Host Stephen Colbert may have opened the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards with an ode to TV as a distraction, but the Emmys themselves were more than willing to acknowledge the current state of our country. As expected, Donald Trump and the forces that surround him—misogyny, Islamophobia, the conflation of entertainment and politics—made plenty of cameos in monologues, presenter preambles, and acceptance speeches. Less expected, though hinted at by the nominations, was the degree to which current events seemed to influence the actual honors accorded by the Television Academy on Sunday night. Politics were the dominant theme of this year’s Emmys, followed closely by star power—though as Colbert pointed out when he named our current president the biggest TV presence of the year, the two are hardly unrelated.
The Handmaid’s Tale achieved an intimidating sweep of the Drama category, collecting the plaudits for Writing, Directing, Lead Actress, Supporting Actress, and eventually Series. In the process, Handmaid’s decisively made up for Game of Thrones’ conspicuous absence and dashed competitor’s hopes that the spoils might be distributed somewhat evenly. Heading into the night, there appeared to be at least a viable chance for the uncut escapism of a Stranger Things or a This Is Us, or the more traditional, British-accented prestige of The Crown. In retrospect, however, neither Netflix’s marketing budget nor even the allure of a “broadcast TV is back!” narrative could match the timeliness of a show about a dystopian theocracy in the land once known as America. So the Margaret Atwood adaptation emerged victorious, bringing the marvelously robed author onstage for the ceremony’s closing moments, while the streaming behemoth went home with a surprisingly light haul.
NBC, meanwhile, made up for the loss of This Is Us—excepting an entirely charming Sterling K. Brown—with an equally impressive sweep for Saturday Night Live. SNL has recently enjoyed a remarkable ratings upswing directly attributable to the current political climate, a phenomenon the Emmys dutifully bore out by awarding the show’s two most prominent topical impersonators: Kate McKinnon, who thanked Hillary Clinton in her tearful speech, and Alec Baldwin, who is not technically a credited cast member. (He did, however, appear in more than half of the season’s episodes, qualifying him for the Supporting Actor category over the Guest Actor honor that went to post-election host Dave Chappelle.) Such is the power of the entertainment industry’s Trump anxiety. Majordomo Lorne Michaels coolly opened his acceptance address with a reference to the first time SNL won the Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Series award, for its first season in 1976—the subtext being that he’s excelled at his job for quite a long time. But there’s a very clear reason why the comedy institution is suddenly bringing home the trophy again for the first time since 1993.
It’s the same reason Veep’s reign continued uninterrupted despite a decidedly less successful run than seasons past, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus picking up her sixth consecutive statue for portraying Selina Meyer and the show itself taking home Outstanding Comedy Series. As the clichéd-but-true jokes have it, Hollywood is a self-centered town full of self-centered people who like to feel as if they’re making a difference, or at least expressing something powerful that can serve as a call to action. That’s a leg up no tearjerker, puzzle box, or expertly crafted piece of ’80s nostalgia can match.
The Limited Series category—once an afterthought, and now the most crowded field by far—had its own unstoppable behemoth. Big Little Lies was an almost terrifying flex on the part of HBO, wrested from Netflix in a bidding war that has now handsomely paid off. Oscar-nominated director Jean-Marc Vallée can now add an Emmy win to his CV; Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, and Nicole Kidman captured the Monterey murder fantasia every acting category for which it was nominated. Much has been made of film talent’s migration into TV in recent years, with Martin Scorsese helming pilots and Kevin Spacey joining Netflix. But Big Little Lies was a more extreme influx of movie stars than TV had ever previously seen, and with a second Reese Witherspoon series and a Robert De Niro–David O. Russell team-up on the way, the floodgates seem unlikely to close. This is a kind of TV defined by its faces first, its auteur second, and its script a distant third, a dramatic reversal of the medium’s typical writer-first hierarchy. (Tellingly, one of the few major awards Big Little Lies missed out on was for writing, which went to Charlie Brooker’s “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror instead.) As TV gets bigger, though, it stands to reason it would attract bigger names. And the biggest actors in the world carry much more weight than the biggest showrunners.
Then there were the wins that didn’t necessarily fit a broader narrative but provided the joy that ultimately makes these three-hour carnivals worth watching: the coronation of Donald Glover with honors for both directing and starring in Atlanta, at least somewhat mitigating its later loss to Veep; the almost blinding charisma of Sterling K. Brown, who gave one of the few thank-yous it was downright frustrating to see get cut off. (Don’t worry, he finished up backstage.) And of the new, or at least newly recognized, talent to step into the spotlight Sunday evening, a refreshing portion of it lay outside the typical demographic included by awards-giving bodies. Lena Waithe made history twice over by becoming the first black woman to win for comedy writing after being the first black woman nominated; Reed Morano was only the third woman ever to win for dramatic directing, after Mimi Leder for ER (1995) and Karen Arthur for Cagney & Lacey (1985); “San Junipero” is the story of an interracial lesbian relationship forged in cyberspace. A video in which the Academy paid tribute to its own diversity may have been embarrassingly self-congratulatory, but the winners told an encouraging—if incomplete—story all on their own.
The competition-clearing success of just a handful of series ensured that this wasn’t the most exciting Emmys in history; there were few upsets and even fewer snubs. (Jonathan Banks was still robbed, though.) But predictability was a trade-off for offering an unusually clear snapshot of TV at a time when the medium is more diffuse and difficult to sum up than ever. It turns out it’s possible to break through the Peak TV noise after all. All you have to do is ride the coattails of the biggest personality of them all—or arrive at the party with an Oscar already in hand.