The 2016 Emmys Were a Triumph

Of diversity, good jokes, and good taste.

Rami Malek accepts his Emmy for Mr. Robot on Sunday night.

Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

The recently completed 68th annual Emmy Awards were very good. It feels strange to type that sentence. The Emmys were very good? The Emmys—hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, still one hour too long, and ending with Game of Thrones winning Best Drama over the far more deserving The Americans—were very good? Yes, indeed, the Emmys were very good.

The realities of Peak TV mean that not all good television can get its due. But this year, anyway, it also meant that what got its due was mostly good. From the moment Louie Anderson was announced as the night’s first winner for his wonderful but little-seen performance in FX’s Baskets, the Emmys announced themselves as having pretty good taste. Kimmel presided over a lithe show full of stacked categories that only bogged down in the last hour, making way for an unprecedented number of deserving, if sometimes surprising, winners and great speeches. Kimmel had some sharp moments: an opening montage, for example, that saw him trying to hitch a ride to the Emmys from James Corden, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jeb(!) Bush, in a deadpan but very well-written cameo. But for about an hour stretch, when The People v. O.J. Simpson was cleaning up in the limited series categories, Kimmel’s contributions—as well as the banter from other presenters—were kept to a minimum, so the winners could do their thing.

And do their thing they did, in a series of speeches that were remarkably political, without necessarily touching on the election. Yes, the ebullient Courtney B. Vance ended his speech with “Obama out! Hillary in!” Kimmel roasted The Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, who had a rictus grin pasted on his face, for creating Donald Trump. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, her hand shaking, mourning the recent death of her father, apologized for the current “political climate … Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. It started as a satire, but it now feels like a sobering documentary.”

But the politics in the speeches weren’t only geared at the election. Master of None’s Alan Yang encouraged Asian parents to give their kids cameras instead of violins, so that the 17 million Asian Americans in this country, who deserve more than Long Duk Dong, could be as well-represented as the 17 million Italian Americans in this country. Sarah Paulson, who won for her outstanding performance as Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson, told Clark, who was in the audience as Paulson’s plus one, that she was sorry for having “been superficial and careless in my judgment,” a rousing coda to The People v. O.J. Simpson’s feminist resurrection of Clark’s reputation. Transparent creator Jill Soloway gave a resoundingly political speech that ended in a call to “topple the patriarchy.” Jeffrey Tambor, who won again for playing Transparent’s Maura Pfefferman, said he would not be “sad if he were the last cisgender male to play a transgender woman on television.”

In his opening monologue, Kimmel noted how relatively diverse the nominees were, before observing, “the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.” Without congratulating the Television Academy too much, these Emmys were diverse, in nominees, winners, and presenters. And as it does with television itself, this diversity made the show better, more vibrant. At a number of moments, the joke was on white guys, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. Kimmel had a twinkle in his eye when he wondered if toppling the patriarchy would be good for him, but Sherlock’s Steven Moffat just seemed clueless when he botched a Jay Z lyric Sterling K. Brown had used to thank his wife. “Contrary to popular belief, I got the hottest chick in the game rocking my chain,” Brown said at the close of his speech, a compliment that was echoed by Vance, who riffed on it to thank his wife, Angela Bassett. But Moffat stumbled with it, before a sheepishly knowing John Oliver bobbled it too, at least aware enough to call this “an impeccably white moment” and then ask to be played off.

The Emmys’ newish commitment, apparent in the nominees, to behaving like someone who likes and watches a lot of television paid off in the ceremony by letting air into the room. First-time winners have enthusiasm and nerves and new passion (not that longtime winners like Julia Louis-Dreyfus don’t). They are excitable in a way Allison Janney and Ty Burrell, at this point, will never be. To all the aforementioned speeches add Kate McKinnon’s, Louie Anderson’s, Rami Malek’s, and Tatiana Maslany’s excitement. Maslany should have won for an earlier season of Orphan Black, but it’s not just the Oscars who can give make-up awards. And though it wasn’t a speech, the indefatigable Leslie Jones was responsible for the only bit featuring award show accountants that has ever been funny.

The only completely bad win, besides Beyoncé losing to Grease: Live, came when Game of Thrones’ “Battle of the Bastards” won in the writing category. Maggie Smith’s umpteenth win for Downton Abbey wasn’t all that great either, but at least it paid off a weirdly long joke from Kimmel’s monologue about how Maggie Smith never shows up to accept her Emmys. It was that kind of night, where even a not-so-great joke turned out better than expected.