Brow Beat

The 2015 Emmys Reminded Us That the Emmys Can Be Good TV

This was actually the Emmy Awards at its best.

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Once upon a time, so they say, America used to watch television more or less together. With a handful of networks showing a handful of shows to huge audiences there was a real TV monoculture, characterized by series that almost everyone had seen at least once or twice. These days, America still watches TV, but not as one. Hundreds of shows on hundreds of networks play for small audiences. If there’s any TV monoculture left, it is characterized not so much by any one show as by a sensation—the sensation of not watching something we should be.

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The Emmys, well-hosted by Andy Samberg, homed in on this from the start. The show began with a funny pre-taped bit celebrating the reality of #peakTV: there’s so much to watch (including 40-plus shows about wives), the only way to do it is to hole up in a bunker for a year, and even then you might forget to watch all of Castle. It was a funny, canny beginning. In this particular TV moment, the only thing the Emmys can be sure we all share is the sense that we’re missing out on something.

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Still, there is at least one show that still commands a huge audience. Its ratings may be down and people may love to complain about it, but year after year, we have the communal experience of watching it. And that show is the Emmys. Tonight’s Emmys, like, all awards shows, dragged dreadfully in places—the second hour of award shows is a real killer—but it did what an awards show needs to do: deliver a handful of memorable moments, from Jimmy Kimmel noshing on an award’s envelope, to Regina King’s surprise win, to Samberg motorboating a giant Emmy statue’s tush. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good show.

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Samberg’s monologue may not have played great in the room, but was funny, sharp and goofy, like Samberg. (See, in particular, his joke that Arnold Schwarzenegger should really host To Catch a Predator.) As Bob Odenkirk joked in the pre-taped bit, being an Emmy host requires Samberg to “get out there and tell some culturally relevant but not too edgy jokes.” But Samberg slowly worked his way up to some edge, starting by picking on books—“suck it books”—before turning to race and diversity, an arc that ultimately mirrored the shape of the evening, which climaxed with Viola Davis’ powerful speech on the same subject.

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Samberg noted that this was “the most diverse Emmys in Emmy history,” which was, he observed, not saying much. He cracked about Donald Trump: “Donald Trump seems racist. … What else?” And he finished by getting downright tawdry by Emmys standards when he remarked about Paula Deen’s upcoming appearance on Dancing With the Stars: “If I wanted to see an intolerant lady dance, I would have gone to one of Kim Davis’ four weddings. It’s ironic she came out of jail to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ when you consider how many dudes have boned to that song.”

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After the opening monologue, hosts usually disappear. But Samberg made some clutch appearances in the dreaded midsection of the show. He showed up in a pre-taped riff on the Mad Men finale and got Tatiana Maslany to fight Tony Hale on the red carpet for a can of beans. Those bits weren’t particularly funny, but they at least broke up the Olive Kitteridge and Daily Show sweep.

Those sweeps reflected a change in the Emmy’s voting system. You can read a more detailed explanation from Todd Van Der Werff here, but the short version is that, in the past, awards were handed out by a small group of people who had watched all of the nominated shows, and this year they were handed out by a large group of people who had maybe watched all of the nominated shows. The old way of doing things made the Emmys resistant to sweeps but sweet on repeat winners. The new way of doing things seemed like it might encourage sweeps, but also freshen up the acting categories.

The new structure in fact did both of these things. The new system lent itself to sweeps or near sweeps, for Veep, Game of Thrones, Olive Kitteridge, and The Daily Show (which really robbed the more deserving Last Week Tonight). Allison Janney and Julia Louis-Dreyfus appear to be beloved by Emmy voters no matter who is voting. (A nice side-effect of all the good TV: Even when the most deserving person loses, the winner is still really great.) But a number of new winners were in the mix too. Jon Hamm finally won the Emmy he so richly deserves; Amy Schumer and her smoky eyes were victorious in a new category; Regina King awesomely, and unexpectedly, took home an Emmy for her work in American Crime; and Viola Davis won for How to Get Away with Murder.

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It was a good night for diversity. King and Davis’ win, along with Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba’s repeat win—now in a drama, not comedy category—meant it was a unprecedentedly good night for black actresses. Transparent took home two awards early in the night, with Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor both giving touching speeches about trans rights. Soloway, in a polka dot suit with shoulder pads, remarked: “We don’t have a trans tipping point, we have a trans equality problem” before directing viewers to a website to help do something about it. Tambor, who won despite Jimmy Kimmel chewing up his envelope—a bit of silliness it looked like everyone found more amusing than Tambor—ended his speech by thanking the trans community for “your patience, for your courage. Thank you for letting us be part of the change.”

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But the speech of the night was Davis’, who won for best actress in a drama, the first time a black woman has won the award. Davis took the moment seriously and came prepared with a powerful speech. “The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy simply for roles that aren’t there,” she said, going on to thank her fellow black actresses and the people she works with who are “redefining what it means to be beautiful, sexy, to be black.” Davis’s speech was moving and meaningful—exactly the sort of thing we keep watching the Emmys, year after year, to share.

Read more in Slate about the Emmys.

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