Variety’s TV Critics Dish on 2016’s Emmy Winners: Did the TV Academy Get It Right?

It was a weird night at the Emmys. Although frontrunners “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “Veep,” and “Game Of Thrones” won the major awards, individual honors in acting and specific callouts for writing and directing went in unexpected directions. Sometimes, those were pleasant surprises, and otherwise, not so much. Last week, Variety critics delivered their favorites and predictions; below, Maureen Ryan and Sonia Saraiya go through the winners, chronologically, and weigh in on whether or not the Academy made the right call. The full winners’ list, including all the nominees, is right here.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Louie Anderson, “Baskets”
Sonia Saraiya: Anderson wasn’t my choice, but it was really hard to not be happy for him.
Maureen Ryan: As it turned out, I was incredibly happy that Anderson won. It clearly meant so much to him, and it’s really common (and nice!) for actors to thank their parents, but Anderson talking about how he lovingly “stole” all of his mom’s personality traits for his character was kind of lovely. One of the themes of the night was “people who made Mo feel emotions,” and I got a bit choked up when he said, “I have not always been a very good man but I play one hell of a woman.”

Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series: Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, “Master Of None” — “Parents”
Saraiya: I loved this acceptance speech from Yang — and it was a pity Ansari didn’t get to say something more onstage. This was a really tough category to have a favorite, though. I was hoping Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan might swoop in out of nowhere.
Ryan: I felt at certain points that I was having an out of body experience. For Alan Yang to get up on stage and say that the 17 million people of Asian descent needed more of their stories to be told (and not stories like the one involving Long Duc Dong) was incredible, and then a few minutes later, “Transparent’s” Jill Soloway called for the toppling of the patriarchy. Much as I would have loved Rob Delaney or Sharon Horgan to get up there and say something depraved and hilarious, I may well have passed out, quite honestly.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”
Saraiya: I had earlier predicted “the year of McKinnon,” and though maybe I won’t be right about the whole year, this very much seemed like her award to win. And to my mind, I think she richly deserved it; McKinnon is nearly all of what is keeping “Saturday Night Live” relevant to my mind, with her versatility as both a team and individual sketch performer. On my favorite beat — the ye olde diversity drum — it’s also so thrilling that the storied institution’s first out lesbian cast member becomes one of its leading lights, all the way up to this level. This Emmys has really been about how diversity in casting isn’t for appearance’s sake: It works.

Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series: Jill Soloway, “Transparent” — “Man on the Land”
Saraiya: My first emphatic “if they didn’t choose this they were crazy” of the evening was for Soloway’s direction of “Man on the Land,” one of the most haunting episodes of television I saw last season. There wasn’t a contest here.
Ryan: Agreed, that was a tremendous episode. And it was hard not to be at least a little carried away by her speech, in which she talked about putting “unlikeable Jewish people queer folk and trans folk” at the center of the story and seeing what happened. The result, “I call a revolution,” she said. We’re not quite there yet — by the numbers, representation of women and people of color as creators and directors still lag white men by a considerable margin. But to see so many different kinds of stories and creators and actors win at the Emmys felt like a long overdue step forward.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Saraiya: Not a surprising win, but a very surprising — and heartbreaking — speech. I really like “Veep,” but the love affair voters have with specific shows can sometimes be suffocating. I wish we could do the old MTV “Total Request Live” thing and retire winners after a certain number of awards, just because I want to honor incredible actors like Tracie Ellis Ross.
Ryan: I was also moved by Louis-Dreyfus’ speech, and to be clear, I think she’s incredibly talented. But I’m just going to say it: I really, really hope this category has a new winner next year. There are just so many women doing sensational work in half-hour shows, and the Emmy voters do have a tendency to reward certain actors year after year after year. I think Ross should have won this year, and I really hope she wins next year. There, I said it.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”
Saraiya: Another expected win, but I think they made the right decision. I think in the world of progressive politics and rapid-fire tweeting, Tambor is almost a conservative choice because he’s a cisgender man playing a transgender woman. But for the rest of the country (and the world), even the existence of transgender people, let alone giving them rights, is still an issue with such basic pushback.
Ryan: Agreed. This was a somewhat expected win, and truth be told, I’d hoped Anderson or Ansari would win, but I can’t complain much about Tambor. He had a lot to work with as Maura tried to find her place within the larger trans community — and sometimes stumbled badly in the course of that journey.

