It’s TV’s biggest night. There will be dozens of stars there, including movie stars, who used to avoid television work but now crave it. They will walk the red carpet and present awards for hours and hours. Fun or what?
Nothing is just fun these days. Thing is, The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards (Sunday, Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.) will be loads of fun for the nominees and presenters, and for the audience at home, but this one is fraught. With television in a state of flux that was once unimaginable – multiple new streaming services will launch between now and next year’s Emmys – and bristling tensions among writers, their agents and studios, there’s a lot at stake.
And then there are the prestige series that contrived to avoid this round of Emmys, including The Crown, Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale, by delaying their new seasons so as not to be eligible. Contrivance or cunning ruse? You can be the judge if you want to make judgments. It’s not easy, believe me.
While you might be happy to watch to see if Game of Thrones and Veep win yet more awards now that they have finished their runs, or ponder if Sandra Oh or Jodie Comer – both nominated for Killing Eve – are more deserving, others are watching and listening closely to acceptance speeches. See, six months ago 7,000 writers, members of the Writers Guild of America, fired their agents after a battle between the WGA and agencies about fees and packaging deals went nowhere. The TV trade papers call it “psychological warfare.” Listen, there is probably someone cooking up a drama about that right now.
There’s no host, following the lead of the Academy Awards. There are more presenters than it is possible to convey in one newspaper column. And there are entire casts presenting – Game of Thrones, the cast of Veep, and, in case anyone thinks they have money and power, the cast of Keeping Up with the Kardashians will present, thereby endeavouring to make everyone else feel small and unimportant.
Two categories matter the most and offer their own subplots. They are best drama series and best comedy series. Up for best drama are Better Call Saul (AMC), Bodyguard (Netflix), Game of Thrones (HBO), Killing Eve (BBC America), Ozark (Netflix), Pose (FX), Succession (HBO) and This Is Us (NBC). A likely winner is Game of Thrones because it’s Game of Thrones and the voters have seen it. At the same time, there are rumblings of a backlash, with the final batch of episodes disappointing many in the industry who wanted a triumphantly emphatic finish. What should win is Pose. In its first season, it soared. In its second season, it was barely watchable. That’s TV for you.
In best comedy series it’s Barry (HBO), Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video), The Good Place (NBC), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video), Russian Doll, (Netflix), the CBC’s Schitt’s Creek (airing in the United States on Pop) and Veep (HBO).
What should win is Fleabag. Who else broke the fourth wall of TV and addressed the audience? What other series made you that uncomfortable and at the same time made you feel wise about life? What will win is Veep, because Julia Louis Dreyfus and because Trump. If you can’t criminally prosecute Trump then at least you can celebrate a series that aimed to mock the bejeepers out of the awfulness of Washington politics.
In terms of sheer quality and relevance, the category that truly has power is best limited series. Look at the list: Chernobyl (HBO), Escape at Dannemora (Showtime), Fosse/Verdon (FX), Sharp Objects (HBO) and When They See Us (Netflix). The level of artistic ambition in all nominees is incredible. What should win is Chernobyl, a series that is a profound elegy for truth. It moved along with a grave sadness, though, and that is why When They See Us, which is moved by anger about race and class in America, will probably win. And that’s fair.
Right now, television has an immediate, cutting-edge power that actually transcends the Emmy Awards. It’s bound to be fun, this three-hour endorsement of countless shows, actors and writers. But it’s fraught, too, if you know where to look beyond the narcissistic and precious quality that comes with any awards show. Television is about storytelling and the stories that seethe beneath the Emmys are as dramatic as any fantasy or police-procedural airing or streaming right now.
Also airing this weekend
She Walks With Apes (Saturday, CBC NN on The Nature of Things) is a big-time CBC doc made by Mark Starowicz. Narrated by Sandra Oh and gorgeously made, it’s about the so-called “Trimates”, three women who went into the jungles of Africa and Borneo to live with the great apes. It’s about Jane Goodall, but also has rarely seen images of Dian Fossey, who was murdered while working with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. And then there is Canadian Biruté Galdikas, who lived among the orangutans of Borneo 50 years ago and is still there today.
American Masters: Charley Pride: I’m Just Me (Sunday, PBS, 10 p.m.) is a repeat from earlier this year but an excellent addendum to the Ken Burns series Country Music. Charley Pride was and is the most unlikely of country superstars – a sharecropper’s son born on a cotton farm in segregated Sledge, Miss., then Negro American League baseball player and a truly trail-blazing country-music star. His story is bizarre in so many ways, but heartening.
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