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TV Review: The 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards

Not even deserving upsets could save the scattered, host-less production.

Phoebe Waller Bridge Emmys
Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards had some truly surprising moments, twists that not even the most experienced prognosticators saw coming, moving tributes and calls to action. It’s just too bad that not a single one of them came courtesy of Fox’s production. 

The Emmys are, all things considered, a dependably tame awards ceremony. They don’t have the storied glamour of the Oscars, nor the loose rowdiness of the Golden Globes. So maybe the show’s producers figured that going host-less wouldn’t be quite as big a deal, or at least easier to manage in the absence of any obvious (or willing) candidates. After all, the Oscars pulled it off after Kevin Hart bowed out amidst controversy to deliver one of the smoothest shows in years. Why not the Emmys?

Well. As Fox proved over three shaggy, haphazard hours, skipping out on a host doesn’t automatically make for a sleeker broadcast. In fact, not having a host or some kind of anchor for the proceedings puts more pressure on everything else to provide some kind of through line and maintain the energy for the room and beyond. Instead, what ended up onscreen was a wildly confusing mess of conflicting ideas. The presenter bits only landed when an expert like Maya Rudolph got hold of them. Self-aware jokes about needing to find a host to save the show became manic and uncomfortably apt. Comedian Thomas Lennon did his best to vamp in voice-over, cracking at one point when he tried to make a joke and instead sighed, “this is why no one wants to do this: it sucks.” And as it turns out, trotting out the borderline terrifying “Masked Singer” costumes over and over again, even (especially) when joined by Adam Devine, doesn’t do much but remind everyone just how badly Fox wants “The Masked Singer” to keep working (and also, that an egg man wearing a fried egg as a hat is actually an incredibly disturbing concept).

As Fox president Charlie Collier and Emmy producers said before the show aired, they also wanted to take advantage of not having a lengthier host segment in order to say goodbye to shows that ended in 2019. Reading between the lines, it felt like the show’s way of acknowledging the departure of “Game of Thrones,” an undeniably game-changing series whose final season was nominated for a record number of awards. In reality, the night’s “goodbye” theme was completely strange and unforgivably slapdash. “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” both got cast spotlights and lengthy montages, which became even more awkward when neither show won nearly as many awards as projected. A third montage paying tribute to other final seasons kicked off with “Gotham” (just in case you forgot for a second that this year’s Emmys aired on Fox), included only a small handful of shows. 

There were some genuinely shocking and deserving winners that kept things from getting too dull, including “Killing Eve” breakout Jodie Comer, “When They See Us” phenom Jharrel Jerome, and the “Fleabag” team beating an unusually competitive comedy field for some of the biggest awards of the night. Speeches from Jerome, Michelle Williams, Patricia Arquette, and more found seamless ways to segue into relevant social commentary and calls for compassionate activism, bringing the audience to its feet. These moments were good enough to almost, almost, distract from the fact that just around the corner from these unscripted reprieves lurked some new cringe-inducing bit, or else yet another dead-eyed “Masked Singer” monster to remind us that for as good as TV can be, it can also be a ridiculous waking nightmare.

This story has been updated. An earlier version stated Adam Devine was lip-syncing but has since been corrected because the performer tweeted that he was singing live.

TV Review: The 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards

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