Outstanding Reality Competition Program: “The Voice”
Saraiya: I’m surprised by this, because “The Voice” is so boring compared to like, “American Ninja Warrior.” But I guess reality TV is a medium that caters a bit to our desired to tune out to something.
Ryan: My main takeaway from “The Voice” winning was that the show apparently has three thousand producers, all of whom were on that stage. Jimmy Kimmel gave the show’s executive producer Mark Burnett a chance to toss off some decent Trump jokes, but Burnett merely pitched the show’s season premiere and made the same joke that’s been going around about Miley Cyrus being appointed to the Supreme Court. Oh well.

Oustanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special: D.V. DeVincentis, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” — “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Saraiya: Ah, what a great choice. It’s a bit unfair to lay all of the merits on “The People v. O.J. Simpson” on simply the Marcia Clark storylines, and I found myself hoping that one of the other episodes would get honored just to make sure new viewers were aware that there was more to the show. I really liked both “The Race Card,” which followed Johnnie Cochran’s motivations, and “From the Ashes of Tragedy,” the first episode written by both showrunners. But I’m not complaining, either.
Ryan: Honestly, this was partly also a win for Sarah Paulson, who was so moving and sensational in this episode that it was almost not impossible for that script not to win. Given that their names were on half the “O.J.” scripts, it would have been nice for Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to win, but I’m willing to make a bet that they’ll be winning Emmys (and/or Oscars) in the future.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie: Regina King, “American Crime”
Saraiya: I told you to watch out for Regina King, Mo. Now that I’ve gotten to know more of Olivia Colman’s work, I can see why you were rooting for her. But I think that King’s talents are showcased on “American Crime” in a particularly brilliant way, and I’m not surprised that voters responded in some way. She’s also an actress who has been working in Hollywood for a long time, so I bet a lot of people are friendly with her and sought out her work.
Ryan: That makes sense, and having been a fan of hers for a long time (hello, fellow “Southland” viewers), I’m thrilled for her win. Also, I’d like it noted for the record that I consider this partly a win for her incredible work in the second season of “The Leftovers.” Did I mention that she was incredible in that? I need to emphasize that, a lot.

Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special: Susanne Bier, “The Night Manager”
Saraiya: Oh, it was so cute that Tom Hiddleston presented this award.
Ryan: Indeed. And, to quote a tweet of mine from earlier tonight (which is mildly obnoxious but here goes): “The two directors who won #Emmys so far are women. To those who think it’s a big risk to hire women directors, guess the risk is they might WIN BIG.”

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie: Sterling K. Brown, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
Saraiya: This was a real surprise for me. I would have banked on Travolta winning, and if not him, then Schwimmer, as part of his much-discussed Schwimmerssance. And if neither of them, I would have picked no one from “The People V. O.J. Simpson,” because three nominees from one show is an easy way to split the votes in your favor. Brown winning is one of my least likely scenarios, but also, such a welcome one. There’s a way in which both Schwimmer’s and Travolta’s roles were a classic kind of awards-bait — outsize representations of larger-than-life figures that verge on campy and ironic. Brown plays Darden with a lot of love, and it’s so amazing that voters somehow fixated on that sincere part of the story, instead of the sillier bits that are easy to laugh at.
Ryan: Just picture me screaming very loud when he won. Just a lot of screaming, basically. What a deserved win. Also, Schwimmerssance — I love that word and I am stealing it.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie: Sarah Paulson, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
Saraiya: I screamed obscenities, in a loving way, when this was announced. Richly deserved, and to boot, Sarah Paulson is a really inspiring person, and so it’s great to see her recognized in this way.
Ryan: I think there might have been some kind of civil disturbance right there in the room if she had not won. It was very obvious that there was a lot of true admiration for her and her work among the voters and the people in that room. I get how easy it can be, in some contexts, to be cynical about the whole awards process. But the fact is, sometimes high-profile awards are given to hard workers who absolutely deserve it. There was a lot of that at the 2016 Emmys, and no award was more deserved than Paulson’s.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie: Courtney B. Vance, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
Saraiya: This was also a lock for both of us — and for the voters too, clearly. Isn’t it amazing that the two lawyers who were at each others’ throats for this whole series inspired viewers so much with their performances that they each got a major award? What a testament to the show’s power.
Ryan: And to the power of a tremendous ensemble that works hard so that everybody looks good. If you ask me, this was a case of every actor raising the game of his or her fellow actors. Everyone was so good that they all had to bring their A game, and it showed. Hence the multiple wins for “O.J.” which could not have been more deserved. Courtney B. Vance has been doing fantastic work for years, and he got a chance to hit a home run in this show, and he did exactly that.

