Variety’s TV Critics Break Down the Highs and Lows of 2019 Emmys

Jharrel Jerome accepts the award for
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutt

It may have been a listless ceremony, but the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards picked up steam as a bevy of surprise winners came to dominate the evening.
These fresh faces livened up the occasion, but it remains to be seen whether their victories mean a fundamental shift in the way the Television Academy votes is taking place. Here, Variety’s television critics discuss the highlights — and lowlights — of the night’s proceedings.

Daniel D’Addario: Hail “Fleabag”! I’m still stunned as I write this that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Amazon Prime Video series performed as well as it did on Emmy night, winning prizes for Waller-Bridge’s writing and acting, Harry Bradbeer’s directing and — startlingly, given its more established opposition — comedy series. It beat Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and HBO’s “Veep,” the two most recent winners of the award — quite a feat for a series whose 2016 first season was not recognized by the Academy at all.

The twist outcomes, like Jodie Comer beating “Killing Eve” castmate Sandra Oh, were what made the night for me. And even an expected outcome felt like a surprise: “Game of Thrones” seemed thrillingly vulnerable when it lost drama writing and directing prizes (to “Succession” and “Ozark,” respectively), and then its show-closing drama series win was a return to normalcy.

I suspect the Emmy producers wanted a bigger going-away party for “Thrones” than they got: The ensemble cast was brought onstage to deliver a speech about what the show meant to them before they presented the supporting actress in a limited series award together. And with multiple bits of in-show “The Masked Singer” promotions, the telecast seemed to urgently want to be whatever “big tent” can even mean in 2019.

Caroline Framke: The awkward pomp and circumstance of bringing the “Thrones” and “Veep” casts onstage to say goodbye, only for them to win vanishingly fewer awards than expected (and in the case of “Veep,” none at all!) is the neatest encapsulation for these Emmys that I can think of. Without a host, Fox’s production opted for a loose theme of “goodbyes,” and somehow committed to it both too strongly and not strongly enough. I’m sure HBO was happy for the free promo, but those moments were bizarre and clumsy. Then again, maybe I should just be grateful that Fox didn’t make Julia Louis-Dreyfus dance with the “Masked Singer” flamingo, a fate that a frantically singing Adam Devine wasn’t so lucky to avoid.

I genuinely can’t remember another Emmy telecast where the gulf between the surprising breadth of winners and actual production value was as vast as it was this year. I won’t forget moments like Waller-Bridge’s shock (or mine!) at her beating Louis-Dreyfus, Billy Porter becoming the first openly gay black man to win lead drama actor, Michelle Williams’ lovely speech about pay inequality, Patricia Arquette paying tribute to her sister Alexis, or Jharrel Jerome raising a fist to the Exonerated Five — but I can’t wait to forget all the tap-dancing in between. Am I being too harsh, Dan? Did you enjoy any aspect of Fox’s host-less Emmys at all?

D’addario: The lack of time expended on a host was time that was spent with winners: I suspect Williams’ speech, for my money the best of the night, would have dwindled in impact had she been fighting the orchestra. And it’s worth considering what we dodged: Fox’s most obvious choice for a host drawn from its talent pool would have been … the cast of “The Masked Singer.” Which might have at least accelerated the end of the Emmys on broadcast.

That’s all the praise I’ve got! I was really struck by how the awards show for TV was, this year, uniquely terrible TV. Thomas Lennon’s riffs on the winners as they walked to the stage felt strangely insulting or just random; the pop soundtrack and iffy, shaky direction often made the show seem outright cheap at a time when TV is more richly funded than ever. Caroline, what do you hope future Emmy producers learn from tonight?

Framke: That having more time to spare doesn’t mean you need to fill it with random nonsense, and that trying to appeal to everyone means appealing to no one. Even watching the show across the country, I could feel the flop sweat of Emmy producers wanting to make sure that anyone tuning in could see something they’d care about. (That random “Here are some other shows that died this year — remember ‘The Big Bang Theory’?!” montage comes to mind.) By the time Viola Davis stepped onstage to explain what television is (I think?), I was fully exasperated.

That’s maybe why, on top of the show truly deserving it, “Fleabag’s” upset wins delighted me so much. The Emmy team knew or cared so little about the series that they had Ben Stiller describe it as “a show about a sex addict” (untrue) and failed to include it in that goodbye montage at all. I’d wager not even Amazon saw this success coming through its pink-colored “Maisel” glasses. The vast majority of the Emmy audience would not have known “Fleabag” before its win, but they sure do now! What other upsets excited you this year, Dan?

D’addario: Jharrel Jerome’s win for “When They See Us” was a deserving honor for an extremely promising young performer who anchors his episode of the limited series. And this isn’t quite an upset, but I thought the Emmys found a smart way around the logjam in the lead limited series actress category by giving that prize to Michelle Williams of “Fosse/Verdon” and honoring Patricia Arquette of “Escape at Dannemora” elsewhere for her supporting work in “The Act.” (I’m sorry that the evening couldn’t find a way to celebrate “Sharp Objects,” but such is the pain of awards telecasts.) Both felt like outcomes put together by a group actually thinking through how best to commemorate the past year in TV instead of voting by default — a bit of a new thing for Emmy! And now that the night’s one big consensus winner, “Thrones,” has concluded, I am hopeful that future years will have as rambunctious and exciting a set of honorees.

Framke: Yes. At the very least, 2019 saying goodbye to some major TV stalwarts will force the Academy to keep getting creative with its nominees and recognize
talent outside the usual sources. Today’s TV landscape is too sprawling and strange and creative for the show honoring it all to play it safe.