Emmy Talk Is Cheap — Except When It Really Says Something

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Lip service is cheap, right? Easy to pay, easy to discount. For awards shows like the Emmys, where the presenters’ and hosts’ stilted attempts at timely patter often manage to seem both over- and underrehearsed, sincerity is the much more elusive currency. Last night’s Emmy Awards featured a surprising number of moments that elicited genuine feelings of hopefulness, without ever overwhelming the wariness which seems to always accompany these Hollywood ceremonies devoted to congratulations, symmetrical faces, and mani-cams.

Jill Soloway wins for Outstanding Direction for a Comedy Series.
Jill Soloway wins for Outstanding Direction for a Comedy Series.

Going in, it was the changes to the Emmy voting rules that suggested the show might stand out from previous ones. For the first time, instead of a small, select committee for each award assigned to watch every nominee, all members could vote in their own specific branch (actors were all eligible to vote for acting awards, editors for editors, etc.). Prior to last night’s ceremony, Vox.com’s Todd VanDerWerff theorized that this might lead to “the most unpredictable awards in years,” as though the Emmy voters, asked to check off one name out of less than a dozen, might all revolt and write in the strap-on from Broad City for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy. Or Outstanding Supporting Actress. Or possibly both. Instead, the featured unpredictability came from what happens when people who have something genuinely important to say are given a supportive platform and a several-million-strong audience.

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Andy Samberg hides from an audience determined to keep a straight face
Andy Samberg hides from an audience determined to keep a straight face.

I long ago succumbed to Andy Samberg’s infectious good nature (everyone should be watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and last night was no different, although the in-house audience seemed glumly resistant to acknowledging how hard Samberg was working to keep things both light and barbed. Grantland‘s Jason Concepcion has a plausible theory that the audience members were terrified of becoming targets on Twitter and so tried to remain completely still, employing that technique we all learned from Jurassic Park about how to hide directly in the eyeline of a T-Rex.

While Samberg’s Peak-TV-skewering opening number and ability to keep the show from going over time were justly praised, it was really his willingness to make jokes early on in the show about the industry’s racial and gender disparities that stuck to the ribs and settled there. This made it seem as if each additional comment, by winners and presenters alike, was building on an established theme. Finding a host willing to actually say something and letting him say it was a surprising turn for the Emmys, which has always been the awards show least likely to take the chance of offending its own members, preferring to insult the audience with the repellent Jimmy Kimmel or distract it through the frenetic charms of Neil Patrick Harris and Jimmy Fallon.

We tend to be skeptical, for good reason, of white men who stand up and mock the disproportionate state of affairs while benefiting from them, and Samberg deserves credit for making jokes with an unusual amount of bite. By the end of the evening, however, this all might have felt merely scripted if it weren’t for winners like Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambor, and Viola Davis seizing their moment at the podium in order to advocate for change with a seriousness that managed to bring some of that much needed sincerity.

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Soloway, in accepting her award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Transparent, drew on her personal experience with a transgender parent to decry housing discrimination and declared, “We don’t have a trans tipping point yet. We have a trans civil-rights problem.” Transparent‘s other win of the night was for lead actor Tambor, who spoke directly to the transgender community, saying, “Thank you for letting us be part of the change.” Tambor’s gentle manner and evident gratitude stood in naked contrast to the bombastic self-congratulation exhibited by Jared Leto when accepting awards for his own performance as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club.

And Viola Davis, after becoming the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (we really need to stop having to type sentences like that), quoted Harriet Tubman and then pointed out, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Andy Samberg and Seth Meyers present Lorne Michaels with a World's Best Boss mug
Andy Samberg and Seth Meyers present Lorne Michaels with a World’s Best Boss mug.

These speeches were so important because, while the Academy honored the work of Soloway, Tambor, and Davis–as well as that of Regina King and Uzo Aduba– there were plenty of reminders that the television industry is as slow to change as any other. The reason that the reactions of Taraji P. Henson and other black actresses have been so easily cataloged last night and this morning is that there were so few present in the audience.

A bit where Samberg and Seth Meyers presented a World’s Best Boss mug to Lorne Michaels included the observation that forty of the current nominees got their first job in the industry from Michaels. But when Samberg and Meyers declared that the real winner was Shonda Rhimes, the moment stood out as an unintentional reminder of how concentrated power is in the television industry and how often diverse representation rests in the hands of very few individuals. Michael’s SNL has always had a problem with diversity in both its casting and hosting choices, and without someone like Rhimes, Viola Davis would never have been given the lead of a show like How to Get Away With Murder. 

When a parade of women started winning awards for writing, directing, and starring in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, it was so notable that Richard Jenkins, in accepting his award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series for his role in the production, couldn’t help mentioning it: “I would like to thank the incredible women who made Olive Kitteridge happen. There’s about a hundred thousand of them.” Someone at HBO had to green-light that production, just as someone at Amazon had to give the go-ahead to Transparent.

Meanwhile, the many white men of late night television, James Cordon, Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver (plus Ricky Gervais) put in appearances as presenters with bits that stretched and stretched, while Jamie Lee Curtis gave us all a queasy feeling when she joked about the pronunciation of Uzo Aduba’s name–all of which can be filed away under: Business-as-Usual

Viola Davis presenting at the 67th Emmy Awards before winning for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Viola Davis presenting at the 67th Emmy Awards before winning for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Of course, the real sign of change will be when none of the news items from last night cause a stir. The problem with award shows as places for advocacy is that, while individuals may be sincere, the industry has something to sell and the appearance of change can be an appealing product. It’s a shame that these were apparently the least watched Emmys ever because they suggested that the most relevant function for an awards show is actually taking part in a real conversation, rather than covering up what’s really going on with a lot of talk.