Oh, so that’s what the people’s Emmys looks like!
From the jokes to the nominees to the winners to the speeches, the 67th Annual Emmy Awards represented a new sort of responsiveness to fans and glowing-screen-lovers everywhere. In 2015, when you pay to enter a packed movie house, the audience is diverse, and this year’s Emmys was reported – by host Andy Samberg – to be the most diverse on record. (Who knows if that factors in sexuality, disability, age, weight, and national origin – does Peter Dinklage “count as diverse”? – but in the Kumbaya spirit let’s worry about those things later.)
Diversity matters because for a certain “traditional” Emmy-watching demographic, we’ve been hearing rumblings of “PC overkill” when it comes to recent news about Damon-splaining, Republican choices for women on the $10 bill, and the foreseeable end of 130 years of performing The Mikado. You might think that this year’s Emmys, with the new rule changes designed to include more nominees (some categories went from 5 to 8!) and more voters in each category (now members don’t have to have seen the shows to vote), presented by a hyper-sensitive Hollywood, would be a boring slog through militant PC-ville.
In fact, the only truly tedious part of last night’s show had nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with the 45 show minutes devoted to Olive Kitteredge – a fine show, but its commemoration seemed to take more time than the events depicted in Olive Kitteredge. Didn’t see it and don’t get it? Right, you’re like 95% of last night’s viewers.
Far more often last night, the 95% were rewarded, and the evidence starts with the big winners, Exhibit A being Game of Thrones’ surprising wins over Mad Men in writing, directing, and Best Drama Series. (One of my friends, an Emmy nominee for writing a drama series, instagrammed his limo selfie last night: “Off to lose to Mad Men.”) As Andy Greenwald has written, “Game of Thrones is on television but doesn’t really seem of television,” and that’s why its win felt unlikely, and sweet vindication that television can go way beyond its normal parameters and yet win the industry’s highest honors.
You could make the case that the 2015 season wasn’t exactly Game of Thrones’ best, but 90% of GoT’s best is still 120% of that produced by most of its competitors. Pre-awards favorite Mad Men had won top honors during its first three seasons, while GoT hadn’t. Perhaps this was a bit of an award for the series’ entire run to date; if so, there’s something people-powered about the idea of come on, it’s about time overcoming ah-ah-ah, but what was best THIS year? Similar logic worked in favor of GoT’s HBO-lineup-mate Veep, which won a very deserving Best Comedy Series on its fourth try. I’ve written my extended Veepreciation, but that doesn’t change the fact that Veep was rather underrated, in more ways than one, until last night. (Or else why would HBO have bumped it from 10 to 10:30?)
But wait! You say. If previous snubs were criteria – if this was a parity Emmys – how did The Daily Show with Jon Stewart win again, having literally won 10 years in a row (2003-2012)? The factor that trumped parity was the people: people love Jon Stewart almost as much as they love Game of Thrones. For 15 years Stewart has done the work that half of Hollywood wishes it was doing, and now he’s leaving on top, as all of them wish they could do. Whoa, take a breath: did we really just say goodbye to Jon and Jon, meaning Jon Stewart and Don Draper, who taught us exactly how to be a sensitive white man in the 21st century? (Jon Hamm, of course, did this by counter-example, providing an invaluable service for every think-piece – and there are many – that say “this isn’t the Don Draper era, come on.” And WHAT a well-deserved win for Hamm.) We did, and part of the people’s Emmys means they well deserved all that applause.
Where the Emmys have sometimes seemed out-of-touch or sclerotic – for example, last year’s extended smooch between Bryan Cranston and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was, considering the Emmy unstoppability of those two, a little too much like making us watch the Prom King and the Prom Queen neck for a while – this year was a feast for the fans. Last night, when the screen above the stage showed us all the nominees in their seats, we generally saw something that looked like a multiplex audience (read: more than just white). And though cynics might say that the categories have been reshuffled simply to give out more awards, a split to give us “Variety Talk Series” and “Variety Sketch Series” actually feels like long-overdue recognition of the power of sketches (which tend to showcase the less white-male, anyway). Another hallmark of diversity, if not exactly televisual excellence, is the split in Reality to give us “Reality Competition Program” (apparently “game show” doesn’t sound as cool), “Structured Reality Program,” and “Unstructured Reality Program.” (Spoiler alert: they’re all structured.) At least the Emmys was smart enough not to put all these awards on the air – they might think about a similar consolidation next year for all the Mini-Series awards (or watch Olive Kitteridge 2 drive half their viewership to Sunday Night Football).
