We break down the highlights and lowlights of Sunday night’s 69th Primetime Emmys, from the most successful networks to the most embarrassing gaffes. So shoo away your seat filler, settle in with a dry, British cocktail (or coffee), and listen up like you’re Laura Dern cradling an Emmy while Nicole Kidman gives her speech. Here are the Emmys’ 10 biggest winners and losers. (Find the full list of last night’s winners here.)
Well, to be precise, the night belonged to The Handmaid’s Tale. (Hulu’s strong slate of comedies, including Casual, Difficult People, The Mindy Project and Please Like Me, has yet to break through with Emmy voters.) The first streaming series in history to win Best Drama also nabbed statuettes for actress Elisabeth Moss, supporting actress Ann Dowd, creator/writer Bruce Miller, and director Reed Morano, launching Hulu—a joint venture of NBC, ABC and FOX—to new heights. It was, in retrospect, the icing on the streamer’s strategic cake: Airing an artful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel at this particular political moment generated critical acclaim, viewer attention and a slew of a awards for a subscription service that has increasingly shown itself to be cannier than its counterparts. Whatever The Handmaid’s Tale cost, it was money well spent.
Losers: Netflix and Amazon
Speaking of costs, news of Netflix and Amazon’s ballooning budget woes dominated much of the summer—resulting in a spate of series cancellations by both platforms, and a substantial reorganization of the latter’s entire approach to original programming. Lost in the wilderness except for Jill Soloway (whose Transparent came away empty-handed), Amazon likely expected a lean night; Netflix, not so much. I don’t want to overstate the case here—Stranger Things became last year’s surprise sensation, and The Crown won a well-deserved Emmy for supporting actor John Lithgow—but to enter the night with two strong contenders and walk away with so little has to be disappointing. Whether the streamer is playing three-dimensional chess or simply paying the price for its too-fast expansion, it’s long since fumbled the early Emmy success of Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Time to stop treating streaming giants as if they can do no wrong. They can.
Winner: Fascist Boot-Licker Sean Spicer
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
A brazen fabulist, working in the service of a white supremacist, loses his job and resuscitates his reputation by allowing a few late-night shows to take swipes at him: The saga of Sean Spicer sounds rather like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s (Emmy-winning) Black Mirror, but it’s all too real. His appearance on last night’s telecast, podium included, created quite the stir—first in the theater’s audience and then among the Twitter commentariat. Spicer seems to be having a ball with his newfound fame, which (along with the Emmys’ toothless “political humor”) strikes me as the heart of the problem. We shouldn’t be celebrating the collaborators (see also: Roger Ailes, included in that dreadfully cheap-looking “In Memoriam” montage) any more than we should Dear Leader, lest we want CBS to become state TV. If I may, I’d like to offer a suggestion for next year’s Emmy theme: Make Fascists Miserable Again.
Losers: Stephen Colbert and James Corden
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Corden’s spine is so flexible in the presence of stars (Carpool Karaoke) he might be classified as an invertebrate, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the photo of him mugging with Spicer floating around the web this morning. But Colbert, who’s often been a ferocious critic of the White House even within the confines of The Late Show format, is more of a huckster than I thought, or otherwise made a grave miscalculation. Perhaps he thought he could control Spicer’s reception, then undercut the appearance with a weak joke. (He could not.) Either way, it cut his legs off just as he was hitting his stride as host, and left a sour taste in the mouth that even a sublime Westworld gag couldn’t wash out. F for effort, Stephen.
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
“Let me reclaim my time.” The 9 to 5 reunion. “I am truly amazed at how many black people are here.” RuPaul in Emmy drag. “Detective Frank Pembleton held this joint.” Big Little Lies. A tribute to Roots. From Lena Waithe’s rousing acceptance speech for Master of None to Riz Ahmed’s award for The Night Of, this year’s Primetime Emmys were perhaps the most diverse in the 69 years the TV Academy’s been handing them out, along lines of race, gender and sexual identity alike. It’s an indication of the strides the medium’s made, and—more importantly—a widely watched reminder that giving even more women, people of color, and queer people the space to create promises a revolution in this country’s most popular art.
“The most diverse” Emmys is not exactly a high bar—Sterling K. Brown’s reference to Andre Braugher upon winning Best Actor (Drama) for This Is Us was a potent reminder that two decades can pass between major milestones. Among Colbert’s more apt jokes was about this very subject: “I didn’t know you could applaud,” he said during a riff on diversity, “while patting yourself on the back at the same time.” That the TV Academy literally went on to do so, when Asian, Latino and Native American characters remain vanishingly rare on TV—and when all groups, besides white men, remain vastly underrepresented in writers’ rooms and director’s chairs—isn’t just disappointing. It suggests a worrisome belief that TV’s diversity problem has already been “solved,” when the work is in fact just beginning.
Winner: “Political” Programming
Politics ruled the night: In addition to the Variety Sketch and Variety Talk winners, both The Handmaid’s Tale and Veep took home multiple prizes, and everything from Lithgow’s shout-out to Winston Churchill to the victorious Alec Baldwin telling Trump “here is your Emmy” had a ripped-from-the-headlines aspect to it. If Saturday Night Live soared on the strength of Baldwin’s (mundane) Trump impression and fellow winner Kate McKinnon’s affectionate, often startling send-up of Hillary Clinton, it was Last Week Tonight that signaled the tenor of the times: No “comedy” show is as dense with information or as committed to journalism as HBO’s “news satire.” Hell, most cable news shows don’t come close.
Loser: Everything Else
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The night’s overweening interest in “politics” at its most traditional did have its limits. Does Veep really need another Emmy? (Julia Louis-Dreyfus does not. Sorry, not sorry.) Is The Handmaid’s Tale the only urgent program about women in society? (Nope! Rachel Bloom’s delightful Ernst & Young number reminded me that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been sorely neglected by voters.) BoJack Horseman is the defining TV series of our time, but nominating an animated series for Best Comedy is still a non-starter. Strong dramas about race and racism (Underground, Queen Sugar, Shots Fired) continue to grow in number, but the Best Drama field was close to lily-white. In other words, it’s dispiriting to see Emmy voters define “politics” down to Saturday Night Live, which may be the least interesting “political” program on television. Let’s shake things up!
I changed this post-game analysis from the usual “snubs and surprises” to winners and losers because, well, there weren’t many surprises: Though the Emmy nominations remain profoundly frustrating (I guess I’m never getting over the failure to nominate Carrie Coon for The Leftovers), most of last night’s winners were more than deserving. I could quibble—fingers crossed for The Americans’ Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell next year!—but I can’t complain. It’s not a bad place to be when the medium’s highest honor is actually honoring the medium’s best (or close to it). TV for the win.
Loser: The Emmy Telecast
They played off Sterling K. Brown—a man with so much charisma his smile could strip wood—in the midst of a moving discussion about what his win means in the context of Emmy history. They played off Kate McKinnon as she thanked Hillary Clinton. They wheeled out Sean Spicer like a trophy. They let presenters’ bits run way too long. They remembered Roger Ailes but not Dick Gregory or Harry Dean Stanton. This surely goes back to the diversity question — “Nobody got that loud music,” Brown remarked as the orchestra sounded its tune, drawing the point with just five words — but it’s also baffling as television. Aren’t these people supposed to be the leaders in their field? “Everything is better on TV,” Colbert sang in the night’s opening number—except, that is, the Emmys.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.