Outside of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” doing its best to sweep the comedy awards, the 70th annual Emmy Awards seemed determined to surprise prognosticators. Several winners, including Bill Hader of “Barry” for actor in a comedy series and Regina King of “Seven Seconds” for actress in a limited series were genuinely shocked to end up onstage with a statue in their hands, having gone up against such stiff competition that few predicted their victories. Even the highly anticipated conclusion of the Netflix versus HBO showdown ended in a draw, with both the streaming giant and premium cable favorite each ending the night with 23 wins apiece.
With so much to discuss, Variety’s television critics put their heads together to sift through the results, the production itself and the evening’s implications for the TV industry at large.
Caroline Framke: To be perfectly honest, this year’s Emmys gave me whiplash. There were so many deserving winners, like Henry Winkler finally receiving his first(!) Emmy (supporting actor in a comedy for his work on “Barry”) and “Maisel” mastermind Amy Sherman-Palladino picking up the comedy writing and directing Emmys back-to-back (and indeed, being the first person ever to do so). But there’s also the fact that the night’s most prominent running theme — the TV Academy congratulating itself for a record-breaking number of non-white nominees — quickly became an obvious and awkward thorn in the ceremony’s side, as only a few people of color actually won anything.
As usually is the case, I couldn’t turn off my critical brain when it came to the night’s lackluster framework. As hosts, Michael Che and Colin Jost had a curious, palpable distaste for the occasion. They traded jokes in the same stilted manner they do on “Weekend Update,” even down to ceding the funnier ground to their “SNL” castmates. That opening number (a mocking “We Solved It!” ode to the Academy’s improving diversity stats) showed off the skills of several performers — like Kate McKinnon, Kristen Bell, Tituss Burgess and dramatic actor Sterling K. Brown — who embraced the fun and challenge of playing to the Emmys room like the hosts never did. Yes, hosting a live awards show is a huge task, but from where I was sitting, Che and Jost never bothered to rise to the occasion.
So before we dig into the winners, how did you find the actual show, Dan? Were you as confused as I was?
Daniel D’Addario: I was less confused than annoyed, at least at first. I’m not a fan of Che and Jost’s “Update,” and had low expectations for their performance; the best I can say is that, post-monologue, they tended to stay out of the way of the proceedings. And as the show went on, the eloquent honorees had a tendency to salvage the moment, or create one. Various winners spoke with pleasantly unforced wit and evident excitement. But the emotional high point of the evening may have been the extended wedding proposal by Glenn Weiss, the Emmy-winning director of the Oscars, to his girlfriend Jan Svendsen; it was as though he, a seasoned awards-show maestro, saw that a rudderless, host-deficient night needed a central moment, and created it.
My favorite speech, though, may have come from Thandie Newton of “Westworld,” who deployed shrewd humor in accepting her award for supporting actress in a drama. “I don’t believe in God,” she noted, “but I’m going to thank her tonight.” But I may be biased — Newton’s work on “Westworld” ranks among my favorite performances on television, and I think her award was richly deserved and deliciously unexpected (competing as Newton was against three stars from former juggernaut “The Handmaid’s Tale”). I was also especially delighted at the recognition for Rhys, Hader and (though she defeated the great Keri Russell in both performers’ final year of eligibility) Claire Foy of “The Crown” for actress in a drama. The fun of these wins came, in large part, from the fact that all were, to some degree, surprises, on a night full of them — up until the end, when “Game of Thrones,” absent from the air for so long, roared back to take best drama series.
Framke: I was shocked by that win, though in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been. Though I was rooting for “The Americans,” this year’s drama category was a weird one full of repeat nominees, so it was pretty much anyone’s game.
I was extremely excited for “The Americans” to take home outstanding writing for a drama, since that series finale is one of TV’s best, period. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winning reality competition series was long overdue, not to mention that it finally broke up the category’s otherwise frustrating stasis. And even though her victory seemed so inevitable that it was almost boring, Rachel Brosnahan deserved that actress in a comedy win; “Maisel” wouldn’t work nearly as well without her.
D’Addario: Agreed. That string of “Maisel” wins in the early going — including, wonderfully, for supporting actress Alex Borstein, so good across TV for so long — was welcome, in part because it was removed from the evening’s larger battle. Netflix may once again have missed out on the top categories (and, in the comedy race, to a fellow streaming service), but it fought HBO to a draw in the overall win count. Both HBO and Netflix can claim to share bragging rights. But HBO, the longtime Emmy leader, is hardly accustomed to sharing. (Next year, when their Emmy contenders will include “Sharp Objects,” “My Brilliant Friend,” Season 2 of “Big Little Lies” and the final seasons of “Veep” and “Thrones,” they’ll surely put up a fierce fight against Netflix’s onslaught of programming.) The tie felt epochal, like a moment we’ll look back on as a sign of major changes in the industry, even as so much of this Emmy show was a stale retread.
Framke: That’s certainly what Netflix is banking on, and it’s true that much of the industry is obsessed with what Netflix and streaming can do now — and what networks can’t. (For that subxtet, see Emmys producer Lorne Michaels accepting the “SNL” win for variety sketch series with a morose insistence that broadcast networks are still relevant.)
To keep things in perspective, it’s still noteworthy that HBO put up such a good fight given just how many darts Netflix threw at the board. But it’s also unfair to say that Netflix is only playing a quantity game, especially now that it’s made serious investments in tried-and-true creators like Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris and Ryan Murphy, the latter of whom gave two victory speeches this year (for directing and best limited series for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”). I have a feeling Netflix will officially tip the scales in its favor sooner rather than later.