Now that Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’s The Late Show, has hosted the Emmys on CBS in the same calendar year that Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, hosted the Golden Globes on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, hosted the Oscars on ABC, it’s official: for the first time ever in a year, the late-night M.C. of each of America’s three broadcast networks hosted its major screen-content awards-show. At this point, this milestone registers as little more than a blip along the way to a total corporate consolidation/commodification of our experience of television. (In the old days, millennials, they might have worked harder to hire a great comedian outside their network stables.) Stephen Colbert was perhaps righter than he knew during his monologue when he said, “You can’t deny that every show is influenced by Donald Trump in some way.” The 45th President represents pure transactionalism and the monetization of shamelessness, and who are NBC, ABC, and CBS not to follow suit? (After all, it was Les Moonves, head of CBS, who famously commented 18 months ago that Trump “may not be good for America,” but he was “damn good for CBS.” For many, CBS continued in this feckless vein by inviting Sean Spicer to the Emmys; I defer to the linked while inviting you to read about other aspects of the show.)
Colbert’s point about Trump’s omnipresence was only one way in which he proved prescient about the night’s big winner, the prescient “Handmaid’s Tale.” Colbert was also smart (tasteless?) enough to finish his opening song by dancing with a cadre of handmaids who stripped down to Rockettes-style outfits. One of the more remarkable aspects of Colbert’s performance as Emmys host is that most reviews didn’t judge it a performance at all. Gone are the days from two long years ago, when every thinkpiece about Colbert had to speculate about the difference between the Colbert Report’s “Stephen Colbert” and the more CBS-friendly Colbert. When reviewers reviewed his Emmys “Westworld” bit they didn’t even bother to reference his Comedy Central character. These days, we accept his impeccable comic timing as a given, with or without an audience saying “STE-PHEN! STE-PHEN!”
The Emmy audience might as well have been saying “HAND-MAID! HAND-MAID!” “The Handmaid Tale”’s fiercest advocates likely had no idea that the show would do quite so well, winning for Best Drama, Best Director (Drama), Best Writing (Drama), Best Lead Actress (Drama), Best Supporting Actress (Drama), and Best Guest Actress (Drama). (Yes, that’s a lot of Drama.) At the wise old age of 35, Elisabeth Moss has become a good-luck charm for drama Emmys; three of her shows have now won Best Drama, and those three shows combined for nine Best Drama Emmys (“The West Wing” won four times, namely for its first four seasons, “Mad Men” won four times, namely for its first four seasons, and now “The Handmaid’s Tale” is 1 for 1.) Hard to think of an actor of any age who has put her stamp on quite so many Best Drama successes; her win last night was both entirely deserved and long overdue. (And frankly, “The Handmaid’s Tale” needed her for prestige value, needed her in the front row in a pink chiffon dress showing bare white shoulders; the show is near-graphic about rape, and every little bit of cachet helps.)
The triumph of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a sweet late-career victory lap for author Margaret Atwood, who took the stage with the show’s above-the-line talent at the end of Emmys Night. “The Handmaid’s Tale”’s win also represents delicious vindication for Hulu, which has now officially leapfrogged streaming-only competitors Netflix and Amazon to claim an Emmy for Best Show of some kind. Netflix and Amazon, each worth more than 100 times the stock value of Hulu, probably aren’t too bent out of shape at the news; instead, they’re probably happy that Hulu has proven that streaming services are a viable awards-contending model. Frankly, the two richly deserved Emmy trophies for “Black Mirror” were invaluably assisted by its streaming on Netflix, from where it was able to reach a critical mass of voters.
Taken together, “Black Mirror” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” represent an increasing acceptance for science fiction. That’s distinct from fantasy, which is what “Game of Thrones” is. Until this decade, many said that both genres were too “low” to win major prizes like these. (“Game of Thrones” pushed its season to summer and was ineligible for Emmys this year.) Clearly, “genre” is no longer a deal-breaker. For most of TV history, Best Drama went to original dramas (think “NYPD Blue,” “The Practice,” etc.) But literary adaptation has roared back with a vengeance, as proved by the night basically belonging to “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Big Little Lies.” (And maybe “Game of Thrones” in absentia.) It’s true that Hollywood still relies on original screenplays, but adaptations are bringing home a lot of gold. In this way, they’re not unlike blockbuster films, now dominated by pre-existing properties (are we counting comic books as literature?). Authors have to be happy.
That brings me to something Nicole Kidman said onstage…no, not during her lengthy acceptance speech for a well-deserved Best Actress (Mini-Series), but during her shared speech with Reese Witherspoon for “Big Little Lies”’s win for Best Mini-Series. Kidman said that she and Witherspoon weren’t getting good scripts and that’s why they moved to TV. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon aren’t getting scripts?!? (I’m sure Sofia Coppola and Hallie Meyers-Shyer, directors of Kidman and Witherspoon’s latest respective films, appreciate getting thrown under the bus.) Beautiful, incredibly talented, blonde Oscar-winning A-listers? If this is really true, what hope is there for anyone else? Is it simply sexism? (Probably.) So yes, in a sense Kidman’s offhanded remark becomes yet another milestone along the way to TV outclassing the movies.
Women are obviously a major part of that outclassing, and everywhere you looked on Emmy Night, females fronted the winners: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Veep,” “Big Little Lies,” the Kate McKinnon-led “Saturday Night Live,” “Full Frontal,” and even the episode that got “Black Mirror” its two Emmys. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Selina Meyer on “Veep,” is now the performer to have won the most Emmys for playing the same character; she’s 6 for 6.) Where you didn’t see women, you often saw color: two Emmys for Donald Glover for “Atlanta” (one for acting, one for directing), a first-ever Emmy for a South Asian actor thanks to Riz Ahmed in “The Night Of,” a well-earned Emmy for Sterling K. Brown for “This is Us,” and an Emmy for two writers of color who created a “Master of None.” Not to mention Ava Duvernay’s well-earned win for “The 13th.” Maybe “Orange is the New Black” is turning into an Emmy afterthought, but not the world it hath wrought.
In their nominees and winners, the Emmys generally make good choices. If this is the Platinum Era of TV, as some say, the Emmys aren’t an entirely terrible reflection of it. I used to object to the expansion of the categories from 5 nominees to 6 or 7, but it’s getting harder to die on that hill with 450 scripted shows that no one can possibly watch. The larger problem gets back to Colbert’s remarks about Trump (and, okay, use of moral reprobate Sean Spicer). In the short term, the Emmys are reasonable enough, but in the long term, they’re a sign of television metastasizing over every aspect of our public lives, making absolutely everything (say, botany, furniture, disabilities) into entertainment and commodities. And so we get the unfortunate milestone of this President. Sucking up and spitting out all our cultural milestones, TV inevitably makes itself the problem and the solution…and the problem again.