It’s a cliché at this point to observe that there is more TV than ever—not that you would know it from the 73rd Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer Sunday night. For the show’s opening 40 minutes, the evening seemed to be headed towards simultaneous sweeps by Ted Lasso, The Crown, and Mare of Easttown in the comedy, drama, and limited series categories. And though the awards were ultimately distributed to more series than that—Mare even lost Best Limited Series to The Queen’s Gambit—the early monotony suggested there should maybe be an awards show corollary to that cliché: The harder it is for any one show to get attention, the more awards tend to cluster around a few familiar faces.
The broadcast started surprisingly strong: surprising because the buoyant opening number, a rap riffing on the late Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” (“TV, you got what I need”), came off even though the last verse was rapped (or at least lip-synched) by Rita Wilson. The comedic sketches that followed did not have as much—or really any—fizz, the worst of the lot being an incomprehensible bit about the fly on Mike Pence’s hair, a riff on a viral incident from the Vice Presidential Debate nearly a year ago—an eternity in meme time. Others weren’t much better, playing on distant incidents (something about a Super Bowl trophy getting eaten by a shark?) or an expectation that the streaming-allied audience had any idea what’s happening on network TV, specifically Cedric the Entertainer’s CBS show The Neighborhood.
The time when the old-school networks reliably won Emmys in anything but the late night and variety categories is long gone. It’s all just streamers now. Netflix finally won in the overall series categories—hilariously, Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV+ beat them to it—with The Crown sweeping every dramatic award it was up for. Not so long ago, serial dramas used to be the Emmys most prestigious, but the copious quantities of TV have upended that, too. Audiences’ eyeballs (and the marketing dollars) are drawn to the new and shiny, and that means limited series—or shows that purport to be limited series until their popularity makes them recurring ones—are now the medium’s flashiest, something the Emmys acknowledged by making Best Limited Series the final award of the night.
In the limited series categories, Mare of Easttown, a show that at one point everyone was talking about, duked it out with The Queen’s Gambit, another show everyone was talking about, while WandaVision, another show everyone was talking about, got roundly ignored—all alongside a show, The Underground Railroad, that everyone should have been talking about. But at least Emmy voters didn’t totally mess things up by failing to recognize the actual best show of the year, also a limited series. Michaela Coel won the Emmy for best writing in her masterpiece I May Destroy You. If she deserved more, at least she didn’t get less.
Coel’s win and a number of victories for the HBO comedy Hacks were some of the only signs that Emmy voters did not just subsist on buzzy event shows, but occasionally snacked on ones that many people say are very good but are not quite so popular. Hacks, which won best directing and writing awards in addition to the expected victory of its star Jean Smart, kept Ted Lasso from sweeping the comedy categories. Given that Ted Lasso is basically genetically designed to win Emmys—well-made, feel-good fare on the downswing of cacophonous buzz—Hacks’ wins were some of the only real surprises of the night. (Another: Ewan Macgregor’s “Huh!” win for Halston.)
Maybe the night’s greatest tension had to do with cutting speechmakers off. After both Smart and Debbie Allen were played off, Queen’s Gambit’s showrunner Scott Frank notably refused to be, while half an hour later Stephen Colbert much more charismatically kept right on rolling along. Generally speaking, I think speeches should be allowed to go long—they are preferable to, say, sketches about the Mike Pence fly—but the show shouldn’t be playing some people off while letting others filibuster. Frank’s insistence on continuing to deliver what might generously be called a hella trite speech, in particular, came across as entitled. But all the winners should be so empowered.
Maybe next year, the Emmys can fix that. On display all night were other clear attempts to improve what they have previously been bad at. In the parts of the show the producers could control, they went out of their way to showcase diversity, which you could see in the host, the honorary winner, and in the presenters. And yet in a year when nearly half of the nominees in the acting categories were people of color, the winners were still predominantly white. Though it was not quite so egregious when factoring Emmys that had been handed out earlier in week, it is the case that The Crown, Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit, Ted Lasso, and Hacks have largely (if not almost entirely) white casts. If award shows are going to be more and more focused on the shows everyone is paying attention to, they may find “everyone’s” taste is holding them back.