In an effort to reward the best of TV, the Emmys have actually become pretty good TV.
When it comes to awards shows, no pastime is more storied or beloved than finding reasons to hate on awards shows. The Oscars are boring. The Golden Globes are a sham. The MTV Movie Awards gave Best Kiss to Twilight when it clearly belonged to Harry Potter. You've heard it all before.
Which is why it's both a surprise and delight to say that the 68th annual Emmy Awards—which aired while you were watching the Vikings-Packers game last night—were… good! Not "good" because all the people who deserved to get nominated ended up getting nominated in the first place. Not "good" because every single actual Emmy winner was actually more deserving than his or her fellow nominees. "Good" because the Emmys themselves were actually pretty fun to watch: funny in the right places, poignant in the right places, and entertaining in general from beginning to end. For the first time in years, I watched the credits roll after a three-hour awards show and wished there were still a few more trophies left to hand out.
What made the 68th annual Emmy Awards so much more watchable than the 67th, or the 66th, or the 65th? It starts, as always, with the host. When you stop and think about a network's ideal awards show host, you probably imagine someone like Jimmy Fallon: an upbeat, genial ringmaster, toothless and craven enough to muss Donald Trump's hair or play Bop-It with Kim Jong-un without batting an eye. But happily corporate blandness is just one of the extreme poles. Lean too far the other way, and you get something like Golden Globe alum Ricky Gervais: a host whose perpetual "Ain't I a stinker?" smirk is so self-satisfied that it ends up suffocating anything insightful or subversive about the message.
In the middle, as it turns out, we have Jimmy Kimmel: an Emmy host who can keep our attention over a long, stuffy awards show and make it all look effortless. Kimmel's seen-it-all, above-it-all schtick can be a little exhausting in the traditional late-night format, which has essentially settled into the TV equivalent of a cup of lukewarm tea before bed. But a good awards show should have some small element of irony, and Kimmel's best gags repeatedly poked holes in the self-seriousness of the Emmys: mocking Maggie Smith for repeatedly turning her nose up at adoring Emmy voters, or pointing out how much the Academy loves to pat itself on the back for diversity, or prematurely (and correctly) awarding Jeffrey Tambor a trophy for his role in Transparent. When Kimmel's targets winced, it was only because his barbs had successfully hit home. (See: reality-show mastermind Mark Burnett, who flailed for a comeback after Kimmel sniped at him for the role The Apprentice played in the rise of Donald Trump.) And if that analysis is too abstract, let me boil it down even further: Everyone at my viewing party laughed a lot.
The unusual freshness of the speeches was due, in part, to the unusual freshness of the winners.
But if a good Emmys host succeeds on the strength of detachment, a good crop of nominees benefits from sincerity—and this year, over and over again, we were treated to speeches from deserving winners with meaningful things to say. Master of None cowriter Adam Yang used his speech to advocate for Asian actors and filmmakers. Jeffrey Tambor used his speech to advocate for transgender actors and filmmakers. Even the acceptances speeches that weren't explicitly political were full of substance. Patton Oswalt—who clearly wasn't bullshitting when he said he didn't prepare a speech because he thought he had no chance of winning—offered a brief, meaningful tribute to his late wife.
The unusual freshness of the speeches was due, in part, to the unusual freshness of the winners. In the fallow years of the Emmys, you'd essentially be treated to the same show over and over again—like, say, when Frasier won Best Comedy five years in a row. But this year's crop sometimes felt like the TV academy had skipped the usual voting process and crowdsourced all their winners from Twitter. Mr. Robot's Rami Malek for Best Actor in a Drama? Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany for Best Actress in a Drama? Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance for The People vs. O.J.? Kate McKinnon for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy—the first Not-Ready-For-Primetime-Player to win an Emmy for his or her work on SNL in decades? The night was absolutely packed with delightful and delighted first-time winners. In many cases, they were as surprised and excited to be on the stage as viewers were surprised and excited to see them on the stage—and if you were watching live, you get to experience a small part of that adrenaline rush firsthand.
If you're looking, of course, you can find places to nitpick. Maggie Smith won her third Emmy for playing Countess One-Liner on your parents' favorite overpraised British costume drama. And the telecast ended up relying on two hoary awards show tropes: a long intro placing the host directly into several of the year's hottest nominees, and a "quirky," "spontaneous" bit when the host invites all the glamorous celebrities in the audience to eat pizza or Girl Scout cookies or PB&Js or whatever. But even when falling back on those two overused tricks, this year's Emmy ceremony managed to shake things up with, say, a bizarre (but somehow perfect) cameo from Jeb Bush, and a welcome appearance from the kids of Stranger Things.
If the 68th annual Emmy Awards had any real problem, it was that the ending had already been written long before the show began. The night's biggest awards, Best Drama and Best Comedy, went to the two most obvious winners: HBO mainstays Game of Thrones and Veep, which also won last year, and were widely predicted to win again. But if the obviousness of those choices is a little grating, it's worth taking a step back and recognizing that Emmy voters just gave two truly exceptional shows the highest honor in television. And if there's a case to be made that those trophies rightfully belonged to The Americans, or Mr. Robot, or Silicon Valley, or Master of None—well, the beauty of television is that every season is a chance to make an even stronger impression.
And that's an argument that now applies, happily, to the Emmys themselves, which seamlessly transitioned into a Thing You Should Actually Watch within a single year. So here's my pitch: Next year—instead of checking Twitter every 15 minutes, or spending Monday morning reading "8 Buzzy Moments You Missed at the Emmys"—just sit down on Sunday night, invite some friends over, pour yourself a whatever, and spend three hours enjoying the 69th Annual Emmy Awards in full. Last night, in the midst of a time when there's so much good television that you can't possibly watch it all, the Emmys finally managed to find the perfect way to pay tribute: by becoming good television.