Anyone who’s ever followed the Emmy awards knows that when TV voters love something they love it for years and years and years to come. Just think back to how many times Modern Family won Best Comedy (five, FYI) or how many back-t0-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back wins Julia Louis-Dreyfus netted for Veep (six), or even how SNL has yet to lose the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category since 2017. All of that’s to say, many of us expected this year’s ceremony to have that same kind of been-there-done-that feeling even as its nominations had clearly anointed a slew of new shiny newcomers (Severance! Only Murders In The Building! Yellowjackets! Abbott Elementary!) the Television Academy could just as easily have opted to celebrate.
Not that the year felt like deja-vu as it has done in years past. I mean, sure, there were plenty of repeat winners (Hacks’ Jean Smart, the Ted Lasso boys, and the show itself) but the lack of Netflix’s royal drama allowed for some much-needed variety on the drama side. Oh, and allowed HBO to lord over everyone else in a way it hadn’t done for quite some years.
Sure, everyone’s other favorite feuding family reigned supreme once again after taking a year off that permitted The Crown to nab the trophy in 2021, but Succession wasn’t as big a behemoth as it could’ve been. Audience and critic faves like Sheryl Lee Ralph (Abbott Elementary) and Lee Jung-jae (Squid Game) managed wins amid a roster of repeat winners that remind us that no matter how much Peak TV we’re all watching, a night’s worth of Emmy awards will always make it look like only five shows aired on any given year.
As telecasts go, we must acknowledge that this year’s show moved perhaps a tad too swiftly (more of that in a bit) and offered plenty of laughs in the process. Which is what happens when you give witty banter to great comedy duos like Molly Shannon and Vanessa Bayer, comedy trios like Martin Short, Steve Martin and Selena Gomez (arguably making the strongest case for hosting something, anything sometime in the future), and outright comedy legends in the making like Bowen Yang, who had the best Only Murders In The Building joke of the night.
With self-described “mayor of television” Kenan Thompson as the night’s emcee, it was perhaps a given that we’d all be in good hands. The SNL vet is nothing if not professionalism personified. And if his bits were never laugh-out-loud funny or instantly iconic in ways we’ve come to expect from recent awards show hosts (hey, at least he didn’t have a slap to contend with!), he played the room and the stage like a pro. And you gotta hand it to him, getting so many Netflix-is-poor jabs while having Ted Sarandos within eyesight was a treat.
And if Thompson’s straight man routine helped buoy some moderately funny bits (Kumail Nanjiani bartending; modern dancers reinterpreting famous TV theme songs), it was Sam Jay’s voice and presence which helped set this year’s ceremony apart. The SNL writer helped keep things breezy, casual, and often outright hilarious: “Nothing to see here, just two hot presenters,” she said as she introduced Kerry Washington and Gael García Bernal.
Oh, and while we’re talking about A+ producing choices, let us not pass up the chance to clap for DJ Zedd’s music cues. Anyone who helps greet Jennifer Coolidge with Cece Peniston’s “Finally” and Jason Sudeikis with Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” is a-okay with me.
Year in and year out I find myself baffled by the choice producers of awards shows make when deciding what they’ll spend their airtime on. Namely, I yell constantly at my television when I realize the thing they opt to cut back on is the thing we all tune in to watch: the speeches!
Listen, I get it, car commercials masked as comedy skits need to be aired and dance troupes need to be employed for a competent if awkward opening number, but could we allow an award telecast to be about, well, the awards themselves?
By the time the third speech of the night was in full swing (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen talking about the “bonkers gift of a role” that’d earned him the statuette), the ruthlessness of the speech timer was on full display; the English actor knew right away he was being played off and tried playing it off casually. But it only got worse as the night wore on. When Jason Sudeikis and the rest of the Ted Lasso team finally made it up to the stage, they were aghast at the fact that they only had 30 seconds left on their allotted time.
As ever, though, the greatest highlights of the night came courtesy of a bevy of great speeches that either ruefully challenged those pesky time-keepers or outright silenced them altogether. Watching Jennifer Coolidge refuse to be played off, eventually shimmying her way through as she kept trying to keep her hilarious speech going (music be damned!) was utterly joyous. Who among us didn’t want to hear more about the lavender bath she’d taken? Ditto Mike White’s various speeches for The White Lotus’ many wins (“Don’t vote me off the island, please!” he pleaded, admitting that by winning he may have violated the main rule that keeps you in the game in Survivor: keeping a low profile).
But nothing came close to the show-stopping moment of the night. I’m talking, of course, of the sight of the entire room coming to their feet at the sight of Sheryl Lee Ralph picking up her first Emmy for her work on Abbott Elementary. The standing ovation was awe-inspiring, a celebration of a veteran actress who’s paid her dues and was finally being handed her flowers. That alone would have merited a mention here, but then, consummate performer that the former Dreamgirl is, she broke into song as soon as she had gathered herself, giving a beautiful rendition of Dianne Reeves’s “Endangered Species”: “I am an endangered species but I sing no victim song. I am a woman. I am an artist. And I know where my voice belongs,” she belted. The moment—not just the win but the grace and the beauty of Ralph’s acceptance speech—was enough to make you believe that watching a three-hour show where actors bestow other actors with shiny trophies while thanking their agents and networks could be something slightly more transcendent.
If Ralph’s speech feels emblematic of the night’s proceedings it’s because her spirited call to arms in the face of rejection (“Don’t you ever give up on you!”) was on theme. The night, after all, had begun with Oprah herself talking about the odds of someone winning an Emmy—300 million to one, a statistic that proved only those who persevere against all odds are the ones who make it. Not just in life but at the Emmys: “The thing you cannot lose is the belief in yourself,” she told the audience, setting the tone for a night that would continually shine a light on the power of betting on oneself.
That was definitely the takeaway from the surprising win by Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls in the Outstanding Competition Program category. Dethroning RuPaul’s Drag Race after a four-year win streak, the Lizzo victory allowed the “Truth Hurts” singer to bask in her own achievement. Ecstatic and emotional while accepting the award, she talked about how she hoped she could tell her younger self that she’d one day see someone like her on television—noting that, in a twist of fate, it’d be she who’d made it happen.
It makes sense that Geena Davis, shortly thereafter accepting the Governors Award on behalf of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, would echo Lizzo’s speech. “If she can see it, she can be it,” is famously a key tenet of Davis’ longstanding institute, which champions gender parity and representation, particularly in children’s media.
The sincerity of the likes of Ralph, Oprah, Lizzo and Davis—not to mention writing winners like Quinta Brunson (Abbott Elementary) and Jerrod Carmichael (Rothaniel)—made this potentially treacly message feel potent rather than trite. Television does have a way of presenting us with windows into who we could be. If the final award of the night forced us to wonder what it says about us that we’re glued to the machiavellian machinations of a group of privileged spoiled rich folks, the night’s many touching speeches and montages served as a reminder that the boob tube still has the power to inspire wide-eyed girls and boys alike.
And if that gives us more heart-warming network sitcoms, more keen-eyed satires from around the world, and more good-hearted competition shows, we may be all the better for it.