There have now been 70 Emmy Awards ceremonies. That was made abundantly clear throughout this year’s telecast, with jokes like, “Things were very different back [in 1949, when the awards launched] — gas was 17 cents a gallon, a new home cost $7,000, and we all agreed that Nazis were bad.” Certainly over the course of those 70 years, the Academy has made some embarrassing decisions. The Wire never won an Emmy, for example. Neither did Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Hannibal. Two and a Half Men, meanwhile, won nine of them. The first Emmy Awards gave one of its six trophies to a ventriloquist! And that’s all before getting into the systematic devaluing and ignoring of stellar performances from people of color for the better part of a century now.
Last year’s ceremony appeared to signal a shift in the thinking of TV Academy voters, and an attempt to course-correct on the Emmys’ longstanding insularity: all three lead actor awards went to men of color, while a solid chunk of the other major writing and directing awards went to a relatively diverse pool of winners. But at the same time, the 2017 telecast’s ratings hit a new low; the total viewership remained on par with 2016’s, but that paltry audience of 11.4 million saw a significant drop in the key 18 to 49 age demographic.
TV Academy voters aren’t making their choices to please Middle America, but they are attempting to recognize quality in an environment that will judge them for every choice they don’t make, and where every decision will be examined in terms of how it helps their organization’s reputation and its bottom line. The anxious tension between putting on an awards telecast that makes money, and putting on a telecast that matters, has been at the heart of awards shows the past few years, amid across-the-board dropping ratings and heavy criticism about content and recognition for the slow progress being made by women and people of color.
The fight to appear relevant, self-aware, and in touch has led to more political themes taking the front seat at shows like the Golden Globes and Oscars. But there’s a strong tension there, as the Television Academy wants to avoid alienating a polarized audience that may be offended by any political content outside of its preferred brand. That tension came to a head in last night’s Emmys broadcast, a surreal, dissonant descent into the uncanny valley of intent vs. impact that was somehow even more embarrassing than the Academy’s simple traditional snubbing of good television.
To be fair, it can’t be easy making a three-hour TV special under the judgmental gaze of some of the most powerful people on earth. As irritating as I find Colin Jost and Michael Che, the bind they were in — to deliver ratings by appealing to the broadest segment of viewers, while also acknowledging the fact that the industry is basically in crisis, in terms of both #MeToo and diversification issues — could easily have sunk far better hosts. The pressure for awards shows has mounted exponentially every year, as Hollywood’s inadequacies grow more and more apparent. This year, however, it seems the Emmys started cracking under the weight of all that irony.
The broadcast kicked off with its requisite cutesy number, but this year it took the form of a song called “We Solved It!” that poked fun at straight white Hollywood’s tendency to absolve itself of deep-rooted structural inequality with a handful of roles and awards. Considering the nominee pool this year was “the most diverse in history,” clearly the songwriters and performers (among them Kate McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, Sterling K. Brown, and Kristen Bell) assumed the awards that followed would actually go to more than three non-white recipients.
The joke’s outsized tongue-in-cheek delivery doesn’t exactly work when, once again, nominations for a diverse range of performers don’t actually translate into wins. (At least, during the main broadcast.) It certainly is weird to feature only white women in the number without so much as a nod to the fact that white women becoming stand-ins for diversity is a major element of Hollywood’s delusions of success.
The cognitive dissonance only continued from there. Jokes about #MeToo and Ronan Farrow bumped up against the problematic Fred Armisen; jokes about #EmmysSoWhite and white winners never thanking Jesus drew half-hearted chuckles at best from the Microsoft Theater and from viewers online. Even a digital short in which Che gave “Reparations Emmys” to black performers snubbed in decades past, which should have worked, came across as oddly forced.
At one point, Television Academy chairman and TV exec Hayma Washington made an appearance in which he asked the audience to imagine the first Emmy Awards ceremony in 1949 — a ceremony to which, as several people have pointed out, Washington, who is black, would likely not have been invited.
Through it all, Jost, Che, and the many personalities they enlisted to help out (no doubt to distract from the fact that Colin Jost and Michael Che were hosting the Emmys) leaned heavily on jokes and bits about Emmys trivia and Hollywood’s racial disparities that hinged on awkward silences. Trouble was, the jokes were just not good, which immediately rendered the would-be, laughter-filled awkward silences actually awkward.
Even award-show shoo-ins like Kate McKinnon and Tina Fey stonily delivered their lines as though their families were being held hostage backstage. As each new white person marched up the steps to receive a trophy (sometimes, painfully, from two presenters of color) the telecast felt all the more like watching Hollywood have a very public breakdown in its attempt to appear more progressive than its blood pact with Middle America compels it to be.
On the bright side, the absurdity of it all did allow for some shining moments. 2017 Oscars director Glen Weiss basically said “fuck it” and proposed to his girlfriend Jan Svendsen while accepting his award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special. Rachel Brosnahan used her acceptance speech for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy to urge people to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Several indignant audience reactions made for classic GIF fodder. And to top it all off, someone — not Donald Glover, and not Lakeith Stanfield, but someone — sat calmly in quasi-whiteface as Atlanta character Teddy Perkins, without saying a word throughout the ceremony.
Realistically, we have to accept that there will probably never be a truly great Emmy Awards show. Even if the Academy voters catch up with the times and start recognizing a wider, more interesting body of television work — it should be noted, there’s now more of that than ever— the struggle to keep a quorum of American households watching a live network broadcast will always loom for the ceremony itself. As younger people abandon cable and these kinds of self-congratulatory spectacle shows, producers have more and more incentive to keep their jokes middle-of-the-road and their satire comically toothless, even when it bites down as hard as it can.
Right now, Hollywood is struggling to be ironic within a framework that naturally produces irony — and shorting out in the process. Being cripplingly self-aware doesn’t actually make you better, no matter how many jokes you tell at your own expense. Maybe one day Hollywood will realize this, cut the bullshit, and just play it straight again, releasing us from the meta hell of awards shows praising themselves even as they falter.