TV Review: ‘68th Primetime Emmy Awards’

Maureen Ryan

This year’s Emmy ceremony did not need dragons to dazzle. 

Sure, as expected, “Game of Thrones” won as best drama. But aside from the awards for “Thrones” and “Veep,” very few of the other wins felt inevitable, though so many throughout the night were admirable or even heartening. Part of the reason the show felt so energetic was because so many of the winners and shows felt new — or new-ish — and there was a freshness to the winners’ excitement. This was not a night dominated by a long slog of expected winners picking up trophies. That alone is a reason to celebrate the 2016 Emmys, which, by some miracle, finished on time. 

Rami Malek, Tatiana Maslany, Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance were all handed Emmys, and two of the white men who picked up awards — Louie Anderson and Jeffrey Tambor — won for their sensitive and thoughtful portrayals of female characters. Maggie Smith won for her portrayal of “Downton Abbey’s” Dowager Countess yet again, but it was one of the few wins that felt predictable. That’s not to say it was undeserved; Smith’s ability to deliver a waspish bon mot is one of the most dependable pleasures of the small screen, and host Jimmy Kimmel was able to make a running joke of the fact that Smith rarely makes it to the Los Angeles ceremony. 

Every awards telecast falters a bit at some point, and one of the most notable things about Sunday’s Emmy ceremony is that its generally brisk momentum significantly delayed that inevitable sag. Around the one-hour mark, just when things might have begun to drag, host Kimmel brought out the kids from “Stranger Things” on their bikes; they handed out snacks to members of the audience (Jimmy’s mom had made quite a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, complete with loving notes that led to a few nicely honed jokes). The audience members might have needed the energy boost at that point, but the show, remarkably, did not.

Even the annual bit in which the accountants from Ernst & Young come out and say a few words felt topical and relevant. Actress Leslie Jones joined them on stage to ask them to guard her Twitter account, which was hacked recently. Given what she’s been through recently, it was great to see Jones get a moment in the sun to display her versatile comedic skills.

Even if the third hour did sprawl a little, in general, the broadcast had a notably lively and uncontrived feel. Of course, many of Kimmel’s jokes and much of the banter between presenters was written ahead of time, but quite a bit of what transpired actually felt spontaneous, which is an accomplishment. The little dialogues written for presenters at awards shows often feel very contrived, and the actors often look pained delivering the corny lines they’re often given, but that wasn’t the case for most of this year’s Emmy broadcast. The writers did a solid job of figuring out what kinds of material would work best for each presenter, and pairs like Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn looked and felt relaxed and at ease with each other. And when Henry Winkler came out and spoke about his mentor and friend Garry Marshall, the protean TV creator who died this year, that moment, which also introduced the annual In Memoriam segment, felt both heartfelt and spontaneous.

Aziz Ansari appeared to throw out his prepared lines when he took the stage to present an award about midway through the ceremony. Having lost a chance earlier to speak when “Master of None” won a comedy writing award, he said he had wanted to thank his parents, and he joked that his father, who appeared on the show, was mad about his Emmy snub.

Parents were thanked a lot, as were spouses, agents, and various TV executives. And yet most of the speeches were short and sweet, and some were downright moving. Malek looked stunned when he won the best actor in a drama award, but he offered up a priceless line lifted directly from the show he stars in, “Mr. Robot”: “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.” After years of playing multiple characters with stunning versatility, Maslany’s excitement at winning was also infectious, and it helped that these surprise victories came in the last third of the broadcast. Sure, most folks might have expected “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” to win, but for two-and-a-half hours before those wins arrived, it often felt like anything could happen. As any longtime awards-show viewer can tell you, that’s not exactly how these things usually feel. 

Some of the credit for the energy of the night goes to the fresh and varied array of winners, which reflect TV’s necessary (and unfinished) quest for diversity in front of and behind the cameral. But a good deal of the credit for the night’s overall success should go to Kimmel, whose pointed and funny monologue set the tone for the night. Not only were most of his jokes on point and on target, I’m still giggling at the moment in which he handed David Schwimmer, who played Robert Kardashian in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” a series of juice boxes. One might have hoped for a supercut of all the times Schwimmer’s character said “Juice,” but this was a broadcast without too much time for digressions like that. 

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” was obviously one of the night’s big winners, as was the idea that diversifying voices, creators and casts can result in a great deal of Emmy success. Two of the three directors who won in the major television categories — comedy, drama, and miniseries — were women (“Transparent’s” Jill Soloway and Susanne Bier of “The Night Manager”). And the number of white women, men of color, and women of color who won was not small. White guys won too, and none more deserved than John Oliver, who finished his acceptance speech in record time and asked to be played off. Patton Oswalt won for a comedy special and he thanked two people in particular — his daughter, and his wife, Michelle McNamara, who passed away recently. His daughter was waiting at home, Oswalt said, and his wife was “waiting somewhere else, I hope.”

It was a short, moving speech on a night full of winners who appeared to be by turns surprised, happy, amazed, and shocked. Kimmel held it all together well, and I didn’t even need the chyrons that occasionally popped up at the bottom of the screen, i.e., “Tom Hiddleston in 16 minutes.” It was exciting enough without waiting for Loki to turn up.

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