But the most prominent diversity was in the jokes and the speeches, and that’s where we saw that even in this era of trigger warnings and microaggressions, people can break through the clutter with humor and sentiment that we can all applaud. Some of the better jokes:
- The above image showing all the shows about wives, which says something almost-subversive about how Hollywood contextualizes women. (A hilarious title card said “SUCK IT BOOKS” but may as well have said “SUCK IT SINGLE, NOT-LOOKING WOMEN.”)
- Andy Samberg: “But the big story this year of course is diversity. This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history, so congratulations Hollywood you did it! Racism is over. Don’t fact-check that.”
- Samberg again: “Amy Schumer is nominated tonight and I gotta say Amy Schumer is really really funny, you know, for a person.”
- And from Schumer herself: “And let’s not forget what this night is really about – celebrating hilarious women and letting the internet weigh in on who looks the worst.”
In terms of speeches, Emmy winners face extraordinary pressures – they know that a certain segment of America thinks they’re way too liberal and they shouldn’t even call attention to their minority status at all – like Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina, let the work speak for itself. Uzo Aduba, winning for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, probably gave such a speech, and there’s nothing wrong with that such apolitical expressions. Then there’s that other segment of their minority friends demands that they address the literal blood in the streets when it comes to, say, transgender or black people. In that context, the following three speeches impressively threaded the needle and made me proud to be American.
As Jill Soloway won an award that not enough women have won, Directing a Comedy Series, she said: “I’d like to thank the actors especially Jeffrey Tambor and how you channel Maura…something interesting about my moppa, Carrie, she could tomorrow go and try to find an apartment and in 32 states it would be legal for the landlord to look her in the eye and say ‘We don’t rent to trans people.’ We don’t have a trans tipping point yet, we have a trans civil-rights problem, so go to transequality.org and vote to pass the trans equality bill.”
You see, Soloway was responding partly to angry blog posts from the trans community that a trans actor could and should be playing the lead role of Maura. Here’s how the lead actor, Jeffrey Tambor, responded to those when he won for Best Actor in a Comedy Series: “I had a teacher who used to say, when you act you have to act as though your life depends on it, and now I’ve been given the opportunity to act because people’s lives depend on it. I would like to thank Jill Solloway for giving me the privilege and the responsibility of Maura Pfefferman…I’d like to dedicate my performance and this award to the transgender community. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your stories. Thank you for your inspiration. Thank you for letting us be part of the change.”
This was sensitive of both Soloway and Tambor. This was saying, look, we know more work remains to be done, but it’s not like we’re doing nothing either. This was Soloway and Tambor blazing a trail between radical left-wing activism and radical right-wing shut-up-about-politics-ism that all of us can, and most of us do, get behind.
And then, making headlines as the first African-American Woman to win Best Actress in a Drama, in full awareness of the context of both losing the Oscar three years ago to Meryl Streep (despite Streep’s advocacy for Davis) and the “angry black woman” controversy begun by Alessandra Stanley that consumed Twitter exactly a year ago, came the one and only Viola Davis. She both won for ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder and showed us how to recognize your heritage while at the same time not “playing the victim.” This, her full speech from last night, will stand as the guide to how to thread that needle until anyone else can do it at this level:
In my mind I see a line. And over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line. That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something. The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people..Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk. Shonda Rhimes. People who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Megan Goods, to Gabrielle Union – thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the television academy. Thank you.
And thank you to the Television Academy mostly for knowing when to get out of the way.