Monday night’s Primetime Emmy Awards show on NBC opened with a clever song-and-dance number exuberantly called “We Solved It,” touting the diversity of this year’s nominees, with the twist being that nothing’s solved.
Want proof? Make way for a bunch of awards for a comedy about a white Jewish woman trying to reinvent herself in 1950s New York!
That would be Amazon’s quite enjoyable “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which took Emmys for comedy series, supporting actress (Alex Borstein), writing and directing for creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and lead actress for Rachel Brosnahan — pronounced “Buh . . . Brazh-na-hahn,” by presenter Angela Bassett, who, like many of us, might have been hoping for a different winner, or was at least unprepared to say Brosnahan’s name.
The night seemed slightly at odds with its own cultural expectations. Nearly devoid of jokes about President Trump (which the president should definitely take as a sign that a corner has been turned, if the awards shows have lost interest and the strident acceptance speeches have cooled), it instead made light of the industry’s own ability to pat its back over some notable progress in how TV is made, who makes it, and who stars in it.
While co-presenting a comedy acting award, actor Tracy Morgan remarked that “I’m only rooting for the black people.” In a later sketch, co-host Michael Che presented “reparations Emmys” to black sitcom actors of yore — Marla Gibbs of “The Jeffersons,” Jimmie Walker of “Good Times,” Kadeem Hardison of “A Different World,” Jaleel White of “Family Matters” and others.
The show’s funniest joke, in the opening monologue with co-hosts Che and Colin Jost, was about a show like FX’s “Atlanta,” only it’s about white people and it’s called “15 Miles Outside of Atlanta,” which, Jost said, “focuses on white women who call the police on the cast of ‘Atlanta.’ ”
All funny bits, sure. But aside from giving Emmys to Thandie Newton (supporting actress in “Westworld”), Regina King (lead actress in a limited series for Netflix’s “Seven Seconds”) and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (reality-competition program), voters in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences managed to select winners that looked pretty much like any Emmy night from five years ago.
Besides “Maisel,” the night’s big awards went to “Game of Thrones” for best drama series and FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” for limited series.
Claire Foy picked up the best actress (drama) award for her swan song as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s “The Crown.” (Olivia Colman will take over as an older Elizabeth when the show returns). Matthew Rhys won for best actor (drama) in the final, superb season of FX’s “The Americans.”
Other acting awards went to Bill Hader (lead actor in a comedy) for his surprisingly moving role as a hit man in HBO’s “Barry”; Peter Dinklage, for supporting actor in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — his third time winning for that role; and Darren Criss (lead actor in a limited series in the “Versace” thing).
The show played things pretty much by the book — entertaining but not memorable. Che and Jost (the current anchors of “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update) kept things capably moving without any threat to the rafters. A sampling:
Jost: “Netflix, of course, has the most nominations tonight. If you’re a network executive, that’s the scariest thing you can possibly hear, except ‘Sir, Ronan Farrow is on line one.’ ”
Che: “ ‘Black-ish’ is also how I’ve been asked to behave tonight. We’ll see how that goes.”
Jost, on Netflix’s staggering growth, with $8 billion being spent adding series and films to its catalogue: “Eight billion, it just makes me realize that the show I pitched them must have really sucked. It’s like being turned down for a CVS rewards card.”
The show’s highlight might have been the ceremony’s special honor for 96-year-old Betty White, who has been working in TV since there was TV — 1949, the same year the Emmys started. Viewers may have held their breath slightly, seeing White reach haltingly for words in a way that seemed somewhat diminished, yet still comical. Her overwhelmedness is perfectly understandable in a nonagenarian facing a live auditorium and a TV audience that loves her to pieces. “All I can say is, it’s such a blessed business to be in, and how lucky can I be?”
For all the jokes about the end of television (they’ve made those jokes at every Emmys since at least 2009), longevity was a fitting sub-theme of Monday’s proceedings. Aside from White’s gratitude and grace, it was Lorne Michaels, accepting SNL’s zillionth Emmy (for best variety sketch series), who reminded the audience that TV — as a platform, as a business — has been on the endangered list since he started the show in 1975.
Aside from giving the top-quality networks and streaming sites a chance to tout their nomination totals (and boast about their wins), do the Emmys really mean much anymore? It’s all in the beholder. Although we tend to forget who won this year’s awards by the end of the week, the Emmys may prove useful as a way of sorting the best (or better) television shows from the other 450 or so scripted dramas and comedies that float past on a river that is now always at flood stage.
As the experience of watching television becomes increasingly fragmented, the Emmys can and should perform the necessary function of affirming one’s personal taste in what to watch. TV is starting to look a lot like the vast supply of music and books, where nobody really listens to the same stuff or reads the same stories. In 2018, it can feel as if nobody’s watching what you’re watching. A lot of that has to do with the dizzying array of platforms and subscriptions.
If you have only Netflix, you’re missing what’s on Hulu or Amazon. If you’ve cut the cord, you likely live in a place where there’s no longer such a thing as a prime-time broadcast comedy or drama. (Though let me assure you, there are plenty.) It’s entirely possible now to find a new streaming show, binge it like a freak, and then start raving about it in your social networks or in person — only to be met with virtual or actual blank stares. In this case, an Emmy win can validate your devotion.
See? Didn’t I tell all of you how good “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was, months and months ago? The Emmys, diverse or never diverse enough, can at least make one’s wild kvelling come true.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly attributed the delivery of the "15 Miles Outside of Atlanta" joke to co-host Michael Che and incorrectly titled the show “15 Miles North of Atlanta.” The joke was delivered by the show's other host, Colin Jost. The review has been updated with the correct attribution and title.