Rarely has the opening of an awards show felt as inauspicious as the first 10 minutes or so of Monday night’s Emmy Awards. An opening number called “We Solved It,” making light of the idea that Hollywood’s meager progress toward greater diversity constitutes a meaningful resolution to the issue, featured a number of appealing TV personalities: Saturday Night Live‘s Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon, Tituss Burgess of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kristen Bell of The Good Place, RuPaul, Sterling K. Brown of This Is Us, and Ricky Martin. It even included what they called the One Of Each Dancers, a group that, taken together, supposedly checked every demographic box. It worked better in theory than in execution: the song wasn’t great, and the number seemed a little sloppy, like they’d all just learned it. Regrettably, it got worse before it got better.
Because what came after that was the introduction of the hosts, Colin Jost and Michael Che, both of SNL’s Weekend Update segment. They seemed awkward, miserable, unfunny, and cursed with mostly weak jokes. Devoid of charisma and struggling to get the audience on their side, they plodded on, looking like two dads forced to emcee a school assembly where they didn’t particularly want to be there, but someone had prevailed upon them to help out. Equally grim were Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, not helping their new Amazon series Forever by appearing together in a series of resolutely dull and (here’s that word again) awkward scenes in which the joke seemed to be that there was no joke.
Especially in the first half of the show, a pall hung over the ceremony as if much of the crowd had been heavily sedated. Jeff Daniels rambled about his horse and people chuckled politely. Aidy Bryant and Bob Odenkirk — both known to be funny people! — haltingly executed a bit of scripted patter about doing scripted patter, a gambit that’s been taking down presenters for ages. (This never works. Stop doing this.) Speech after speech seemed dragged down by the energy around it. It’s not that there were no successes at all among the presenters; Michael Douglas was very funny talking about the deep resentment he believes in carrying around about the awards you’ve lost.
But it didn’t help that the first two award-winners of the night were probably the most energetic ones to hit the stage for quite a while. Henry Winkler, honored for his supporting work in Barry and receiving the first Primetime Emmy Award of his long career, was just as charming as you’d hope, and just as excited, saying he only had 37 seconds for a speech he’d been holding for 43 years. And Alex Borstein, who won in the supporting category for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, started by announcing she wasn’t wearing a bra and asking other women not to pee on the seats of public toilets. It might not have been a traditional awards speech, but it had a certain verve.
Others were just fine: Rachel Brosnahan won for her leading performance in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and encouraged everyone to vote in the midterms, and Bill Hader won for his leading performance in Barry and seemed genuinely shocked. Actor Darren Criss and director Ryan Murphy both won for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, part of the ACS anthology series that picked up a bunch of awards for its previous season about the O.J. Simpson trial. Peter Dinklage won in the supporting category for Game of Thrones, as he has twice before. Things rolled along.
But on an awards ceremony that started off trying to do edgy humor about the limits of progress toward diversity, it was hard not to notice that it took quite a while to get to the first nonwhite winner in an acting category: Regina King for the Netflix limited series Seven Seconds, which will not return for a second season (as many “limited” series, in fact, do). Thandie Newton also won in the supporting actress in a drama series category for Westworld, but some of the actors of color for whom hopes were highest — Sandra Oh in Killing Eve, for instance — they didn’t come to pass.
One of the hosts’ few successful bits was Che’s “Reparations Emmys,” where he handed out Emmy statuettes he said he’d stolen from Bill Cosby to beloved black actors who hadn’t won in the past: Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersons and 227, Jimmie Walker from Good Times, Kadeem Hardison from A Different World, Tichina Arnold from Martin, comedy journeyman John Witherspoon, and even Jaleel White — that’s right, Che gave an honorary award to Urkel.
One reason why the awards looked as white as they did was that the shows that really cleaned up were … really white shows. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Barry cornered all of the comedy awards, and it was a decent showing for the last season of The Americans on FX, which won in the writing category for drama and was recognized for Matthew Rhys’ lead performance. Keri Russell, on the other hand, lost out to The Crown‘s Claire Foy — as did Sandra Oh. Atlanta, which has an embarrassment of riches in its cast, including some of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood at the moment, was shut out of the major awards entirely. The excellent shows Vida, One Day At A Time and Jane The Virgin weren’t even in the running, and there are plenty of other examples. When you miss out on whole shows, you miss out on nominees, and you miss out on winners. There’s an inevitability to it.
The most viral-ready moment of the evening came from Glenn Weiss, who won for directing the Oscars (yes, you can win at an awards show for directing another awards show). He proposed to his girlfriend on stage, and she accepted. That is a man who knows how to produce a moment.
In the end, none of the winners at the show level were surprises: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Last Week Tonight, and Saturday Night Live won in reality and variety categories. American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace won in the limited series category. After seeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel rack up four of the six available comedy awards at the beginning of the broadcast, it was no surprise to see it take outstanding comedy series near the end of it. And Game of Thrones won its third Emmy for outstanding drama series — a win for a season that didn’t garner as much praise as some past cycles have.
So what have we learned? Well, we’ve learned that a musical number jokingly announcing that you’ve solved your diversity problem actually makes your diversity problem more awkward. We’ve learned that the hosts of an awards show should behave as if they’re glad to be there and as if they care that the audience is glad to be there. And we’ve certainly learned that the Emmy voters really liked The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, they still like Game Of Thrones, and maybe they didn’t get those Killing Eve screeners. Were they sent by registered mail?