Well TV fans, what an incredibly messy—but occasionally exhilarating—experience that was. Fox’s broadcast of the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards took some chances in terms of its structure, and failed on almost every count. And yet, there were some surprise winners that were incredibly good and truly warmed the cockles of cynical viewer’s’ hearts. Despite Fox’s fail, Emmy voters at least partially turned things around with some very well-deserved wins for great series and actors. Not all, of course, but the ones that were good were very good. (You can check out the full list here).
Below, Amy Amatangelo and I break down the best and worst moments from the often snooze-worthy ceremony (that also acted as a long commercial for The Masked Singer). Hey, at least it ran on time!
Worst: No Host
An awards show can work without a host, but Fox handled their choice to go without particularly poorly by splitting the difference. Instead of having a host to ground things and give the show a steady tone or just having an announcer move things from one category to another by letting the presenters take the stage in turn, this production inserted a ton of weird bits and skits to fill the void—which it did not need to do. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel’s joking riff that the show was bad without hosts wasn’t really a joke at all; both men’s charisma and comfort at being on the stage in just those few moments highlighted everything that was wrong with Fox’s decision to go host-less (including, but not limited to, the “joke” voiceovers during the winners walking up, and Thomas Lennon’s divisive color commentary). The intro was dry, the presenters were forced to take on too much of the comedic brunt (most of which fell incredibly flat), and the overall tone was messy and boring. To quote Jimmy Kimmel, “I’m sorry but this show sucks.” —Allison Keene
Best: Bob Newhart (Worst: Other Skits)
When Ben Stiller came out to present the first award of the night and approached wax like statues of George Burns and Lucille Ball, my jaw dropped. I thought, “What is this? A tribute to Madame Tussauds? It’s so creepy. The Emmys have truly gone off the rails. There is no recovering from this.” But then Bob Newhart saved the whole thing. The comedian, who just turned 90, was the epitome of comic timing and spot on droll delivery. He was, as one would expect from a legend, hilarious. Little did we know he would be the only truly funny skit of the night as the rest vacillated between cringe-inducing to painfully awkward to cruel. I love Adam Devine and I love a musical number but that tribute to variety shows simply didn’t work. The most egregious, of course, was Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz’s laser eye surgery bit. The gag was that they couldn’t see so they said everyone’s name wrong except for Ted Danson’s when they announced Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Get it? Are you laughing yet? I mean this is the nominees’ moment to shine. Why would you take that away from them especially from someone like Eugene Levy, who was last nominated for an Emmy in 1983 and that was for writing on SCTV Network. Your need for a not-funny sight gag isn’t greater that a nominees’ moment. It simply isn’t. —Amy Amatangelo
Worst: Cherry Picking Which Shows Get Special Goodbyes
Look, we all know the Emmys have a history of ignoring shows. Critically acclaimed series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire went their entire run without any love from the Academy. But the trotting out of Game of Thrones and Veep over the other series that also ended this season was so strange. Yes it was fun to see the Game cast all dolled up in Emmy clothes and yes Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale are always hilarious with their bit (they did a similar thing during Dreyfus’ acceptance speech at the 2013 Emmys). But The Big Bang Theory ran for 12 seasons, star Jim Parsons was a multiple Emmy winner and nominee for portraying Sheldon Cooper and the comedy consistently won in the ratings game (not to mention that it dominates the syndication game). Whether or not you like The Big Bang Theory, you have to concede that it’s a huge part of the TV landscape. Why didn’t its stars get to come out to applause and do a funny bit? Even more odd was Orange is the New Black, a previous Emmy darling, getting nary a mention during the “farewell to these series” montage. To be considered for an Emmy, a show had to air between June 1, 2008 and May 31, 2019 and yes the final season of Orange is the New Black premiered July 26—but are the Emmys going to include them next year, nearly 14 months after they ended? That makes no sense and not including them seems like a glaring oversight. —Amy Amatangelo
Best: Surprise Winners
The word “upset pick” is inherently a negative one, like the person in question is upsettingly taking something that rightfully belongs to someone else. But in the case of the 2019 Emmys, the upset wins were some of the night’s only highlights. The big story was Fleabag nearly running the table in the comedy category, taking home best actress for Phoebe Waller-Bridge as well as best overall comedy series. For anyone who has watched Fleabag, this did not come a shock—Waller-Bridge created an iconic, incredible series that somehow managed to gain momentum after a long hiatus into a second and final season (aided greatly by Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest, I would argue, though disgracefully he was not nominated). Still, to take that award from Veep’s final season and former big winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—both of which were clear front-runners going into the ceremony—was an upset and coup, and a welcome one.
