Analysis: Emmys’ clear mission fuzzier as night wore on

Lorraine Ali
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — The 70th annual primetime Emmy Awards opened on what seemed to be a confident voice.

“We Solved It!” sang Kristen Bell, Sterling K. Brown, Tituss Burgess and Kenan Thompson in a satirical musical number celebrating steps the television industry has made in diversifying its very white, very male ranks. RuPaul sashayed across the stage in red heels. Ricky Martin salsa danced.

In their opening monologue, hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che continued the diversity theme that has become so much a part of recent awards shows. When mentioning nominated show “black-ish,” Che said, “Black-ish is also how I’ve been asked to behave tonight.” And they called Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” — one of the most politically prescient nominated shows of the night — “‘Roots’ for white women.”

It was an opening that celebrated television’s growing inclusiveness while still poking fun at a dismal track record that until recently included ousted CBS chief Les Moonves, “Today” show anchor Matt Lauer and few lead female actors or performers of color.

When Amazon’s niche show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a nostalgic, but not incredibly inventive, comedy that nevertheless was about a woman trying to find her own voice in 1950s New York, early on won nearly every comedy award over the topical and sharp black series “Atlanta” and yes, “black-ish,” it seemed that a clear Emmys narrative was starting to take shape.

And it was familiar fare such as FX’s “The Americans,” plus the more subdued story of women fighting for control, “The Crown,” that also beat out “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Progress without the edginess of a new and complex era seemed to be the message.

But it didn’t take long for the awards show, like the industry it honors, to stray from any one narrative that might sum up the year in TV and fragment into a dozen different directions.

The fantastical HBO series “Game of Thrones,” which has little to do with diversity and more to do with dragons, won top honors over “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the socially-aware “This is Us.”

When Ryan Murphy won top directing honors for the limited series “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” he used the opportunity to quickly highlight LGBTQ issues.

The far-flung list of winners wasn’t the only sign that the Emmys, like TV audiences, are grappling with how to process a billion different shows across myriad platforms.

This was the first year that a streaming service received more Emmy nominations than cable or broadcast networks. Netflix got 112 nods from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, marking the first time in 17 years that HBO did not lead the pack.

In the earlier stages of peak TV, an Emmy win could legitimize a show like “Mad Men.” Now the awards ceremony is trying to grapple with an onslaught of programming. Good shows don’t necessarily win Emmys anymore. There’s just too much.

The show’s run reflected this fragmentation.

The lineup of planned skits, prepared presenters remarks and impromptu comments by winners ran the gambit between boring and predictable to utterly surprising.

There were stiff skits featuring the usually amusing Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, in which their jokes about the history of the Emmys fell flat.

Better was a more polished and prerecorded bit that Che hosted where he gave fictional Reparations Emmy to black actors who were overlooked in past decades. He presented the “awards” to “A Different World’s” Dwayne Wayne, “Good Times’” Jimmie Walker and “Family Matter’s” Jaleel White. “There’d be no Obama without you,” Che said sarcastically.

The biggest surprise was when Glenn Weiss, winner for director of a variety series, asked his girlfriend, mid-acceptance speech, to marry him. She accepted. In the audience, Claire Foy cried. It was like reality TV, but better.

But presenter and comedian Hannah Gadsby, who has alienated many older male comedians with her female-centric humor, may have best summed up the confusion of the modern TV era. Too many shows, too many fluid genres, Netflix queues of what you should watch expand by the hour.

In messy hair and a rumpled suit, she said, “The world’s gone a bit crazy … when somebody like me, a nobody from nowhere gets this gig, just cause I don’t like men. What are jokes these days? We don’t know.”

Record low viewership for Emmy Awards

Television’s biggest night wasn’t that big. A record-low audience of just under 10.2 million people watched the awards show that kicked off a new television season on Monday night.

The Nielsen company says that’s down from the virtually identical audiences of 11.4 million from the past two years.

Michael Che and Colin Jost of “Saturday Night Live” hosted the awards show on NBC. Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel became the first show from a streaming service to win best comedy, while HBO’s “Game of Thrones” was the top drama.

The dip in viewership follows a recent trend that also affected the Academy Awards and Grammys earlier this year.

Associated Press