“Television has never been bigger, television has never mattered more and television has never been this damn good,” Bryan Cranston said when introducing the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards airing on FOX Sunday night. If only a similar sentiment could be said about the Awards themselves, a prolonged menagerie of advertisement, occasionally interesting if predictable speeches — shoutout to Michelle Williams calling attention to the still very-real pay gap in the industry — and self-congratulation airing on a medium that loses relevance by the day. The Emmys in 2019 celebrated profoundly innovative television in a remarkably antiquated way — highlighting efforts by unique creators and pioneering streaming companies through the same channels that your grandparents watch their nightly network news.
Tech giants and streaming empires loomed over the traditionally arts-focused vibe of the show, with the event being held in the Microsoft Theater and featuring a cringeworthy nomination reading narrated by Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant — is this what late capitalism means? Amazon won actual awards for its content in Comedy categories for Acting, Writing and Outstanding Series with awards-favorite “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s criti-favourite “Fleabag.”
The Awards ditched a host this year in favor of having “The Odd Couple” actor Thomas Lennon narrate over the event to mixed success. The lack of a fixed presenter relieved the awards from the glacial pace other ceremonies can suffer from, but resulted in a slightly disjointed experience for anyone watching live. At this point the Emmys are practically designed for YouTube clips and highlights, which is likely how most people consume them anyway. The interstitial content between actual award announcements seemed to be mostly kept for tradition’s sake — and to milk extra advertising dollars out of an artificially inflated event. Who is even able to watch a complete cable broadcast in a cord-cutting world?
Old broadcast formats were not the only tradition kept alive, as “Game of Thrones” continued to break records by sweeping awards left and right. It won Outstanding Drama Series and the show’s Peter Dinklage — one of television’s highest paid faces — won another Best Supporting Actor award. Amongst the less-than-stellar fan and critical reception to “Game of Thrones” final season, it is clear that this was a decision made more out of respect for a show and cast that have been so successful this long rather than a specific congratulations for the series’ performance this year.
Prestige network HBO got to pay tribute to the concluding season of “Veep” as well, bringing on that show’s cast and creators onstage to celebrate. Co-star Hugh Laurie sentimentally reflected on the show as “probably the greatest cast ever assembled…. And all of this supporting the single greatest comic performance I have ever seen from Julia Louis-Dreyfus.”
HBO did more than rest on its impressive laurels though, receiving plenty of recognition for the continued sophomore success of “Barry” — the network’s MVP comedy series received six nominations this year on its own and Bill Hader won Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. The surprisingly popular internet meme sensation, in spite of its bleak subject matter, “Chernobyl” was also recognized for Best Writing in a Limited Series, Best Directing and Outstanding Limited Series overall.
Predictably stale categories like Best Variety Series and Best Writing for a Variety Series stayed that way, going yet again to shows like “Saturday Night Live,” and Amy Adams was as predictably deprived of winning Lead Actress in a Limited Series for “Sharp Objects” as she has been for any of her Oscar nominations. The night still had some pleasant surprises though, like when FX’s “Pose” made history for its star Billy Porter becoming the first openly gay man to win Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
Netflix failed to do spectacularly well in the Awards as it did last year, but pulled Best Directing for a Drama Series with its Jason Bateman-led crime sensation “Ozark” while failing to receive recognition for some of its other critical darlings like “GLOW” — may Alison Brie, Marc Maron and Bettie Gilpin earn some love eventually. “Killing Eve,” a series “Fleabag” winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote, earned Amazon a Lead Actress in a Drama Series win thanks to Jodie Comer’s performance as Villanelle. One could continue on and on to describe every category, but the 71st Emmys could be summed up as recognizing legitimate talent in a bloated and disappointing way.
The work of modern auteurs like Waller-Bridge and Hader on fantastically inventive shows “Barry” and “Fleabag” extends across writing, directing and starring roles. Unicorns like these are talent worth celebrating, but viewers do not need the Academy to tell them that. Emmy awards are still valuable when it comes to prestige, but do streaming pioneers like Amazon and Netflix have anything left to prove at his point? It is no coincidence that some of television’s smartest series are concisely paced and offer fresh perspectives on traditional genres; the exact opposite of the awards show in which they are honored. Comedian Ken Jeong wasn’t wrong when he pointed out the Emmys are too long on-stage while presenting with Nick Cannon. The irony is that his on-the-nose observation that night was in service of a forced, groan-inducing sketch about the age barrier on TikTok.
The Emmys in 2019 can be summarized as that iconic “30 Rock” moment where Steve Buscemi dressed to his idea of a teenager, with all the presentational relevance of a “How do you do, fellow kids?” Good television was on display, but the medium is so rich and diverse at this point that an annual awards show structured so traditionally misses the point. Foreign shows like Ireland’s “Derry Girls” exist outside of Academy radar, but audiences are already watching them anyway. The business has changed, but the trophies have not. For Hollywood, pop culture obsessives and TV critics The Emmys might still matter, but 2019 confirmed they probably do not need to exist anymore for everyone else.