This is us, up to our eyeballs in great television, and grateful for the distraction. Host Stephen Colbert stuck to this theme in his jaunty opening musical number at Sunday's exuberant 69th Primetime Emmy Awards show on CBS. "My HBO Go password is SEXBOT 1-2-3," he sang. "The world's a little better on TV."
He was joined in cameo appearances from the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale of "Veep," along with a dancing kick line of chorus girls in "Handmaid's Tale" robes and bonnets. The overall message this Emmy night? Hey, America, there's never been a better time to tune out reality by tuning into — and collapsing into the comfort of — your multiple TV screens. Unload your anxieties by sticking to the couch. It's an embarrassment of riches, luring even the biggest schtars into its fold.
"I think there are more movie stars here tonight than there were people who saw movies this summer," Colbert joked at one point, acknowledging a long emerging and now universal truth: TV is on top of the world — and don't they all know it. Even Oprah Winfrey, handing out the night's final award, called television "the great survivor." Isn't it, though?
Big winners included Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," which won for best drama series. Its star Elisabeth Moss won for lead actress. It also won supporting actress (Ann Dowd), writing and directing. Sterling K. Brown won for lead actor (and unfortunately discovered that the producers weren't kidding around with that walk-off orchestra cue) for NBC's family drama "This Is Us." HBO's "Big Little Lies" won for limited series.
Nicole Kidman won best actress for "Big Little Lies" in a category so filled with great actresses and performances that it brought this Emmy night up to Oscar-level anticipation and wattage. (In the male acting category for limited series or movie, Riz Ahmed won for HBO's "The Night Of.")
Louis-Dreyfus won again — the sixth consecutive time — for her acting work in HBO's "Veep," a record that is less for TV fans to examine and more a job for physicists who study award-show inertia. ("Veep" also won for best comedy series.) Donald Glover won for lead actor in a comedy for his FX series "Atlanta" (he also won a directing Emmy).
"I didn't know you could applaud and pat yourselves on the back at the same time," Colbert said, after noting that Emmys this year had again improved its diversity record, reflected in this year's nominees. A segment midway through the show self-saluted TV's effort to add more stories about everyone, made by and starring everyone. Trust your TV critic (and a chorus of millions on the ol' Twitter machine) when he says that TV still has about a million miles to go in this regard, but, yes, hooray for progress.
As if to underscore that point, the very next thing to happen was the comedy writing award, which went to Netflix's "Master of None" co-stars and writers Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe. Waithe is the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing on a comedy series (the first one ever to be nominated, for crying out loud, all the way in 2017), which she accepted with emphatic style and grace. For it is one thing to see diversity in the acting categories, which Emmy audiences are accustomed to. The real progress is finally beginning to happen behind the scenes, where shows are conceived, written, produced and directed.
President Trump, as expected, was the subject of most of the evening's jokes. How could he not be, given his well-known resentment of being overlooked for an Emmy back when he was mostly just a reality-TV star? How could he not be, given Hollywood's practically unanimous distaste for Trump — to the point that the new season of "American Horror Story" has channeled Trump anxiety and fear into a murderous cult of clowns inspired by the national mood? "He's the reason I'm probably up here," said Glover in one of his acceptance speeches — noting that black people have been made "No. 1 on the most-oppressed list."
"I suppose I should say at long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy," Alec Baldwin said, tauntingly, as he accepted the supporting actor in a comedy Emmy for playing Trump on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" — a role that will probably follow both men to the grave. (In SNL symmetry, cast member Kate McKinnon won best supporting actress in a comedy; she played Hillary Clinton during the same ratings-busting season, including that memorable denouement to the election, when McKinnon's Clinton sat at a piano and sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah.")
Colbert's "Late Show" struggled to find its voice until Trump's election — now it's on top. His jokes about the president seemed sufficient, perhaps obligatory. It was a nice touch to have former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who is currently on a self-effacing publicity-rehab tour of talk shows, come out with a podium and insist that Sunday's telecast would be the most watched Emmy Awards show in history, period.
Reflectively, perhaps even seriously, Colbert posited that America might have a different president if Emmy voters could only have seen fit to give an award to Trump. After all, he could have been just another of television's unlikable male protagonists. "You liked Walter White," Colbert said. "He's just Walter Much-Whiter."
But it's not just Colbert and other late-night hosts who've benefited. (Why else would Emmy voters respond so resolutely to "The Handmaid's Tale," perhaps finally forgetting one of their habitual favorite dramas, "House of Cards.")
It's hard to imagine that not so many years ago, many of the jokes on Emmy night were about the encroaching death of television. Now? "Netflix alone raked in 92 Emmy nominations this year," Colbert noted in his opening monologue. "And may I remind you five years ago their hottest show was a scratched DVD of 'Finding Nemo.' "
It was the first Emmy night in a long time (maybe ever) in which everything that was nominated seemed more than deserving. Some losses were difficult to process (not a damn thing for FX's "Feud: Bette and Joan"?) but the fact remains, we've probably never had it so good.