s mammoth, double-nomination year was acknowledged with an unexpected win for her supporting role in Hulu’s “The Act,” leaving the path clear for Michelle Williams’s intricate and painful work in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” in lead. Ben Whishaw of Amazon’s “A Very English Scandal” and Jharrel Jerome of Netflix’s “When They See Us” won supporting and lead acting Emmys over better-known contenders, cementing the impact of limited series on streaming. And perhaps Billy Porter’s win in the dramatic actor category wasn’t, strictly speaking, a surprise, but think bad: Could anyone watching television in the “Breaking Bad” era have expected a black gay man on a drama with trans women at its center to pick up TV’s top acting prize? (Next year, the Emmys can nominate the actresses with whom he shares the spotlight on FX’s “Pose.”)

The night — but for a lull when HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” took home their honors — seemed to roil with dangerous possibility in precisely the way TV itself has been doing for years now. Shows as fundamentally themselves as “Fleabag” and “Pose” have been getting made for years. (“Fleabag’s” first, Emmy-less season hit Amazon in 2016.) But now they actually stand a chance of recognition on a grand scale, one that still matters and will only matter more the more it actually finds what is great and not merely what is familiar. The night’s other recipient of a major mid-show tribute, HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” seemed for a dangerous and thrilling moment vulnerable after losing writing and directing prizes to “Succession” and “Ozark,” respectively. While a series as big as “Thrones” winning is a just recognition of its place in television history, the chipping-away at its fortunes by two new, scrappy contenders beloved by smaller but devoted factions makes clear its role in the firmament is, indeed, history.

“Succession” and “Ozark” may return next year — or they may not! Suddenly, a ceremony governed by rules as seemingly as unchangeable as the tides seems cracked open. Surprise wins are nothing new for the Emmys, but the pile-up of wins all moving in a direction towards the smaller and the stranger (and, in many cases, the streaming) felt, for lack of a better word, cool. This will be cold comfort to the networks that broadcast the Emmys in the years ahead, as “Fleabag” and “The Act” and “Ozark” are by their nature as much as their delivery system not meant to be consumed by the masses at large. But if the Emmys have a future at all in a world where TV fans could spend a Sunday night in September watching, well, “Fleabag” or whatever is the next “Fleabag,” it’s in keeping loyal those fans who are tuned into what is new, and what is next. This year, they accomplished that.

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