If NBC and the Television Academy were hoping that an awards show saturated with Saturday Night Live talent was going to boost ratings, they got a rude awakening on Tuesday morning. The overnight ratings indicate the viewing audience was 10 per cent below the ratings for the Emmys on CBS last year, which was already a record low.
Further, if the public is supposed to know what to watch based on the winners at the Emmy Awards, the public was often sent in the wrong direction. There were surprises galore, as superior content was ignored in favour of dazzle. The canon of fiercely clever, truly substantial television cannot be extrapolated from the winners in the major categories.
Sure, there is a formidable amount of excellence and challenging, inventive comedy and drama. There is so much that it’s hard to keep up. Even TV critics find it impossible these days. But the Emmy Awards, as they unfolded on Monday night, did not reflect the very best.
First, the Emmy Awards show itself. Co-hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost of SNL were sadly lacking in sustained humour. There were jokes, but no unifying theme. There was irony but few laughs. A series of gags featuring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as phony Emmys experts went nowhere and got worse as the night wore on. Multiple performers from SNL appeared throughout, but they, too, mostly failed to land laughs. It was rather like one of the episodes of Saturday Night Live that simply lands flat. Also, one was reminded that without material mocking the Trump administration, much of SNL’s humour is juvenile and irrelevant.
One attempt at a theme was the issue of diversity. Jost and Che did a humorous bit about the “Reparation Oscars” in which black actors Marla Gibbs, Jimmy Walker, Jaleel White, Kadeem Hardison, Tichina Arnold and John Witherspoon were given statues for their work on long-cancelled shows. It was more pointed than funny, mind you. And even that seemed oddly flat, because diversity was not featured in the actual winners on Monday night. The terrific and significant series Atlanta, on FX, was largely ignored.
Which brings us to the content that did win in the major categories. Games of Thrones winning as Outstanding Drama is a matter of sizzle, not substance, at this point. It is a remarkable series but more fantastic in its visuals and special effects than a meaty narrative that says anything about the human experience, sociologically or politically. Both The Americans and The Handmaid’s Tale are vastly superior, substantive works. They are also vastly superior to Netflix’s The Crown.
In the comedy categories, Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was the winner for series, directing and writing (that’s why the top-hatted creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was on the stage so often), lead actress (Rachel Brosnahan) and supporting actress (Alex Borstein). The series, which many in Canada have not seen because Amazon Prime has, so far, a limited presence here, has a sublime first episode and then drifts away into self-indulgence and convolution. It does look stunning in every episode, as its setting in late-1950s Manhattan is given a breathtaking treatment. But as an hour-long comedy that often weaves darkness into the laughs, it seems very slight and all over the map.
Over all, HBO and Netflix tied for the most trophies, with 23 each. FX deservedly won several times for The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Yet it seems peculiar and downright wrong that FX failed to see much for Atlanta. A problem with Atlanta might be that it has a challenging tone, while HBO’s Barry, which brought Emmy wins for Henry Winkler and Bill Hader, is easier to pin down as an irony-drenched black comedy about a hit man who wants to become an actor.
It’s possible to extrapolate from the winners that Television Academy voters prefer the easily understood to the perplexingly brilliant. There is merit in Netflix’s The Crown, but much of that merit is anchored in the cinematic look – a reflection of Netflix’s huge budget – rather than the perceptiveness of the series. The return of Game of Thrones – it was absent last year when The Handmaid’s Tale won Outstanding Drama series – seemed to impress the voters unduly.
What can be extrapolated too is that broadcast TV came away empty-handed. Imagine this: CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and PBS won nothing for the vast amount of material they produced and aired during the past TV season. There has been a shift to premium cable and streaming services under way for years now, which has brought about a shift in quality and audience preference. And yet, perhaps because there is so much content, the Emmy Awards present a confusing and inexact picture of the greatness of the material. In picking winners, sizzle is chosen over the steak.