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The Emmys Gave Us a Glimpse of the Uncertain Post-‘Thrones’ TV World

Sunday’s award show mourned the end of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Veep’ while celebrating a few rising stars—and laying bare how network television sees a way forward

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Unlike the identity of the Thingamajig on The Masked Singer, it’s no mystery why there was no host for Sunday night’s Emmys ceremony. Per the show’s revolving-network policy, the 71st Emmy Awards were broadcast on Fox, a network without one of the late-night franchises that’s served as the job’s near-exclusive talent pool for the past several years. Besides, the Oscars had already shown it was possible to have an emcee-less evening without major disaster. In retrospect, the experiment looked less like a risk than an act of risk mitigation. Why spend money to hand entertainers an impossible role that stood every chance of backfiring? And so the Emmys forged ahead.

But there’s a clearer answer to the question of how the awards show host came to be an endangered species in the first place. Sunday’s show essentially split the position’s traditional duties in two: a procession of celebrity presenters provided star power, while comedian Thomas Lennon provided jokes through his hybrid announcements and color commentary. The slightly less public nature of Lennon’s performance—he delivered his barbs from a booth, rather than confront his audience face to face—seemed to enable slightly riskier material than the standard opening monologue and interstitials. Right before a midshow commercial break, Lennon trailed off midjoke: “This is why people don’t do this,” he grumbled. “Because it sucks!”

The actual honorees at the Emmys included a litany of pleasant surprises. Compared to the inevitability suggested by Game of Thrones flotilla of nominations, the Academy’s votership yielded a diverse array of new faces. Fleabag emerged triumphant for its second and final season, as did creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge—for both writing and acting, in a surprise upset of Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus—and Killing Eve star Jodie Comer. Billy Porter capped off a year of bravura red carpet performances with an acknowledgement of his more traditional role, as Pray Tell on Pose. Jharrel Jerome got the ultimate recognition for his breakout in Central Park Five series When They See Us. Succession’s Jesse Armstrong got a nod for dramatic writing, suggesting goodwill that will hopefully extend to his cast in the years to come. All of these honors were for first or second seasons, implying a sort of passing-of-the-baton from television’s outgoing giants to their potential inheritors.

But the show itself was far more focused on the end of an era than the dawn of a new one. Both Game of Thrones and Veep, in a seeming indication the Academy shared our assumptions regarding who would dominate the comedy categories, earned stand-alone tributes to their final seasons. In a bizarre, part-celebratory, mostly mournful ritual, each series’ entire cast was brought onstage to invoke nostalgia and stage a reunion. The official In Memoriam montage would come later, but these gatherings felt like they came from a similar place—except, instead of grieving individuals, the Emmys seemed to be grieving a form of monocultural dominance that was gone almost as soon as it started. Remember when we gathered every Sunday to watch the Khaleesi kiss the bastard, who was also her nephew? Remember when everyone agreed Selina Meyer was television’s reigning queen? Can we do that again? No, really: Can we?

Those two shows—a ratings juggernaut with unprecedented production value and a long-running comedy that earned a historic Emmy winning streak—are significant losses, however strange the tone of their remembrance on what was theoretically a time to fete what’s still there. But as yet another montage acknowledged, Game of Thrones and Veep weren’t the only shows to close out over the awkward period of time the Emmys use to mark its cycle. Jane the Virgin delivered a hard-won happy ending. Broad City closed the book on an epic best friendship. Even The Big Bang Theory concluded its seemingly unstoppable reign as the last titanically popular multicam left standing. Many of these series stood for some ideal the industry seems afraid of losing its grasp on—some artistic, many commercial. Broad City exemplified the relatively new tradition of the female comedic auteur, which was at least maintained elsewhere by Fleabag. The Big Bang Theory hearkened back to the glory days of broadcast omnipotence, which are still nowhere to be found, despite Peacock’s best efforts. A modern telenovela that ran for five seasons on the CW, Jane was a fusion of the two templates.

The plight of the traditional networks was on full display throughout the night, as it has been for the past two decades and change of small-screen upheaval. Premium cable, and more recently streaming, has long trounced its more established competition on the awards circuit, a humiliation compounded by the Emmys’ continued presentation on conventional broadcast. But Sunday’s proceedings made the disparity especially obvious. Bradley Whitford and Jimmy Smits showed up, in part to mark the 20th anniversary of The West Wing and in part to promote their fall series on NBC: Whitford in a choir sitcom, Smits in a legal procedural. In commemorating their shared achievement, the actors inevitably called attention to how unlikely it is their current projects would be similarly beloved, given their saturated market. Later, Brittany Snow and Timothy Hutton showed up to plug the show where Hutton plays Snow’s predatory, monstrous doctor of a father, bantering while a distracting animated banner plugged the premiere date underneath. Just the heartwarming family entertainment the Emmys audience craves!

In lieu of a charismatic late-night host or promising new program, Fox instead went all in on what currently passes for its tentpole: the postmodern nightmare that is The Masked Singer. Its various humanoid costume-characters—presumably without marginal celebrities inside, though this was never made clear—walked the red carpet, concluding Fox’s official pre-show with a miniature catwalk. Judge Ken Jeong presented the comedy writing award by crafting a TikTok, a likely accurate prediction for the future of comedy writing. Ads were unrelenting, including an unpleasant teaser in the faux-’70s style of Adult Swim’s notorious Too Many Cooks, suggesting Fox is in on the can’t-look-away appeal of its Korean-imported pure chaos. This is how television sees a way forward without a Game of Thrones in easy reach: to be so garish and absurd the result all but demands our time. The Emmys honored Black Mirror with a TV movie award for interactive episode “Bandersnatch,” but they also embodied its satire.

Plenty of what transpired later in the night offered a more positive spin on the state of entertainment. But the mood was already set by the ceremony’s awkward opening. An animated Homer Simpson kicked things off, Fox filling the host-shaped hole with the mascot of a decades-old flagship well past its prime. Anthony Anderson did some comedy. Finally, Bryan Cranston stepped in to provide some gravitas: “Television has never mattered more,” he assured the audience. “Television has never been this damn good.” With Succession and Fleabag as supporting evidence, there’s certainly a case to be made. In the moment, though, the idea sounded less like a given than wishful thinking. After Thrones, after a whole mini-generation of artistically daring and widely seen work, television is headed into its own long night. It won’t be dark; Peak TV hasn’t even peaked yet. But it’s already full of terrors.