Emmys 2017: Who Will and Should Win in the Variety Categories?

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L-R: Leslie Jones and Colin Jost on SNL. Photo: Will Heath/NBC

The 69th Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 17, and all this week, Vulture TV columnist Jen Chaney and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz are breaking down the major categories. What will win? What actually should win? That’s what we’re here to determine.

Today’s focus: Variety series.

Outstanding Variety Talk Series

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)

Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC)

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)

The Late Late Show With James Corden (CBS)

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (CBS)

Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO)

At this particular moment, it’s hard to imagine the Emmy in this category going to a nonpolitical show. That’s why I’m ruling out The Late Late Show With James Corden, even though Emmy voters apparently liked Corden enough to reward his Carpool Karaoke for Outstanding Variety Special during the creative arts ceremonies over the weekend. (I actually thought Late Night With Seth Meyers or The Daily Show deserved a spot here more than Corden’s inoffensive chat-a-thon. But I digress.)

Jimmy Kimmel hasn’t avoided politics per se — let’s all pause for a moment of silence to remember the time Ken Bone appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — but again, this is a category that favors heavily current-events-focused work even in years that haven’t been as fraught and persistently, presidentially insane as the past several months have been. With all due respect to another Jimmy/James, I’m ruling out Kimmel, too.

This year marks the 12th time that Real Time With Bill Maher has been nominated in this category and its previous incarnation, Outstanding Variety Series, without winning an Emmy. But even though it’s an indisputably political show, Real Time hasn’t altered its approach or been enough of a talker over the past 12-plus months to make me think that streak will be broken. (Also? That racial-slur incident may not have helped matters.)

There has, however, been a marked shift in focus on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, which has gone full-Trump in the days running up to and following last fall’s election and seen an uptick in relevance and ratings because of it. Emmy voters like Colbert, as two previous wins for The Colbert Report attest. He’s also hosting the ceremony this year, which shouldn’t have any bearing on whether or not his show wins, at least in theory. In other words, I think The Late Show has a shot at winning.

To do that, though, it will have to squeak past the two front-runners: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which nabbed the Emmy in this category last year, and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the extremely rare nominee in this category with a woman as its host. (To find another female-centric show with a nomination here, you have to go back to the late 1990s when Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes On was nominated in the sketch/talk combo-platter version of the category. A more traditional talk show with a female host, as opposed to a variety or sketch series, has never been nominated, because there have barely been any to nominate.)

Bee was the star most on the rise during the past year, and her program gave a blunter, more arsenic-laced tone to post-Clinton-loss rage than perhaps anything else on TV. That may give her an edge with members of the industry who shared those feelings, as well as those who think a woman should finally break the glass ceiling in this category.

But Oliver and his team continued to do both funny and vital work on matters directly related to Trump’s ascent — his postelection episode basically did the beginning of American Horror Story: Cult before American Horror Story: Cult did — as well as illuminating pieces on other subjects, like the multilevel marketing phenomenon.

The Emmy should go to: This is a very, very hard call to make because Last Week With John Oliver is certainly deserving and Colbert did shake things up admirably on his late-night program. But it would simply mean something more significant to see Full Frontal With Samantha Bee win, and that tips the scales in its favor for me. Given the quality of the commentary on the weekly series and the fact that Bee and her team staged such an entertaining alternative White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, the show also showed some real unconventional ambition that merits a statuette.

The Emmy will go to: Last Week With John Oliver, because it has something key working in its favor: the fact that it won last year. Emmy voters are creatures of habit who gave this award to The Daily Show, the Comedy Central fake newser that launched both Oliver’s and Bee’s careers, 11 times. If a show is both familiar and still very good, which Last Week is, it seems fair to assume they’ll check the same box again.