Other great surprises included Jodie Comer for her exceptional work on Killing Eve, Billy Porter inching closer to an EGOT with a win for Pose, Jharrel Jerome eking out some space for When They See Us (in a Limited Series category otherwise dominated by Chernobyl), and Julia Garner for Ozark. (Regarding Garner in particular, I’m counting this as a win for her work in The Americans, Dirty John, Maniac, and many other series where she has not gotten the recognition she deserves).
There were some wins that were great though not surprising (Bill Hader for Barry, Michelle Williams for Fosse/Verdon), and only a few that were egregious (Bandersnatch winning out over the Deadwood movie, and Game of Thrones winning best drama). Game of Thrones was the shoo-in for that top category, but it’s interesting (and heartening) that it didn’t really win much elsewhere, especially (thankfully) when it came to writing. The only good drama Game of Thrones brought was the fandom’s hatred of that final season and the series finale in particular. We’ll always have the memes, I guess. —Allison Keene
Worst: Overall Production
Seriously what the hell were they thinking this year? The lack of host was a problem that might have been less noticeable if anything else during the broadcast had looked good. The stage setup was lazy (giant platform with a giant screen), the background images that were chosen for some of the winners were disturbing (a bloody nose for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a strained look and running nose for Jharrel Jerome), and the musical cues were baffling. Was the show trying to be funny by playing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” or Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Off” to wins by Chernobyl? A series about the devastating human and environmental cost of a nuclear disaster? Fleabag’s win was punctuated by … heavy metal? Whether a joke or just horrendously bad planning, it was a noticeable fail.
There was also the always poor decision to keep the microphone on the audience during the In Memoriam section, especially when they had a lovely performance by Halsey. The smattering of applause is always awkward, especially when it comes to some of the writers or producers who only get silence. We don’t need applause—the song and montage are plenty.
Even though there is one positive to note—that the show ran for three hours and no more, bless—the time management was bizarre. Nominees were read out or shot past with alarming speed, and we never got camera shots of them in the audience. We did, however, get plenty of reaction shots of the losers. Again, by cutting the skits (the opening montage was fine) and a host, we could have at least gotten a view of each of those honored in the featured categories. But the show seemed to have no idea what it was meant to actually do. Mess mess mess.
The icing on this rotten cake came when the credits played over clips from the show we just watched, one of the most bewildering decisions in a long night full of them. Ultimately it was an embarrassing production that was slightly saved by some truly outstanding winners. —Allison Keene
Best: Speeches with Meaning
If you’re nominated, you know the possibility that you will have to get up on stage and say a few words exists. I love the people who have clearly thought about how they are going to use their moment and their platform. The world (or at least the Emmy viewing audience) is watching you. Almost everyone who won seemed to know they should seize their moment. You can always count on Patricia Arquette to give a great speech, and her tearful tribute to her sister Alexis Arquette was both beautiful and heartbreaking. From Alex Borstein who advised women to “step out of line” to Michelle Williams who praised FX for their support and equal pay to a joyous Billy Porter who exclaimed, “I have the right, you have the right, we all have the right!” to an exuberant Jharrel Jerome who paid tribute to the exonerated Central Park Five who were in the audience, these actors took their moment in the sun and ran with it. Their speeches made an otherwise dull and bizarrely produced night so worth watching. —Amy Amatangelo
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).