Perspective | Last night’s Emmys did the impossible and made an awards show good TV


The 75th Emmy Awards weren’t just watchable. They were — and I’m shocked to be writing this — good. Crisp, nostalgic, roguishly educational, the ceremony moved swiftly along without producing, in the viewer, that embattled sense of duty familiar to any parent applauding each child’s performance at a talent show. Host Anthony Anderson set the tone for an informal but real collective commitment to efficiency by threatening to get his mother to cut folks off (and making good on the threat when Jennifer Coolidge went over her time). Less “sexy” categories were enlivened with startlingly pleasurable, high-powered reunions (including the casts of “Martin,” “Cheers” and “Ally McBeal”). Some of these took place on sets re-created with surprising fidelity to the originals and managed to evoke, better than any montage could, the grand sweep of TV history and our attachment to it.

In retrospect, putting presenters in the places we’ve loved watching them, to have them present nominees and name winners, feels like an obvious way for the folks who understand and produce TV to make TV about TV watchable. It so often isn’t! The visual monotony of awards shows is a chronic problem (no matter how stunning the stage design or the dresses). And the concept itself — people congratulating and thanking each other in fits of faux modesty while praising the “art” and the “dream” — is tough to make palatable, let alone entertaining. The model on offer last night felt like a breakthrough. Why haven’t we swapped out the loop of actors walking up aisles to stand in front of microphones for an award delivered by a mournful Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco hanging out — improbably — in Dr. Melfi’s office from “The Sopranos” followed by another dispensed via SNL’s “Weekend Update”?

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It helped that the sketches weren’t pure homage or uncut nostalgia. They usually had, if not a plot, then heart, or resonance, themselves. It’s canny, televisually speaking, to have Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers sing “Those Were the Days” (as Archie and Edith Bunker did before them) while they introduce the “In Memoriam” section. Not just because they’re the right people to honor Norman Lear, but because they were young, and now they are old. As sitcom allusions go, that’s practically a memento mori.

The “Grey’s Anatomy” reunion was, for related reasons, more than a photo op. It contained within it the seeds of a genuine “TV moment” of healing in which everyone — including Katherine Heigl herself — treated her controversial departure from the show like an in-joke instead of a rift.

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The reunions tended, as reunions do, to highlight the appeal of a really good ensemble. So while the range of winners was almost parodically narrow — “Succession,” “Beef,” and “The Bear” dominated most categories, as did “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” in the “Variety Series” category — last night’s ceremony felt like it was actually less about performers or shows than it was about television writ large. With its messiness, its intimacy, and lower, more accessible ambitions.

The speeches and presenters mostly stuck to a humbler, friendlier register, too. In lieu of generic spiels about how television elevates, presenters and winners talked a bit more about themselves in ways that felt personal without being precious. When Christina Applegate (who has been dealing with multiple sclerosis) was introduced as having first acted at the age of 1, she punctuated the standing ovation she received with jokes. “I’m going to cry more than I’ve been crying,” she said, pointing to an image of herself as an infant playing Baby Burt Grizzell on “Days of Our Lives.” Justin Bateman joked about his own past as a child actor. Arsenio Hall talked about the “talk shows” he hosted as a child. Other folks got surprisingly personal, too, including “Beef” director and creator Lee Sung Jin, “The Bear’s” Matty Matheson and “Succession’s” Kieran Culkin who, having won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Awards for best actor in a drama, yet again defeated his TV brother, Jeremy Strong, and his TV father, Brian Cox, and concluded his speech by telling his wife he wanted more children.

These were not carefully crafted moments; their power felt incidental.

A powerful exception on this front was Niecy Nash-Betts’s acceptance speech for supporting actress in a limited series for her work in “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Nash-Betts, as brilliant an actor as TV has ever had (watch her in “Getting On” if you haven’t), used her 45 seconds to connect her victory to a larger politics. “I want to thank me, for believing in me and doing what they said I could not do,” she said. “I want to say to myself in front of all you beautiful people, ‘Go, girl, with your bad self. You did that.’ Finally, I accept this award on behalf of every Black and Brown woman who has gone unheard, yet overpoliced, like Glenda Cleveland, like Sandra Bland, like Breonna Taylor!”

As for the winners, they were mostly predictable. “Succession” swept the field. Jesse Armstrong won best drama writing for the fourth time in four years. Sarah Snook won for lead actress in a drama series as Shiv Roy. Matthew Macfadyen won for best supporting actor in a drama series as Tom Wambsgans. “The Bear” did more or less the same in the comedy category, with Jeremy Allen White winning lead actor, Ayo Edebiri best supporting actress, Ebon Moss-Bachrach best supporting actor, and the show as a whole best comedy. And “Beef” triumphed in the limited series category, as it should have — with Ali Wong and Steven Yeun taking home awards for lead actor and actress in a limited series. (Wong is the first Asian woman to win a lead acting Emmy!)

No awards show is perfect. I have notes. Natasha Lyonne and Tracee Ellis Ross’s “I Love Lucy” sketch was painful. (Though it, too, delivered an unstudied but memorable TV moment when the camera cut to a grim Steve Martin, and the line of his mouth changed to a wan and joyless smile when he realized he was being watched.) I will maintain to my dying day that “The Bear,” while an excellent series, is not in any sense a comedy, and that “supporting” is the wrong word entirely for Jennifer Coolidge’s role in “The White Lotus,” for which she won best supporting actress.

But those are quibbles about what was — on the whole — a strangely warm and sometimes even cozy night of star-studded TV.



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