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series

Billy on the Street! (truTV)

Documentary Now! (IFC)

Drunk History (Comedy Central)

Portlandia (IFC)

Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Tracey Ullman’s Show (HBO)

Look, I could sit here and write about the Über-specific, satirical brilliance of Documentary Now or how great it is to finally see Billy Eichner receiving Emmy recognition for his genius ability to quiz celebrities and accost oblivious New Yorkers. But let’s be real: There is no way any show other than Saturday Night Live is going to win Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.

SNL was nominated for an unprecedented 22 Emmys on the heels of a landmark year that brought massive ratings, some inspired mockery of Trump and the members of his administration (this show may be at least partially responsible for Sean Spicer’s departure), the first attempt to go live on both coasts, and a collective sense that SNL isn’t merely still here, it’s still necessary. And I haven’t even mentioned David S. Pumpkins yet!

No matter how solid any other sketch-comedy series may have been, Saturday Night Live in 2016 and 2017 was just too big to ignore, and it’s too big to fail in this category.

The Emmy should go to: Saturday Night Live. No, not every sketch or episode was as solid as others, and one could argue quite reasonably that it put way too much emphasis on politics without always living up to expectations. But I think this season, particularly the postelection episode hosted by Dave Chappelle and the post-inauguration episode hosted by Aziz Ansari, will be examined years from now as snapshots of how American culture processed the age of Trump. That’s a claim that no other nominee can make. The delightful Drunk History revisits great moments in history, but SNL this season felt like it was becoming part of history.

The Emmy will go to: Duh. SNL.

Outstanding Directing in a Variety Series

Drunk History, “Hamilton” (Comedy Central)

Jimmy Kimmel Live!, “The (RED) Show” (ABC)

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, “Multi-level Marketing” (HBO)

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, “Episode 0179” (CBS)

Saturday Night Live, “Host: Jimmy Fallon” (NBC)

So far this decade, Saturday Night Live has won in this category five times. (The other two winners: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Inside Amy Schumer.) One can understand why: Director Don Roy King must not only try to guide the show to weekly greatness, he has to do it live, with no safety net.

I have no doubt he’ll win this year, for all the reasons I alluded to with regard to SNL’s expected Outstanding Variety Sketch victory — this seems like its year. (I also have to wonder if some people will vote for SNL simply because every Emmy it accumulates will stick a little harder in Donald J. Trump’s craw.)

But for the sake of mixing things up a little, as well as recognizing a variety series that has a less conventional format, it would be nice to see Drunk History’s “Hamilton” episode win here. The idea of the creator of the most popular Broadway musical in recent memory explaining the stories behind that musical while inebriated is particularly inspired, and the cast — which, like the cast of the play, reflects a desire to see American history brought to life by not-always-white-and-male faces — is great. I think it has as much of a chance at winning as I do at getting $20 tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway. But I’ll advocate for it anyway.

The Emmy should go to: Drunk History.

The Emmy will go to: Saturday Night Live.

Outstanding Writing in a Variety Series

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)

Late Night With Seth Meyers (NBC)

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (CBS)

Saturday Night Live (NBC)

I know I’m getting redundant here, but: You know Saturday Night Live is going to win this. You know it is, and so do I.

That said, a case could be made for any one of these other nominees, including Late Night With Seth Meyers, which has gotten sharper and sharper over the past year — A Closer Look has become a must-view segment — and deserves credit, just like Colbert does, for pivoting toward more pointed political commentary. But because their entire half hours hinge upon carefully written segments, as opposed to the spontaneous celebrity interviews that are, by necessity, part of Myers’s and Colbert’s routines, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver have the edge in this category.

Between the two, I lean just slightly toward Last Week Tonight because I’m often so impressed at the depth of research and the level of inventiveness that goes into its op-ed-style reporting. (Its piece on the newspaper industry, which included a hilarious parody of Spotlight, was one of the more on-point pieces of media criticism broadcast or published anywhere last year.) But it doesn’t really matter how I lean because, come on, Saturday Night Live has probably got this.

The Emmy should go to: Last Week With John Oliver.

The Emmy will go to: Saturday Night Live.

Emmys 2017: Who Will and Should Win in Variety?