highs and lows

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2021 Emmy Awards

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by CBS

Though it was a triumphant return to in-person awards ceremonies, the 2021 Emmys also managed to be a triumphant return to underwhelming awards ceremonies. Hosted inside a tent that was billed as “outdoors” but still had walls, a ceiling, and several chandeliers, the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards tried very hard to get back to something like a pre-COVID norm, and they achieved that goal a little too well. Although there were several outstanding moments, including Michaela Coel’s acceptance speech for writing I May Destroy You, Debbie Allen’s acceptance of the Governors Award, and Conan O’Brien’s post-loss decision to troll everyone, in many ways, this year’s Emmys ceremony felt like a rote celebration of easily anticipated, already familiar faces.

On paper, some of the biggest winners of the night might’ve looked like surprises. Freshman series Ted Lasso won several categories, The Queen’s Gambit snuck in as best limited series, and The Crown won best drama, something it somehow has never managed to do in the past. In reality, though, snubs of series like Underground Railroad and The Good Lord Bird and specials like Bo Burnham’s Inside only underlined the broader Emmys message of the night: The Emmys! We’re back! It’s safe now! Look at all our safe choices!

LOW: E!’s incomprehensible red-carpet coverage. E! bravely stumbled back to its traditional red-carpet interviews sans Rancic and Seacrest and now featuring Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown, who did not seem to know that Daniel Craig did an accent in Knives Out, and, for whatever reason, was not told to hold his mic close enough to the mouths of the people he was interviewing. Their attempts to make sense of his questions and answer in a coherent human way only sounded like teachers talking in Peanuts.

WHOA: The group opening performance of “TV, You Got What I Need.” Cedric the Entertainer kicked things off with a little prerecorded “Hello, didn’t see you there from my couch” bit that led into singing a version of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” but about television, which apparently has got what you need. Things started out ordinarily corny enough with Cedric performing next to a guy with a TV for a head, but escalated quickly as more and more people joined in. Mics went out to Lil Dicky? Rita Wilson?? It went all the way past uncomfortable and then into adorable and then back to uncomfortable because, really, someone shouldn’t have let Rita keep her hands on that mic for so long. Chet Haze must be so jealous.

HIGH/LOW: Seth Rogen’s strikingly honest-sounding joke about COVID safety. “They told us this was outdoors!” he said. “It is not! I would not have come to this!”

HIGH: Julianne Nicholson’s genuine surprise winning Supporting Actress for Mare of Easttown. Jean Smart and Kathryn Hahn might’ve seemed like the more likely winners in this category, but it was great that Nicholson’s work was honored, and to see her very clearly not expecting it to happen.

LOW: Whatever Cedric’s one sports bit was after a commercial. It involved him being poorly Photoshopped into a marina and yelling at boaters about sports with references we did not understand. This is TV’s night! Do sports another time!

HIGH: Reggie Watts as the DJ. Watts cutting to commercial breaks with a weird new accent or character was a pleasantly surreal addition to an otherwise defiantly boring mood. It’s too bad the Emmys forgot he existed after the first hour.

HIGH: Kerry Washington’s brief tribute to Michael K. Williams. It was short but poignant. “Michael was — it’s crazy to say ‘was’,” Washington said. Williams did not win for his role in Lovecraft Country (the award for best supporting actor in a drama went to Tobias Menzies for The Crown), but the moment felt like it belonged to Williams, as it should.

LOW: The desire to get back to normal results in a boring, cornball, paint-by-numbers Emmy production. It’s been a scary time and everyone seemed thrilled to be in a room together again. Still, it’s almost as though this CBS Emmys production was afraid that if it made any daring choices or innovative changes to a cookie-cutter awards show, COVID might sense weakness and leap out of a corner. There were a few structural changes, including switching up the order of listing the nominees and then announcing the presenters, and the decision to prerecord all the nominee names is a great one. (Never again, Adele Dazeem.)

Overall, though, the desire to embrace normalcy was so intense that much of the show felt plain boring. In fact, at some points, “boring” was the high-water mark — see below re: the flies joke — but when something actually exciting seemed to be happening, like O’Brien disrupting the Academy president’s tedious “greatest night for television” speech, very little of it even showed up onscreen. The room reacted, but the camera focused insistently on the less interesting guy up front.

HIGH: Ali Barthwell won an Emmy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Holy shit! Ali!!!!!!!

LOW: The Emmys defaulting to the most predictable choices in so many categories. Despite the number of inventive series nominated, Emmys voters seemed to only care about a handful of shows: The Crown, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown, and then in the variety categories, Last Week Tonight and SNL. There is a lot of good work on those shows, but it is so. Utterly. Boring. To see the same people walk up again and again, up to the point where John Oliver himself had to point out that he just beat O’Brien and hey, maybe someone else deserves some credit.

HIGH: It’s always nice when Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy get to do a bit. Maybe there should be more awards-show bits!

LOW: A bit about the fly on Mike Pence’s head during a debate that was truly awful and ended with the line “All flies matter.” Counterpoint: No, they should not. Further evidence on the no side: the interminable sketch that followed, with a bunch of people who had not won Emmys (Scott Bakula, Zooey Deschanel) in group therapy that brought in Dr. Phil. We don’t need to see Dr. Phil.

HIGH: Bowen Yang carefully stomping out onto the stage in his glorious boots. “Yes Kevin Feige, I am athletic!”

HIGH: Jean Smart’s win for Hacks. Instant standing ovation was the correct response. (Giving Jean Smart the orchestral cue to stop talking was not the correct response.)

LOW: Where are all the nonwhite winners? Especially in the acting categories? Two hours into the show, RuPaul gave an acceptance speech after winning outstanding reality programming for RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Governor’s Award was given to Debbie Allen. Until that, point no nonwhite winners had spoken onstage.

HIGH: Conan being Conan. After trolling the Academy president, O’Brien charged onto the stage when Colbert won for his Election Night coverage, smiling and nodding and pretending to be a member of the Colbert staff.

HIGH: Debbie Allen telling the Emmys to turn off the clock during her speech: “I ain’t paying it no attention.” She deserved the time to give her speech, and for the ceremony to get Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompeo, and Michael Douglas to introduce her while holding canes, a very specific reference to her character from Fame.

LOW: Scott Frank’s protracted war with the Emmys directors trying to play him off. Frank had a very long speech and insisted on delivering all of it. The Emmys tried to stop him by playing “Time to Say Goodbye.” As Frank went on, it became increasingly uncomfortable to watch him refuse to read the room, though “Time to Say Goodbye” is a funny choice for “please stop talking” music.

HIGH: Michaela Coel won for I May Destroy You. It seems weird to call this a “high” because it’s really just “the most absolutely obvious choice they could’ve made; any other choice would’ve been truly embarrassing,” but look, it’s the Emmys. We can’t take these things for granted.

WHOA: Ewan McGregor won an Emmy for Halston? Remember Halston? The show about Halston. Where they just keep saying “Halston.” Halston.

LOW: You shouldn’t film the “In Memoriam” segment in a way that makes it hard to see the people we’re remembering! The segment had one job.

LOW: You don’t have to keep giving awards to Hamilton. It already has so many awards! It would have been fine to have recognized something else! They probably wouldn’t even have noticed!

HIGH/LOW: Well, if you run a streaming service, congrats, since streaming TV productions won all the major series awards. If you run a network television business or cable network, you’re out of luck. Sorry CBS, host of TV’s show! Aside from recognition for Colbert, voters did not feel this fall.

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2021 Emmy Awards