tv review

The Emmys Need to Watch More TV

The cast and crew of Ted Lasso, accepting the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Image

The 2021 Emmy Awards confirmed what has long been common knowledge: The streamers are running the show.

During Sunday’s ceremony, broadcast on CBS and streamed on Paramount+ from the Event Deck at L.A. Live, the winners in the three most significant categories — Outstanding Limited Series, Comedy, and Drama — were all the products of streaming services.

Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, as predicted, prevailed in the top comedy category. The Queen’s Gambit gave Netflix its first win for a limited series, and The Crown did the same thing for Netflix on the drama side, eight years after the platform first broke into that category with a nod for House of Cards. Not only was The Crown, er, crowned outstanding drama, it achieved something that Mark Harris referred to on Twitter early in the night as “the full Schitt”: it swept every major category in its genre, just as Schitt’s Creek did on the comedy side last year. The last drama that did that was … checking notes … nothing. No series has ever done this before. Not The Sopranos. Not Mad Men. Not Game of Thrones. It has never happened until this year. That fact, along with the complete domination of the comedy categories by only two shows, Ted Lasso and Hacks — on HBO Max, also a streamer! — made it seem, for part of the night, like Emmys voters had only watched three series during the last year.

There was a bit more variety among the limited series, where awards were given to Mare of Easttown and The Queen’s Gambit, but also Michaela Coel for her writing of I May Destroy You and, perhaps most shockingly, Ewan McGregor for his performance in Halston, a series that was neither vastly well-received by critics nor buzzed-about by audiences or those who predict the Emmys. (I admire Mr. McGregor’s work in general, but if you predicted he was going to win Sunday night, I’m going to need to see your ID, because I’m pretty sure you are Ewan McGregor’s mom wearing Groucho glasses and a wig.)

Awards shows have become Rorschach tests that industry observers use to determine how much quote-unquote “better” the industry has gotten with regard to representation and celebrating the artistry that’s truly pushing the boundaries of storytelling in new directions. Fairly or not, we tend to look at the Emmys as a temperature check for what the television industry thinks of itself. This year, in keeping with the pandemic theme, it apparently has a mild fever, as well as some other relevant symptoms worth examining.

For example, it was hard to overlook the fact that every single acting winner on Sunday night was white, and more than half of them were British. Those dozen victors also represented only five shows total. Each winner was certainly deserving, although I’m sure there will be arguments on Reddit about whether Brett Goldstein deserved to get supporting actor in a comedy for Ted Lasso when he’s technically CGI. But the one-two punch of The Crown sweep and Ted Lasso/Hacks split-sweep suggests that Emmy voters are not broadening their scope in a way that reflects how wide the TV landscape has become.

While all of the actors rewarded in the main telecast were white, it’s worth noting that nearly all the actors and performers who won during the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies — which honor guest acting and craft categories as well as commercials and animated programs — were Black. (These winners included Maya Rudolph, Dave Chappelle, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, J.B. Smoove and Keke Palmer.) Unfortunately, your standard Emmy viewer would never know this was the case, since the Creative Arts ceremonies were held last weekend and broadcast in condensed form on FXX on Saturday night. The winners were not acknowledged during the primetime ceremony Sunday night.

It’s also worth noting that two of the three directors rewarded on Sunday were women: Lucia Aniello for Hacks and Jessica Hobbs for The Crown. Only four women have ever won an Emmy for directing a drama, and five for directing a comedy (for a total of seven awards; Jill Soloway and Gail Mancuso each won twice), so unfortunately, that’s progress. That’s progress. And some of the progress that’s been made is, admittedly, now taken for granted. RuPaul’s Drag Race won its fourth consecutive Emmy for outstanding competition series, making RuPaul the most decorated Black artist in Emmy history. It’s a significant accomplishment, yet that win barely made anyone bat an eye, because Drag Race’s triumphs have become the norm. Oddly, an award that should signal the industry’s push to platform more diverse voices also carries a whiff of narrowness, and a suggestion that Emmy voters are just checking the same box every year.

It’s tempting to characterize Emmy voters as some sort of monolith willfully ignoring certain shows, when it’s actually a voting body with a lot of members, some of whom probably voted for other shows. Still, at a time when there are so damn many networks/platforms and series — and many people were quarantining and able to theoretically watch more television for at least part of the last year — it’s disheartening that the Emmy wins were not more surprising or widely dispersed. To put this in a little bit of perspective: Thirty years ago, in 1991, when there were far fewer series and networks/outlets, eight different shows were honored in the major comedy and drama categories. This year, again: There were three. Out of potentially hundreds that could have been nominated and taken trophies home.

Obviously this whole prize-giving enterprise is subjective, but that being said: it is wild that The Underground Railroad did not win a damn, blessed thing, especially a directing award for Barry Jenkins. That snub felt all the more galling after winner Scott Frank, who directed The Queen’s Gambit, delivered a rambling, dull acceptance speech while seeming peeved every time the music had the audacity to try to stop him from speaking. The Queen’s Gambit might deserve an additional Emmy for squandering the most goodwill towards a show in a single Emmys broadcast; for the record, I wrote a positive review of it when it came out roughly 85 years ago, a review whose headline I now wish I could change in light of the outstanding limited series acceptance speech given by executive producer William Horberg, in which he thanked Anya Taylor-Joy for “bringing the sexy back to chess.”

The people who care about television and awards shows — admittedly, an increasingly niche group — want to see shows and people recognized for taking big swings. They also want to see genuine inclusivity, not just in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and ability, but also via a more tacit acknowledgment of the breadth of shows that currently exist on television. The number of offerings recognized each year should be growing, not shrinking. True risks should be rewarded more often, not less.

Perhaps the edgiest thing that happened at this year’s Emmy Awards was also the funniest. And no, I’m not talking about the recorded bit that involved Cedric the Entertainer reincarnating the fly that sat on Mike Pence’s head when he debated Kamala Harris. (So timely!) I’m talking about Conan O’Brien standing up while Television Academy Chair and CEO Frank Scherma spoke about “what we all love about television” and the industry’s commitment to diversity, and saluting him as though he were an American soldier who had just returned from war. It was a gesture of respect that also signaled how much bullshit is still involved in the Emmys, and really, any awards show. The pseudo-congratulatory stance distracted the audience from what was happening on the actual stage — contrary to critics on Twitter, it did not ultimately distract from the subsequent presentation of the The Governors Award to the wondrous Debbie Allen — and made you wonder what was going on just out of frame.

It was, in short, funny, compelling television. There’s a lot of that these days. During the 2021 Emmys, you only saw some of it.

The Emmys Need to Watch More TV