emmys 2022

The Emmys Really Tried Some Things

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

It is a confusing but often entertaining time to watch television. Appropriately, the 2022 Emmy Awards honoring all that television was also a confusing, often entertaining experience.

After a largely virtual ceremony in 2020 and one held half-indoors and half-outdoors because of a rise in COVID-19 cases in 2021, this was the first “normal” Emmy Awards in three years. And it was normal in a lot of ways. Host Kenan Thompson kicked it off with a splashy, corny musical salute to famous TV shows of the past like Friends and The Brady Bunch (while highlighting the lack of Black characters in said shows). The Saturday Night Live veteran did a fairly by-the-numbers opening monologue, quipping, “If it weren’t for TV, what would we do, read books?” — a timely acknowledgment of how much content exists in 2022 and also a joke that might actually have been told at an Emmys ceremony in the early 1950s. As always, there was an “In Memoriam” segment that paid tasteful tribute to TV legends who died during the past year, and in keeping with awards-season protocol, John Legend provided its soundtrack.

At its core, this was a traditional Emmy Awards that did the things we are accustomed to seeing at the Emmys. Elaborately dressed actors and creators accepted trophies, some of them well deserved (Sheryl Lee Ralph!), some of them less so (a directing award for a Ted Lasso episode instead of that episode of Barry with the motorcycle chase?). A lot of those trophies went to shows that have won before — Ted Lasso, Succession, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (which nabbed Outstanding Variety Talk Series for the seventh consecutive year), and Saturday Night Live (named Outstanding Variety Sketch Series for the sixth year in a row). As a limited series, The White Lotus had never received an Emmy before, but going into the awards, it was easy to imagine the elitist critique dominating the limited-series lane, and that’s exactly what it did. Did I mention this Outstanding Limited Series is coming back this fall for a second season? Yeah, the Emmys don’t make sense sometimes. But they’re also a type of comfort TV, like a reboot of a familiar property in which we know which characters will emerge triumphant but we still watch anyway.

At the same time, this Emmys ceremony, broadcast on NBC on a Monday night due to the immovability of Sunday Night Football, felt more chaotic than usual. There was a sense that the voters, as well as the producers, had decided to try some things. Some fresh series centering historically underrepresented voices were honored, including Abbott Elementary (it won for writing and Ralph as supporting actress), Squid Game (it won for directing and lead actor Lee Jung-jae) and Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, which beat longtime fave RuPaul’s Drag Race in the Outstanding Reality Competition category. And while a lot of the major winners were predictable, this year’s awards also reflected the wide spectrum of places to find good television. For the first time in nearly a decade, a network sitcom, ABC’s Abbott Elementary, won the award for Outstanding Comedy Writing. While HBO scored more Emmys than anybody else, which is often the case, high-profile prizes went to shows on AppleTV+, Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, and NBC, a snapshot of how broad our television-consumption habits have become.

Like a streaming platform fine-tuning its user interface, the telecast itself introduced some new features. Chyrons highlighting messages from the winners appeared at the bottom of the screen during many acceptance speeches, an approach that allowed them to thank all the people they wanted without wasting precious airtime saying all those names. This was not a bad idea, though it did add another layer of information to absorb on top of all the other elements being thrown at us, in particular the music overseen by Zedd, who apparently decided that playing TV theme songs relevant to the winners was not good enough for the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards and instead seemingly selected whatever random track was cued up in his Spotify Emmys playlist. The rare time Zedd played something perfectly evocative of the past year in TV — Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” — it came during a moment that had absolutely nothing to do with Stranger Things.

The Emmys also decided that advertising would no longer be limited to the commercial breaks, which is why we got an extended bit that was actually an ad for the Kia Telluride X-Pro and Jake Lacy hanging backstage to tout his upcoming role in the Peacock series A Friend of the Family. These served as reminders that, as much as television is about great storytelling and allowing audiences to feel seen, it’s also being made in an environment where every network and streaming conglomerate is more desperate than ever for money and eyeballs. I doubt this is the last Emmys broadcast in which we’ll see this kind of sneak-attack advertising. Come 2024, expect the Outstanding Drama Series to be sponsored by Pepsi.

In other words, the Emmys felt different and the same, filled with familiar characters as well as shout-outs to shows that some people didn’t even know existed. (I won’t reveal how many Vulture staffers were not aware that Lizzo has a reality show on Prime Video, but it was more than one, and I am certain they were not alone.) Like listening to Jennifer Coolidge, a winner for her role in The White Lotus, talk about how a lavender bath earlier in the evening had caused her to “swell up in her dress,” the ceremony was a lot. But like Coolidge getting cut off before she could finish that perfectly Coolidge-ian speech, it also made us want more. Similar to peak TV at its apex, the Emmys was a little too much too fast — the broadcast sailed through 25 categories last night, one more than we typically see at the Academy Awards, and still finished right on time at 11 p.m. ET. But within that flurry of activity, the Emmys captured some unexpected, truly sublime moments. Undeniably the most sublime of all was Ralph’s acceptance speech, when she launched into “Endangered Species,” using every molecule of oxygen in her lungs to celebrate her first Emmy win after years of working on the stage and screen.

It was emotional, inspirational, the sort of spontaneous expression that makes you appreciate what it’s like to watch a talent be overtaken by their gift on live television. You had to sit through a lot of random song choices by Zedd and jokes about how Netflix is poor now to get to stuff like that. But that’s how TV in 2022 works, isn’t it? You have to sift through a lot, but eventually, you will discover some shiny gold.

The Emmys Really Tried Some Things