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The Self-Aware Emmys

A little bit niche, a little bit mass, and a whole lot of O.J.: The show tried to keep up with Peak TV — and mostly succeeded

AP
AP

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences wants us to know it’s just like us.

Just like us, the Academy couldn’t shut up about The People v. O.J. Just like us, the Academy heard great things about that show where the Canadian lady plays a billion people, even if it didn’t have time to watch the first season until last month. (It still isn’t caught up, don’t tell anyone.) And just like us, the Academy will still say its favorite show is Game of Thrones if forced to give an answer.

Of course, the Academy is a loose consortium of nearly 20,000 people, not a person. But this is the most specific (and maybe even self-aware) the Emmys have ever felt. The list of winners is a contradictory mix of stalwarts and breakthroughs, upsets and legacy wins, and it felt more like the grab bag that comprises our actual TV diets than the lowest common denominator. In keeping with recent years, the final tally revealed an earnest, if incomplete, effort at real change — and the most human awards show in recent memory.

We began the night with a win many were rooting for and no one predicted: Baskets is a strange, small, sometimes surreal show, one that divided even the critics who made up its target audience. The lone exception to that polarized reception was Louie Anderson’s performance as the title character’s mother Christine, a role that was exponentially more subtle than “career stand-up in drag” might imply and was raved about accordingly. In opting for Anderson over not just more popular (Ty Burrell) but more loudly acclaimed (Tituss Burgess, incumbent Tony Hale) actors, the Academy went with a true wild card.

And thus, an organization notorious for leaning on precedent repeatedly broke it. The next two awards, a comedy-writing win for freshman darling Master of None and an acting nod for longtime SNL MVP Kate McKinnon, sent a pair of opposite yet equally reassuring messages: This version of the Academy is open to newcomers and ready to reevaluate those it had once passed over. (McKinnon had been nominated twice before, but this was her first win — and the first for any SNL cast member for their work on the show.) It’s in sharp contrast to the Emmys’ typical M.O. of winning streaks that end up in ruts (most recently typified by Modern Family), and a general tendency to honor and ignore the same series for years on end.

This came across most clearly in dramatic acting, where Rami Malek’s star turn in Mr. Robot paired nicely with Tatiana Maslany’s dizzying multitasking on Orphan Black. Both suggested a votership that went out of its way to follow the hype, digging past the middlebrow hits (House of Cards’ first couple) and even deeper cuts (The Americans’ first couple) to land on plain, idiosyncratic winners — the last thing you’d expect from a raw popularity contest among a massive membership. Championing a rookie is more the Golden Globes’ style; if Tatiana Maslany missed her shot last year (the first time the Emmys opened up final-round voting to a far larger portion of the entire membership and not just smaller and disproportionately older panels), it was widely assumed she’d missed it altogether. But the Emmys seemed to actively work against its own reputation for predictability, sometimes to the point of going as far as possible in the opposite direction. Look no further than Ben Mendelsohn’s surprise win for Bloodline. Guess Netflix’s quarter of a billion was worth it!

And yet it wasn’t all random. In the Limited Series category, The People v. O.J. Simpson stampeded the competition as everyone figured it would. The FX miniseries overcame the threat of overcrowding — three nominations each in the Writing and Supporting Actor categories — to take home everything except Directing and Supporting Actress, the only acting category in which it didn’t score a nomination. The awards were well deserved, but the point was that buzz isn’t dead — it’s actually the key to how many of us (Academy members included) figure out what to watch when overwhelmed with options. And by following the buzz, the Emmys ended up with a zeitgeist-y favorite in O.J. and Malek alike.

That consensus-chasing pattern held for the night’s biggest awards, which ultimately fell back on custom. Outstanding Comedy went to Veep, Outstanding Drama to Game of Thrones; both lead-acting awards in comedy also went to their (unbelievably talented and deserving) previous winners. Down the line, other categories also succumbed to old habits: Game of Thrones won a writing award for an episode that was impressive but not exactly well-scripted, just like last year; in a more hallowed Emmys tradition, Maggie Smith won a victory lap award for Downton Abbey’s final season. Individually, all these awards are at worst defensible and at best no-brainers; collectively, they indicate old habits die hard. Orthodoxy may not have reigned at the Emmys, but chaos didn’t, either.

So how does one account for these conflicting impulses in the same narrative? One could shrug off some of it as the inevitable consequence of a massive, unwieldy, and oversaturated membership, a combination that produced awards just as hard to summarize as the voting body itself. To me, however, it feels like a perfect expression of the two sides of Peak TV. On the one hand, a wide-open field means upstarts can make their way to the top more quickly than ever; on the other, all that white noise means whoever yells the loudest wins. And that’s how you get Baskets and Game of Thrones earning trophies on the very same night.

Basically, the Emmys felt like they took on the same challenge we all do when we look over our DVRs each night, and they dealt with it the way most of us would. The must-sees remained the must-sees, but a Canadian sci-fi import about clones snuck in there, too. It’s often said that Mr. Robot, Master of None, and the like are shows that would only get made today. They’d only get awards for them now, too.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.