Watching Sunday night’s Emmy Awards was a roller coaster. At times, it was exhilarating, with a string of history-making and surprising wins, especially the unexpected dominance of “Fleabag” over presumed front-runner “Veep” in the comedy categories. Yet it was also stomach-turning, with a series of questionable and downright embarrassing moments to fill the hostless ceremony, far less successful than the similarly hostless Oscars earlier this year.
The dissonance between the Emmy awards and the show itself perhaps reflects TV’s broader existential crisis. So many of the night’s wins felt like they were embracing the future of television, honoring diverse performers and creators, and heralding shows that swing for the fences and reinvent the form. But the awards ceremony itself, overstuffed with worn-out bits and interminable montages, was a formulaic relic of the past.
The biggest narrative of the night was the series of surprise wins for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag.” “Veep,” a perennial Emmy favorite, failed to receive what had been expected to be a coronation after the end of its seven-season run.
But it was “Fleabag” that prevailed. In addition to its anticipated win for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, it took home several surprise trophies, including Outstanding Comedy Series.
Based on Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play, the Amazon Prime and BBC sitcom is a seamless blend of tragedy and comedy, punctuated by Waller-Bridge’s signature fourth-wall breaks. Told from an unabashedly feminist perspective, the show dares to make jokes about otherwise taboo topics like miscarriages, while also serving as a powerful meditation on grief, loneliness and uncertainty. “Fleabag” is among a number of inventive comedies, many of them created by women and people of color, that infuse their creator’s singular vision.
On the drama side, Jodie Comer won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for “Killing Eve,” also created by Waller-Bridge. The BBC America drama, about the cat-and-mouse game between MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and assassin Villanelle, recenters the male-dominated genre of crime thrillers, telling it from the female gaze.
The divisive “Bandersnatch,” the create-your-own-adventure episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” which won for Outstanding Television Movie, also marked a new frontier for TV. Netflix is developing similar shows employing the format, including a forthcoming interactive special of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Other streaming platforms are also looking to adopt the formula.
Netflix ended the night with 27 Emmys, while Amazon won 15, increasing the dominance of streaming platforms at the Emmys.
Several history-making winners gave Sunday night’s ceremony some of its most memorable moments. “When They See Us” star Jharrel Jerome became the first Afro Latino performer to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, giving a poignant speech honoring the show’s subjects. Created by powerhouse director Ava DuVernay, the limited series is a searing and humanizing portrayal of the wrongfully convicted teenagers of color formerly known as the Central Park Five. Now, thanks to the series, the men are known as the Exonerated Five.
“Pose” star Billy Porter became the first openly gay Black man to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, for Ryan Murphy’s FX series, one of the first mainstream shows to center transgender people of color. The series contains the largest recurring LGBTQ cast of any scripted show ever.
“I am so overwhelmed, and I am so overjoyed to have lived long enough to see this day. James Baldwin said, ‘It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I had been taught about myself and halfway believe before I could walk around this earth like I had the right to be here,’” Porter said in his rousing acceptance speech. “I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right.”
The jubilant and poignant victories felt like they came from a TV universe separate from the ceremony itself. Aside from a few memorable presenter pairings (get Catherine O’Hara and Amy Poehler their own show, immediately), the awards show was a mess from the very beginning.
There was a head-scratching introduction, with Anthony Anderson “saving” the show by enlisting Bryan Cranston to wax poetic about the power of television. There was montage after montage, including a bizarre “in memoriam”-like segment for shows that ended this year. The moment felt like an afterthought, playing second fiddle to segments that honored the series finales of “Veep” and “Game of Thrones.”
Most befuddling of all, there was the official “announcer,” actor and comedian Thomas Lennon, who doled out a series of embarrassing and stale punchlines, awkwardly providing transitions before and after commercial breaks. At one point, he seemed to acknowledge the absurdity of the gig, giving up midway through another cringeworthy line.
“Are the Emmys woke?” he began. “Or is that just something that was — this is why people don’t do this, because it sucks.”
In an earlier bit, presenters Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel jokingly lamented the show’s lack of a host, and seemed to acknowledge that the formulaic role usually goes to white men like themselves.
“You know who the real victims are here? It’s us. This show sucks. It’s just sad. Hosting is the only thing we know how to do,” Colbert said. “Without a host, who would read the words, ‘You know my next guest from the hit series “NCIS: New Orleans”?’”
“The next thing you know, they’ll start using Alexa to present the nominees,” Colbert joked, before the voice of the Amazon device announced Waller-Bridge as the winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
The idea that future awards shows might be hosted by a robot is certainly extreme. But it serves as an acknowledgment that the Emmys, unlike their winners, are stuck in the past. Next year, the show should try to reflect the diversity and forward-thinking inventiveness of the winners, instead of doing them and the TV audience a disservice with a soulless slog of an evening.