The Award for Awards Show That Actually Got It Right Goes to…the Emmys
Rami Malek said it better than anyone: “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.”
It was a reference to his Mr. Robot character Elliot’s tenuous grip on reality, but as he stood there accepting his Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, it was also the phrase so many viewers had to be whispering to themselves for hours. Throughout last night’s telecast, underdogs like Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany actually won, TV’s growing diversity was celebrated (take that, Oscars), and streaming services proved their method of shaking up the TV model was working by scoring scads of trophies. It felt like a dream.
Sure, Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t the best host, and there was a sense of immobility at the top, as HBO’s Veep and Game of Thrones took home Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series, respectively, for the second year in a row. But overall, surveying the many winners over the course of last night’s ceremony and the Creative Arts Emmys the previous weekend, we got almost everything we wished for but didn’t dare predict out loud. We even got PB&J delivery from the Stranger Things kids and a whip-smart bit from Leslie Jones where she told the folks who protect the Emmy votes they ought to devote their time to securing her Twitter account. An awards show telecast hasn’t had this many hits and so few misses since… well, maybe ever. It was, minus some overkill on the Donald Trump jokes, almost perfect.
Topple the Patriarchy!
In a year when the Oscars were marred by a lack of diverse nominees, leading the Academy to install changes to the nominating process, the Emmys demonstrated that it could award all kinds of performances across the wide range of genres available to viewers.
Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance won for The People v. O.J. Simpson, putting to rest the idea that multiple nominations from one series in each category could split the vote. Sarah Paulson won her first award after six nominations and spent most of her speech dedicating the win to her character’s real-life counterpart and her guest for the evening, Marcia Clark. Regina King won for the second year in a row for American Crime—and the voiceover as she approached the stage highlighted her increasingly prominent career as a television director.
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won for Master of None and proceeded to deliver a speech highlighting Asian stereotypes in popular media. Kate McKinnon became the first current Saturday Night Live cast member to win an individual performance award since Dana Carvey in 1993, and the first female cast member since Gilda Radner in 1978. Louie Anderson won for playing a woman on Baskets. Jeffrey Tambor won for the second year in a row for his portrayal of a trans woman on Transparent then made plea for more trans actors to play trans characters. And his show’s creator Jill Soloway gave perhaps the best acceptance speech in a night full of great ones—shouting out Jeff Bezos before gleefully yelling “Topple the patriarchy!”
It was a seemingly unending array of richly-deserved awards, to the point where the only minor hiccups were Sherlock beating Confirmation for Oustanding TV Movie, and Maggie Smith winning in absentia one last time for her supporting role on Downton Abbey—beating out UnREAL’s Constance Zimmer, The Affair’s Maura Teirney, and Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones. (OK, maybe multiple nominations can split the vote.)
The Nerds Won
If you want to take stock of how much television has changed, look no further than the fact that it was positively quaint to see Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz from NYPD Blue, one of the most-awarded broadcast dramas in one of the medium’s most dependable genres (police procedural), presenting the final award of the night to Game of Thrones, a big-budget fantasy series with CGI dragons and fictional languages.
The sixth season of HBO’s wildly successful adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels wasn’t as widely praised by critics as previous years, but it still won Outstanding Drama series for the second time in a row, and passed Frasier for the most Emmys for a scripted series. If that wasn’t enough, this year’s penultimate episode “The Battle of the Bastards” won six total Emmys, breaking a record for most awards by a single episode previously held by the pilot of E.R. (Kit Harrington also submitted that episode for his nod in Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, the only category where the episode was nominated and did not win.)
Tatiana Maslany, criminally overlooked at the beginning of Orphan Black’s run for her demanding work playing more than 10 different characters, finally won for her leading performance, inspiring many Clone Club dance parties. That’s a win for a hard science-fiction series with mostly female leads (albeit many played by Maslany) on BBC America. It took a long time beating the drum for Emmy voters to pay attention to a little-known network doing unprecedented visual effects work to enhance one actress’ performance, but once they did, Maslany got a nomination last year and took home the Emmy last night.
The aforementioned Malek won for his leading role on Mr. Robot, one of the most tech-savvy (and tech-heavy) series ever to make it on television. And because rigorous research and applying fact-checking to politics are things we value, here’s where we congratulate John Oliver for HBO’s Last Week Tonight. A few years ago, his guest hosting stint while Jon Stewart directed Rosewater showed immense promise, and now many viral video segments later, he has the most vital late-night series on television and a new Emmy to prove it.
Netflix and Amazon Hit the Big Time
The other major development of the night—aside from the unparalleled diversity of the winners—was the continued growth of streaming video services Netflix and Amazon, which not only racked up plentiful nominations, but won an unprecedented number of awards. Both services outdid CBS, NBC, and ABC overall at the Emmys. Now it’s not only the cable networks that are dominating the awards show, it’s the looming deep pockets of companies leading the cord-cutting charge.
Amazon’s Transparent won the same two awards as last year, for Jeffrey Tambor’s lead performance and creator Jill Soloway’s direction. That back-to-back double shows it’s not just a breakthrough for the streaming service—it has staying power. Add those to Creative Arts Emmys for Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle, and Amazon is carving out a respectable foundation from which to continue developing awards-worthy television.
Netflix didn’t have one show surge forward to win a bunch of awards—but that’s actually a healthy development since its nine total Emmys went to six different programs. During the televised ceremony, Ben Mendelsohn surprisingly won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for Bloodline, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won for writing Master of None, and Patton Oswalt won for his latest standup special Talking for Clapping. And at the Creative Arts Emmys, Making a Murderer, Jessica Jones, and the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? all picked up awards. That’s a drama, a comedy, a standup special, a Marvel show, a multi-episode murder mystery documentary, and a documentary film all getting hardware for the same outlet. That varied success demonstrates that the streaming service isn’t just investing a ton of money in original content to pad its existing library—it’s investing a ton of money to out-do its existing library.
And the wildly impressive bounties won by Netflix and Amazon are really where the story of last night’s Emmys comes full circle. Streaming services started their lives offering the back catalogues of major networks, now they’re joining their ranks—and doing it largely by serving diverse audiences who aren’t catered to under the broadcast model. As Laverne Cox pointed out while echoing Tambor’s call for more trans inclusion in TV, “if someone hadn’t taken a chance on me, I wouldn’t be here tonight.” That someone was Jenji Kohan, who created Orange Is the New Black for Netflix. If this year’s Emmys proved anything, it’s that telling stories about under-represented groups no long means taking a chance—it’s the way to success.
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