Outstanding Television Movie: “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride”
Saraiya: I’d call this the first “womp, womp” of the night, although admittedly, it was in part because so many of the prior wins were so good. I frequently like “Sherlock” and I also frequently like Steven Moffat, who gave a very funny acceptance speech. But I thought “The Abominable Bride” showcased so much of that series’ worst impulses, and in the plot, shoehorns in feminism as a conspiracy theory in an obviously well-meaning but extremely awkward way. Why not “Confirmation,” hm? Kerry Washington was right there!
Ryan: I know… Anyway. Moving on.

Outstanding Limited Series: “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
Saraiya: No argument here. Series of the year, frankly.
Ryan: My top 10 list this year will be a Top 49 list (just warning you now), but there’s no doubt that it will be on there. There was no doubt that it would win, and no question that it deserved to.

Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special: “Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping”
Ryan: In under 30 seconds, Oswalt almost made me cry, with his shout-out to his late wife.
Saraiya: Maybe we’ll see Tig Notaro win something next year for “One Mississippi.”

Outstanding Variety Talk Series: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
Saraiya: This was an interesting choice from the Academy, actually — a sign, I think, of how politically charged things are this year. Certainly, after “The Daily Show’s”  long reign in the category, the successor show that is a lot like Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” that stars a guy who used to be on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” is an obvious one. But also, in terms of reinventing broadcast staples — I would have probably given it to “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” which has somehow revitalized a space no one really wants. But voters aren’t really leaning in that direction, I think. And probably the fact that Oliver’s show is weekly adds to its general appeal. It’s got a whole week to make a very good episode, as opposed to 40-odd hours making five pretty good episodes.
Ryan: This was a somewhat unexpected choice, but I’m happy with it. The show has been unmissable this year, a year in which we really needed a sharp, merciless voice to cut through the clutter. And I’m still giggling about the fact that Oliver sped through his acceptance speech so quickly that he asked to be played off, a request I’ve never seen before on an awards show.  

Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special: Thomas Kail, Alex Rudzinkski, “Grease: Live”
Saraiya: I really wasn’t expecting Beyoncé to be robbed out of a directing trophy here, lol. I mean, not that I can deny what Kail and Rudzinkski did, technically, in terms of making “Grease: Live” happen. I just also didn’t particularly enjoy “Grease: Live,” so I’m less inclined to reward that sort of feat. Am I being hardhearted here, Mo?
Ryan: I enjoyed “Grease: Live,” but it’s probably unwise to cross the creator of “Lemonade.” The Beygency is probably working over time at this point.

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series: “Key & Peele”
Saraiya: Just in the nick of time, as the show’s going off the air. I’m so happy it got a bit of love.
Ryan: Indeed. Now, if they can just have Luther, Obama’s anger translator, give the next State of the Union address, the show’s legacy will be complete.

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, “Game of Thrones” — “Battle of the Bastards”

Saraiya: This is, probably, my least favorite decision of the night. Because although I know I’m sour-er on this past season of “Game Of Thrones” than most, I still acknowledge “Battle Of The Bastards” is a great episode. But in terms of its writing? That’s not… at all… where the strengths of the episode lie. It’s an episode with a minutes-long battle sequence that is primarily communicated through grunts and yells! There isn’t even writing there! I would have handed it to “Mr. Robot” or “UnREAL,” for their fantastic pilots — or, and deservedly so, to “The Americans” for “Persona Non Grata.”
Ryan: Agreed. What worked about the episode was the direction, and I thought this category might give “The Americans” a shot at winning an Emmy. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey”
Saraiya: Oh, it is a pity that Emmy voters can’t let go of some of their weird traditions. I like the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley just fine, but it seems so counter-intuitive to keep throwing Emmys at her from across the pond.
Ryan: It’s getting late and I’m feeling salty, so I’m just going to say it: Lena Headey was robbed.

