The members of the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences are experts at making television but not necessarily at watching it. This is the paradox that defines the Emmys, an awards show where a group of professionals whose schedules have never been more overburdened are tasked with turning around and evaluating the massive DVR backlog that’s accrued while they’re at work. This is, of course, a deeply relatable dilemma—but as Monday night’s broadcast went to show, relatability can get you only so far. Half a decade into Peak TV, “the Emmys are just like us” has lost much of its charm, and existential questions are starting to pop up about what it means when the night television comes together is just as scattered as the other 364 days of the year.
The hosts were partly responsible for setting the evening’s tone, though as the opening number instantly made apparent, “Weekend Update” co-anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che weren’t the true masters of ceremony—their boss Lorne Michaels was. Jost and Che are both less experienced than consummate showmen like Neil Patrick Harris or James Corden. In a strategy that mirrored the one he’s adopted in his day job, Michaels, who produced the telecast, outsourced. Musical duties fell to Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson, singing an ironic celebration of the Emmys solving diversity; color commentary went to Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, whose unhelpful-helper bits were ambitious yet indifferently received. (Aidy Bryant, Andy Samberg, and Tina Fey also made appearances.) The PR for Saturday Night Live was phenomenal, even before the show’s win for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. Jost and Che, meanwhile, were stuck with mostly lame one-liners about how comedies are just half-hour dramas now. Certain elephants in the room, like recently ousted CBS chair Les Moonves, went unmentioned.
The lack of a forcefully asserted personality, only emphasized by some unfortunately drab stage design, bled over into the rest of the show. The awards themselves began encouragingly enough, with a pair of acting wins for Barry’s Henry Winkler and Bill Hader, plus a bushel of statues for Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, for which “sweep” would be a less accurate term than “steamroll.” With the help of a ubiquitous campaign and Jeff Bezos’s limitless war chest, Amy Sherman-Palladino became the first woman in Emmys history to win awards for writing and directing a comedy series in the same year, a fitting distinction for the current age of TV auteurism. Meanwhile, the Emmys appeared to be rallying behind one of their default tics, exacerbated if not initiated by a truckload of tech dollars: In TV’s Darwinian landscape, the newest and shiniest gets the most attention. It’s a ruthless system, as Atlanta’s cast and crew learned, dooming one year’s breakout to become the next’s unconscionable snub. But it’s a consistent one and, in a post Modern Family–win world, probably preferable to the alternative.
As the evening wore on, little seemed to cohere. With no Big Little Lies or People v. O.J., this year’s Limited Series field went without a star-stuffed center of gravity. O.J. follow-up The Assassination of Gianni Versace claimed the ultimate prize, a vindication for both a polarizing story and, in Ryan Murphy, a powerful producer on the verge of defecting to Netflix. Still, few gestures felt more indicative of the night’s “Sure, we guess” mood than awarding Lead Actress in a Limited Series to Regina King, a beloved performer whose little-noticed series Seven Seconds wasn’t even supposed to be limited—it was canceled, then deployed by Netflix in a Machiavellian move as part of its full-frontal assault on HBO’s trophy tally. The two outlets eventually tied, in part because King upset Laura Dern’s performance in The Tale. King was also the night’s 11th honoree and first non-white one, resulting in some awkward tension post–“the Emmys are diverse now!” spiel that James Corden tried to dispel with a half-hearted “Emmys so white” joke.
Drama, still the night’s most prestigious category despite its relative lack of vitality, was positively sporadic. After The Handmaid’s Tale dominated the field last year in a flurry of post-Trump anxiety, the Emmys doubled back to give some rare sophomore-season awards to The Crown, plus one to Thandie Newton for her savvy, defiant turn on Westworld. (If we’re going to give Emmys to Westworld, I’m glad they’re going to her.) Last year’s other post-election beneficiary also saw its stock recede. SNL may have run the show, but it also lost some ground within it—Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon lost to Winkler and Maisel’s Alex Borstein. Lorne Michaels’s grouchy Netflix shade as he accepted Outstanding Variety Sketch Series didn’t inspire much confidence, either.
Even Game of Thrones, returning after a brief hiatus from picking up the awards practically reserved for it in advance, wasn’t able to recapture the dominance that was once its birthright as Peak TV’s sole exception. Gone are the days of taking writing honors for episodes consisting largely of sword fights. Game of Thrones may have won the last and biggest title of the night for Outstanding Drama Series, yet it did so after a scattered and anticlimactic evening. At least The Americans got some better-late-than-never accolades for its swan song, with Matthew Rhys filling the Jon Hamm memorial slot for a belatedly recognized lead performance. Keri Russell got nothing, yet gifted us this immortal reaction shot.
It seems telling that the Emmys’ standout moment had nothing to do with television at all. Oscars director Glenn Weiss knows his awards show moments, which may be why he engineered a truly great one by proposing to his girlfriend on live national television. My personal aversion to public engagements aside, this one had all the spontaneity and decisiveness the rest of the evening conspicuously lacked. While mismatched presenters bestowed Emmys on a disparate field of contenders—Hannah Gadsby announced … dramatic directing?—the rest of us were left to wonder what we’re supposed to get out of a ceremony torn in as many different directions as the average viewer staring down the gaping maw of Netflix’s infinite-scroll homepage.
In their monologue, Jost and Che took a stray crack at the declining ratings plaguing the Emmys, every other awards show, and every other live broadcast. Offering “a quick hello to the thousands of you here in the audience tonight and to the hundreds watching at home,” the hosts directly acknowledged what the three hours that followed subsequently made obvious. Now more than ever, the Emmys are more about the industry than the viewer, because the industry is in less of a place than ever to tell the viewer what they should be paying attention to—the ostensible purpose of awards shows in the first place. At first, it was fun to see the heady diffusion of Peak TV reflected in TV’s biggest night, and when it involves disembodied cartoon characters giving an award to a reality show about drag queens, it still can be. Now, though, the Emmys just feel listless. It’s hard to muster up much excitement for a show without stability in a state of permanent flux.