Midway through the 71st Emmy Awards, Frank Scherma, the chairman and CEO of the Television Academy, insisted that TV is still bringing us together. “Television has the power to bring out the best in us, make us laugh together, dangle off cliffs together. …This platinum age of TV continues to provide us with something we crave: common ground.” Rather than coming across as (just) hot air on television’s behalf, Scherma’s remarks sounded defensive.
It is, after all, a very volatile time in the TV business. The Emmy’s commercial breaks were full of sumptuous ads for deep-pocketed, brand new streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+, as well as the still relatively new Netflix and Amazon Prime, that have upended the status quo. As the transition from terrestrial to streaming platforms accelerates, people are still going to continue watching lots of TV, but the thing they’re not going to be doing—the thing they’re already not doing much of—is watching it together.
The 2019 Emmys, which aired on Fox, were a perfect example of what’s great about this new TV landscape—lots of extremely talented and deserving winners on various platforms, a freaky amount of whom are British—and also why it’s going to continue to fragment so long as the legacy networks keep exhibiting a kind of basic incompetency at meat-and-potatoes TV like splashy award shows. The show itself was a nothing, full of forgettable bits, janky montages, a gauche amount of Fox self-promotion, and only a modicum of spectacle. This was an Emmys without a host, too many Masked Singer shoutouts, way too many in memoriams for ended TV shows (three separate segments about various just-finished series!), and basically nothing funny or witty about it. (Apologies to Thomas Lennon, who as the person cracking wise while the winners walked to the stage, drew the short straw, and did his best.) But it was also an Emmys that celebrated Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jodie Comer, Billy Porter, Bill Hader, Drag Race, Jharrel Jerome, Patricia Arquette, Succession, Chernobyl, and Michelle Williams. In other words, it’s a show whose badness was masked by the voters, who had the good taste to award Emmys to people who deserved Emmys.
Two awards in, it seemed like the Emmys might turn into a Mrs. Maisel rout. This was a feint. If anything, it was a Fleabag rout, but one that was extremely generous about handing out awards to a wide variety of people and projects. A few years ago, I wrote that Emmy voters were beginning to behave more like TV watchers in general: with catholic and widespread taste. That was true again tonight. Instead of just voting for the one show in all categories, there seemed to be a more democratic instinct, a willingness to spread the wealth around.
Veep was expected to pick up its fourth consecutive Best Comedy win for its final season, and another Best Actress for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who’d won for every one of its six previous seasons, but Emmy voters couldn’t resist Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ Fleabag. Jodie Comer’s win in another Waller-Bridge-created show, Killing Eve, in particular made me feel like people were actually watching the series: How else would they know how delightfully batty and charming Comer’s sociopath is? Game of Thrones, the biggest show in television for years now, won Best Drama—but lost most of the rest. Ozark won two Emmys, but not too many. Even the near sweeps were nicely punctuated. The deserving Chernobyl seemed poised to take all the limited series Emmys, but then best actor went, not to Chernobyl star Jared Harris, but to Jharrel Jerome for Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, leading to one of the most heartfelt and moving speeches of the night, when Jerome shouted out the exonerated five, formerly known as the Central Park Five, from the stage.
No matter how bad or good the show, the winners and their speeches are usually what are remembered. And there were plenty of those: Patricia Arquette’s grief-stricken, heartbroken remembrance of her sister Alexis and her call for trans rights; Billy Porter’s exuberant, loving speech (and his hat); Waller-Bridge’s moment of acknowledgment for the hot priest; Michelle Williams’ deep, well-prepared remarks on the importance of valuing women’s work—especially financially. But there was nothing else to remember. It was a kind of anti-show, give or take a funny bit from national treasure Maya Rudolph: a barebones structure for handing out gold hardware and not much else. There is lots of great television out there—but the Emmys themselves aren’t it.