Outstanding Directing for a Drama: Miguel Sapochnik, “Game of Thrones” — “Battle of the Bastards”
Saraiya: Now this is the category the episode should have won for. It’s still a little crazy that this won against Steven Soderbergh, but I can’t really fault voters for appreciating that the biggest show on TV right now did this one thing really well.
Ryan: Given that it’s such an epic spectacle — and typically does at least one gigantic battle episode per season, I would imagine “Game of Thrones” is going to have this on lock until it ends, no matter what the other virtues of the other shows. That said, as we discussed, Sapochnik did an outstanding job.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama: Ben Mendelsohn, “Bloodline”
Saraiya: Well, I never. And just in time for cancellation.
Ryan: I never warmed to the show, but he’s undoubtedly a good actor.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”
Saraiya: This was a real but welcome shock. I am very fond of Malek’s work, and I’m really happy he won, but it was sad to see this first-time nominee walk past Bob Odenkirk and Matthew Rhys. Still, it’s not like I’m mad.
Ryan: I really, really wanted Rhys to win — and I know you are an Odenkirk fan, understandably — but I was thrilled for Malek. He’s giving a really intense and difficult performance of a character that is often closed off and almost impenetrable in some ways — and yet Malek does such a consistent job of humanizing and dimensionalizing Elliot. It’s really and truly a much deserved win by a major talent.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”
Saraiya: I have, in the past, really enjoyed “Orphan Black,” and I’m also a booster for Maslany’s work. But this win, for what is this, the fourth season of the show? It feels like a delayed award for what was and continues to be an absolutely explosive first season, which Maslany throws her heart and soul into. I’m guessing that Emmy voters just now got around to catching up on “Orphan Black.” My other guess is that they didn’t love the other options! Davis won last year, and while Taraji P. Henson would have been a great choice, the quality and watchability of both “Empire” and “How To Get Away With Murder” have tanked in these second seasons. The same could be said for “House Of Cards,” which finished its fourth season, and “Homeland,” with its sixth. And I guess the campaign for Keri Russell just didn’t quite have enough momentum, after four-odd years of Maslany’s boosters clamoring for her to get the award.
Ryan: If Maslany got a win for her body of work on “Orphan Black,” I’m actually OK with that. It really has been quite a run for her, and I did see part of the most recent season, and she was once again extremely impressive. It’s the effortlessness of it that is most impressive — after a while, you forget that she’s playing all these different people. I love that she’s this actress who came out of nowhere to absolutely blow everyone away, and though I would have loved to have seen Russell win, maybe next year she has a shot.

Outstanding Comedy Series: “Veep”
Saraiya: I don’t have anything to complain about, as I have loved, and continue to love, this political satire. In this 2016 election, “Veep’s” take on politics frequently feels like the only thing that can keep me sane. But “Transparent”? “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”? “Master Of None”? “Black-ish”?! There are a lot of great, un-Emmyed comedies out there; I wish “Veep” didn’t get to hog all the comedy glory. But like I said, I have nothing to complain about, just wishful thinking about cloning awards.
Ryan: There are more than 430 scripted shows on the air. That is my defense for the following admission: I haven’t seen the last few seasons of “Veep.” But I hear good things.

Outstanding Drama Series: “Game Of Thrones”
Saraiya: *yawns* Oh, look at the time.
Ryan: It should have been “The Americans.” But that was never going to happen. I am at peace with it, kind of, given that we got so many other unexpected wins this year. Ryan out.
Saraiya: It was a boring win, after a night that had a lot of interesting stories. But by 11 p.m., I care less about the brilliancy of the Outstanding Drama winner than I do about getting to bed…

Related stories

Tatiana Maslany, 'Game of Thrones' Wins Top Emmys Facebook Chatter

'Mr. Robot' Star Rami Malek Hails Progress for Actors of Color Backstage at Emmys

Emmy Awards: HBO Battles FX, Surprises Abound, and Plenty of Trump Jokes

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter