One of the minor knock-on effects of the insane state of our current politics is that it has imbued award shows with the promise of chaos. Any awards show could get crazy—relatively speaking. How will a staid institution that has historically celebrated the status quo address change? Who will talk politics? Who will just thank their agent? Who will thank their agent and talk politics? The 70th Emmy Awards, as hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che and Colin Jost, took these crazy times and turned them into something humdrum, helped by a set of winners who proposed, thanked their horses, and encouraged women to sit in public bathrooms, but largely avoided politics. Sometimes firecrackers just go pffft.
The show began with what, on paper, must have seemed a deeply relevant idea. SNL’s Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson explained that this was the most diverse Emmys ever, and then proceeded to lampoon that accomplishment by singing “We Solved It”—it being TV’s woeful lack of diversity. With the help of Ricky Martin, Sterling K. Brown, Kristen Bell, and others, they sang and danced about the objectively feeble but relatively impressive gains the Emmys have recently made on matters of representation. (“There were none, now there’s one!”) It was a big spectacle, but something about it fell flat: Self-congratulatory machines apparently don’t turn into slightly more critical self-congratulatory machines without some hiccups. It only got flatter from there.
These Emmys were briskly paced and deeply tepid. Che and Jost, the least famous hosts in almost a decade, were almost willfully unmemorable. They didn’t appear on screen until after the opening song and dance number, and their monologue felt like Weekend Update, if it were delivered standing up, in tuxes, and ignored the biggest media story of the week, the downfall of CBS’s Les Moonves, for more than a decade one of the most powerful men in television. Their best moment came more than halfway through the show and belonged only to Che, an “Emmy Reparations” segment in which he delivered award statues to black actors like Jaleel White, Kadeem Hardison, and Marla Gibbs, who never won Emmys but should have. It could have been a groaner, or worse, but Che and the actors pulled it off: funny, pointed, and even a little sweet.*
Helping Jost and Che out, at least theoretically, were their SNL kin, who featured heavily in the show. In addition to McKinnon and Thompson, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen had a recurring bit as uninformed Emmy historians that was so low-energy that it tanked three times. Will Ferrell presented late in the program and messed around with awkward silence—just as Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer had when they presented, and Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and Benicio Del Toro had when they presented. Even with all the spacily paced jokes, the show ended exactly three hours after it started and felt relatively brisk. A change in how awards were presented—with the nominees announced before the presenters came on stage—kept things moving quickly.
But the early winners, however speedily presented, were particularly dull. The comedy awards, handed out first, were split between Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which won five including best comedy series, and HBO’s Barry, which won both lead and supporting actor. Their dominance swiftly started to feel predictable, and in beating better, more daring shows like Atlanta, they seemed to undermine the very diversity the Emmys claimed to be celebrating: It’s the most diverse Emmys ever, now let’s honor shows about … white performers, one set in the 1950s.
As the night wore on, the winners got more interesting and varied. Regina King won for her performance in Seven Seconds, which was recently canceled by Netflix. Thandie Newton, the best thing about Westworld (maybe the only good thing about Westworld) won as well. The Assassination of Gianni Versace won a number of awards, including for the feverishly great Darren Criss. Ryan Murphy and his silver beard even gave one of the few political speeches of the night. It looked briefly, after two wins, including one for dreamy Welshman Matthew Rhys, that The Americans might be able to take best drama—but that ultimately went to Game of Thrones, which didn’t air a single new episode in 2018. Game of Thrones is definitely not TV’s best drama, but it is its reigning hit drama, and it was a fitting winner for a whatever kind of night.
The best moments of the evening were unscripted: reaction shots from Chrissy Teigen and Brian Tyree Henry during Che and Jost’s mediocre monologue; winner Alex Borstein’s shimmy as she headed toward the stage; a wonderfully sassy shot of Keri Russell; Hannah Gadsby doing her Nanette thing while presenting an award; and, of course, the only thing any one will ever remember from this show (if they remember anything): the live proposal.* After Glenn Weiss won an Emmy for producing the Oscars, he spoke about his mother’s recent death, and then addressed his girlfriend, who he “didn’t want to call his girlfriend anymore.” The crowd went wild. I am very easily vicariously embarrassed by people on television, and I scrunched up really tightly as this proposal went down, but it side-stepped total mortification. Jan Svendsen, Glenn’s girlfriend, seemed genuinely delighted, as did all of the celebrities in the crowd. Here, finally, was the chaos everyone had been waiting for—and even better, happy chaos. Unlike almost everything else at the Emmys, it wasn’t about TV, but it made for good TV anyway.
Correction, Sept. 18, 2018: This article originally misspelled Kadeem Hardison’s last name. It also misspelled Brian Tyree Henry’s first name.